- Common: Laysan Finch
- Scientific: Telespiza cantans
- Federally Listed as Endangered
- State Listed as Endangered
- State Recognized as Endemic
- NatureServe Heritage Rank G1—Critically Imperiled
- IUCN Red List Ranking—Vulnerable
- Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Passerines Recovery Plan— USFWS 1984
The Laysan finch is an omnivorous, ground-nesting Hawaiian honeycreeper (Family: Fringillidae) endemic to Laysan Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Laysan finches have black legs, large feet, and relatively large bills suitable for eating seeds. They are vocally inventive and have a varied song repertoire. Males and females have different plumage; males are a brighter yellow over a larger proportion of their head and body than females. Males are also about 6 percent larger by weight than females. Laysan finches are known to feed on seeds, fruits, leaves, flowers, stems, seedlings, roots, carrion, invertebrates, and eggs. Typically found in pairs during the breeding season, Laysan finches are nonterritorial and forage in small groups (four to twelve individuals) during the non-breeding season. The breeding biology of the species has been well-documented. During breeding season, males defend their mates and nest sites, while females construct nests and incubate eggs. Females rely upon males for providing nourishment during the incubation period. In good years, Laysan finches are quite fecund, and double and even triple offspring have been documented. Given the remoteness of their habitat, Laysan finches are among the most-studied endangered birds.
Restricted to the approximately 200 hectare (450 acre) vegetated area of Laysan Island. Since 1967, translocated finches have occupied the 12 hectare (25 acre) and 2 hectare (4 acre) vegetated areas of Southeast Island and Grass Island (respectively) at Pearl and Hermes Reef. Between 1973 and 1998, populations also existed at North Island and Seal-Kittery Island at Pearl and Hermes Reef; those populations were extinct by 1998.
Laysan finches reside year-round on the flat, low-elevation islands of Laysan and Pearl and Hermes Reef. Climate is similar to that of nearby Midway Atoll. Finches inhabit all vegetated areas of the islands, foraging among several vegetation associations of grasses, herbs, and prostrate vines. On Laysan, however, the finches nest primarily in tussocks of the bunchgrass Eragrostis variabilis, whose seeds are also a major food source. Eragrostis is markedly less abundant at Pearl and Hermes, particularly at Southeast Island, and finches there frequently nest in marine debris (plastic crates, etc.) that have washed up onto the island. Several freshwater seeps drain into Laysan Island’s hypersaline lake; Pearl and Hermes islands have no sources of fresh water, so finches get water from rainfall and from dew accumulations on plants. Plant communities at both Laysan and Pearl and Hermes Reef have been altered by human activity, most notably by both intentional and accidental introductions of alien plants. The entire range of this species occurs within the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
Laysan finches have not generally been as strongly impacted by the factors that threaten other native Hawaiian birds, such as habitat loss, predation by introduced mammals, and disease. Habitat loss, for example, has been prevented by the island’s status as a refuge, and disease establishment has been impeded by the lack of standing fresh water necessary for mosquito breeding. However, the finches’ remoteness carries with it a different, but related, set of threats:
- Invasive alien plants. Habitat quality has been degraded by weed invasions. Finches have integrated some invasive plants into their diet, but changes to the quality of nesting habitat have been more problematic: Setaria verticillata appears to have displaced Eragrostis variabilis at Southeast Island (Pearl and Hermes Reef), leading to lower nest
density and lower reproductive success among nests in Setaria. Conversely, the more recent invasion at Southeast by Verbesina encelioides appears to have caused the population to quadruple within two years, only to subsequently crash.
- Population size. Small populations are plagued by a variety of potentially irreversible problems that fall into three categories: demographic, stochastic, and genetic; the former are usually most problematic. Demographic factors include skewed sex ratios and stochastic factors include natural disasters. Habitat fragmentation exacerbates
demographic and genetic problems.
- Introduced mammals. The risk of rat (Rattus spp.) introduction via transport (i.e., ships, planes) is of concern as rats are known to have decimated passerine populations in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in the past as a result of shipwrecks.
- Sea level rise. Both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency project sea level to increase 34-42 centimeters (13-16 inches) by 2100. The mean elevation at Southeast Island is just over 1 meter (3 feet), so that during spring tides, most of the island would be inundated. Grass Island would lose less area, but is already too small to provide significant reduction of extinction risk for the species. Therefore, if sea level does rise as projected, both of the Pearl and Hermes Reef populations would be seriously jeopardized.
For more information and references visit the DLNR State Wildlife Action Plan factsheets. DOFAWʻs species pages and State Wildlife Action Plan fact sheets are provided for general information and are not meant to be a citable, original source of data. If you are a student, researcher, or writer looking for a citable source, please explore the references below or find other original data sources, rather than citing these webpages. The references below were provided by the authors of the State Wildlife Action Plan fact sheets at the time of drafting:
- Morin M., Conant S. 2002. Laysan finch (Telespiza cantans) and Nihoa finch (Telespiza ultima). In The Birds of North America, No. 639 (Poole A, Gill F, editors.). Philadelphia, (PA): The Academy of Natural Sciences; and Washington DC: The American Ornithologists’ Union.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1984. Recovery plan for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands passerines. Portland, (OR): U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 66 pp.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2014. Laysan Finch (Telespiza cantans) 5-Year Review, Short Form Summary. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.