The mosquito control project aims to help Hawaiian birds

Teya Penniman coordinates a project to reduce mosquito populations in Hawaii. Photo courtesy American Bird Conservancy

Teya Penniman’s career in bird conservation and research began with an internship that traced the habits and locations of white-crowned sparrows, wrentits, and spotted towhees in California’s coastal scrub. It was supposed to be a short break from college for Penniman, but that three-month stint turned into nine years as a biologist at Point Blue Conservation Science, much of it on remote islands.

Now a new chapter begins for both Penniman and Bird Conservation on the Hawaiian Islands, where a major project to combat a small enemy begins.

“I never got tired of sitting in a blind and watching Brandt’s cormorants steal nesting material from an absent neighbor, and I never lost the awe of pulling a tramp out of a fog net,” says Penniman. “But I wanted to do more to protect birds and their island homes.”

So she completed her undergraduate studies in ornithology and then studied law and management with a focus on environmental law, economics of natural resources and alternative dispute resolution. After serving as Assistant Attorney General in Oregon, Penniman moved her family to Maui, where she led an invasive species project that targeted a range of harmful alien plants, animals, and insects. In 2019 she came full circle when she accepted a position at American Bird Conservancy as coordinator for a multi-agency partnership called Birds, not Mosquitoes.

“The Hawaii project is particularly urgent because 12 or more species of endemic songbirds are threatened with extinction,” says Penniman. Recent surveys show that the Kiwikiu (Maui Parrotbill) population is less than 200 birds. Fewer than 2,000 individuals remain in the population of four other species of honey herb endemic to Hawaii and one thrush. Hawaii’s native forest birds face a dual threat: the birds evolved in the absence of subsequently introduced mosquitoes and the diseases they transmit when they extract a meal of blood. (For example, a single bite from a mosquito infected with avian malaria can kill an ʻIʻiwi.) Climate change is increasing the movement of mosquitoes, which soar into the last remaining highland refuges of the endangered birds.

The partnership “Birds instead of mosquitoes” wants to start a project in which ubiquitous bacteria called Wolbachia are used as a form of “birth control” for mosquitoes. These efforts do not involve genetic modification. The goal: to reduce the mosquito populations so much that the forest bird populations increase again. The nature and scope of the project requires strong agency and community engagement, according to Penniman, who is rising to the challenge. “I’m honored to be working with ABC on this critical initiative, and I couldn’t ask for a better team of agency colleagues. The enthusiasm and intelligence are there to make this possible. “

Learn more about mosquito control from the Hawaii DNR and read an interview on the subject with Chris Farmer from ABC.

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