Monday, July 18, 2016

Native bird loss: a tragedy told in colors.



The scale of the loss of Hawai`i’s native birds is beyond imagining.

It’s just icing on the cake that Hawaiian native birds are some of the most colorful, imaginatively plumed and outrageously beaked birds to be found. Or rather, to have lost.

A new book by Michael Walther, with paintings by Julian Hume, tells the story. It is “Extinct Birds of Hawai`i,” by Mutual Publishing.


Walther calls the loss of species “an ongoing bird catastrophe unequalled in world history during the last 700 years.”

There may be more, but 77 species and subspecies are known to have gone extinct. There are just 26 species of native land bird left.


Hume had to take some liberties with the coloration of birds that went extinct earliest, since many are only known from old bones found in caves and sinkholes. Many others, which have become extinct in the past couple of centuries, have been drawn from life by early birders or can be studied as museum skins, their colors still vivid. There are photographs of the ones lost during the last century. 

I was particularly struck by the photo of one of the last three Laysan apapane, singing while perched on a coral outcropping.

Before Captain Cook sailed up to Waimea on the Big Island, the Islands had already lost owls and petrels and geese, ducks and ibis and finches, an eagle, a harrier and a host of flightless crakes, plus some others, like the Kaua`i palmcreeper and the King Kong grosbeak..

Most of the big birds were long gone before Europeans arrived. Then began the decimation of the jewel-hued forest birds. 

Nowhere else on the globe has lost so many birds. New Zealand is second, with 50 to Hawai`i’s 77. The Mascarene Islands have lost 37, Tahiti 16, Madagascar 15, and so forth.

Islands accentuate the loss, partly because islands promote diversity, partly became small land areas are more vulnerable to habitat destruction and invasive species.

The Hawaiian avifauna, birdlife, was impressive. 

The giant Hawaiian goose was more than four times the size of the Hawaiian state bird, the nene. A thundering example of birdhood.

The favored food of the Molokai stilt own was the Maui Nui finch. We know that from deposits of the fecal pellets of the owl. Both are extinct now.  

There was a nukupu`u with a simply stunning bill—more than half the length of the rest of the bird. It was named the Giant Scimitar-billed nukupu`u.

“Species which took millions of years go evolve have been decimated in a geological blink of an eye,” Walther wrote.

The saddest story is not that we’ve lost so many, but that we’re still losing them.

This volume sparely tells the story, and the risk as we stumble into a vastly poorer and less interesting future.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016

1 comment:

Kim Rogers said...

This line of yours: Then began the decimation of the jewel-hued forest birds. Wow.

How cool it would have been to sail ashore and experience these islands when all these birds were around.