I’iwi

Photo Credit: American Bird Conservancy

Photo Credit: American Bird Conservancy

The I’iwi is a striking red and black bird of the Honeycreeper family, found only in Hawaii. Once widespread over all of the islands, this bird has been forced to retreat into the safe haven of high elevation wet forests, where disease-carrying mosquitoes, which decimated much of the population, cannot reach them.

It is only the adult I’iwi that displays the distinctive red and black plumage, juveniles of the species are a mottled green color. At one point, this difference in coloration led naturalists to believe that juvenile I’iwis were of a different species entirely. Coloration is not the only thing that develops with age; when an I’iwi hatches, his bill is short, straight and dull brown, rather than long, curved and salmon.

The beak of the I’iwi is a special adaptation which allows them to feed from the Hawaiian Lobeliod flowers. The perfect fit between beak and flower can be seen in this video. Because there has been a decline in lobeliods in Hawaii, the I’iwi now feeds primarily on O’hia, and it is believed that the large, down-curved beak, no longer useful in obtaining food, is experiencing an evolutionary change, and shrinking over generations. The I’iwi also has a long tongue with a brush-like tip, which assists in collecting nectar. Not confined to flowers alone, I’iwis supplement their diets with various insects.

Following the flowering of the O’hia, I’iwis will migrate long distances both within and between Hawaiian islands. They breed during the peak flowering season, and the female will incubate two to three eggs in a small cup shaped nest. After the young fledge, the family leaves their breeding territory, occasionally forming small flocks elsewhere, which may include other bird species.

The I’iwi can mimic other birds, but is best known for its short, shrill, “I’iwi” call. Their songs are unique, and have been described as the “rubbing of balloons together,” or the “squeaking of a rusty hinge.” When flying, their wings produce a whirring sound, and they are capable of hovering, similar to the familiar hummingbird.

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