The ‘I’iwi (pronounced ee-EE-vee and not to be confused with the Pokemon; its scientific name is Vestiaria coccinea) is easily Hawai’i’s most recognizable forest bird. Bright red verging on pink, with black wings and a long, thin, curving pink bill, they’re absolutely striking in a mostly-green mossy forest. Younger ‘I’iwi, called ‘I’iwi polena, are green and black; as they moult into adult plumage they become a colourful, Christmas-y mosaic.
They are mainly nectarivorous and favour the bright red ohia lehua blossoms, which match their red plumage. In fact, they may be one of ohia’s main pollinators. They may also have co-evolved with the native lobelia species, which, like the honeycreepers, are a classic example of adaptive radiation. The ‘I’iwi’s downcurved bill seems to fit perfectly into lobelia nectar tubes, but this hypothesis has not been closely examined.
‘I’iwi are as charismatic as they are pretty. They’re loud and strange-sounding. Among their repertoire are noisy squeaks and creaks that sound like rusty door hinges with the occasional badly-played harmonica blast. And when they fly, their wings make a high-pitched whirring.
Despite being everyone’s favourite, ‘I’iwi are seldom seen in parts of Hawai’i. They are in decline on Kaua’i and close to extinction on Moloka’i and O’ahu. On the Big Island and Maui, however, they’re still abundant and easily seen by casual birders. Like other native Hawaiian birds, they suffer from habitat loss and predation by invasives such as cats and rats; in addition, they are extremely susceptible to avian malaria (the mortality rate may be higher than 90%). As a result, they’re a candidate for listing as a federally endangered species. (Don’t hold your breath, though: ‘Akikiki and ‘Akeke’e had to wait 10 years to be listed.)