Millerbirds on Laysan Island

Nest Building: A Northwestern Hawaiian Island is getting back the birds it lost almost 100 years ago.


In addition to a numbered metal band, each Millerbird on Laysan sports a unique combination of color bands that lets observers ID them with binoculars. Photo: Courtesy R. Kohley


It’s not every day that two dozen native Hawaiian songbirds are the VIP guests—and the sole purpose—of a three-day, 650-mile sea voyage across the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. But that’s what happened last September, when 24 Millerbirds were taken from Nihoa Island in specially designed cages to Laysan Island and released there. The unprecedented effort was five years in the making, requiring an intense amount of research, planning and field trials by biologists and resource managers.


Millerbirds were fed waxworms, crickets, vitamins and live flies caught in the area. Photo: Courtesy G. Wallace

Millerbirds, lively insect-eaters named for their appetite for miller moths, were wiped off Laysan Island in the early 1900s after a series of destructive events, including a guano-mining operation and the introduction of environmentally destructive rabbits.


Fortunately, the extinct Laysan Millerbird had a close relative hundreds of miles away, the endangered Millerbird on Nihoa (fewer than 800 are left).  To lower the risk of extinction via hurricane or invasive predator, the translocation project, which was led by a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and American Bird Conservancy, created independent populations of Nihoa Millerbirds on two islands. “The project not only reduces the extinction risk, it restores a lost piece of Laysan,” says Holly Freifeld, an FWS biologist, who adds that the birds have been absent from the island’s ecosystem for nearly 100 years.


Nihoa Island. Photo: H. Freifeld

Two biologists, Cameron Rutt and Robby Kohley, have stayed on Laysan since the birds’ release, essentially serving a six-month tour as the bird’s exclusive paparazzi, monitoring their moves and posting witty online updates on their progress.


Each bird was styled with unique color bands, and all 24 were sighted in the first month at least twice—a good sign. As expected, there have been ups and downs along the way. Six nests were built (yes!), some eggs were likely eaten by Laysan Finches (no!), but two babies were found (victory!), making them the first official Laysan-born Millerbirds in close to a century. In December, the fourth month, at 3.5 weeks, the nestlings were no more (argh!). But Millerbirds don’t typically breed during that time of year, and the team didn’t expect a full-fledged breeding season so soon after the translocation. “All in all, the birds have shown a promising start,” says Freifeld. “The project is really a ‘we can do it’ beacon in the very challenging landscape of conservation in the Islands.’”