Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Disappearance of Wings

The art of Pam Longobardi has inspired me to return to my keyboard and write about Hawaii’s endangered birds. I borrowed the title from the above installation, which combines portraits of extinct birds, antique coffin handles, and projected images of wings. Viewing it left my chest aching when I noticed that most of the portraits were native Hawaiian birds. While working on the Big Island as an intern with the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, I learned that Hawaii is the Endangered Species Capital of the World. Why? Because, ever since the first humans set foot on the islands in approximately 400 A.D., there has been a disappearance of wings.

From the time I first flew over, I was awed by the beauty of Hawaii. I remember stepping off the plane to the exotic sounds and smells in the humid air. In particular, I was lured by the melodic songs of little yellow birds flitting near the outdoor baggage claim and the small grass huts at the Hilo airport. When I excitedly pointed them out to my friend, an avian biologist I was meeting, she told me they were introduced Japanese White-Eyes. I noticed a bright red Cardinal fly into the bushes near her car, and a Scarlet Macaw flew overhead as we drove away. While we toured the sights of Hilo, I was bursting with excitement to see native wildlife, but almost every plant or bird I pointed to was introduced. We didn’t begin to see or hear native species until we had reached her home in Volcano, at the top of Kilauea just outside Hawaii Volcano National Park. On the ride up the mountain, I was astounded to learn that seventy-five percent of Hawaii’s native birds were already extinct or endangered.

When I finally got to the native forests during my internship, I had to wonder why anyone would change such beauty. Yes, the islands are lovely in the lowlands where introduced species reign, but that beauty does not begin to compare to the lush dark greens and vibrant colors of the native forests. Much of the pristine forests are no longer open to the public, as wildlife officials from numerous organizations fight what often seems like a hopeless battle to preserve them. These lovely islands became home to animals and plants which traveled unimaginable distances across the sea to evolve into distinct species found nowhere else on earth. Yet, most of those distinct species are already gone, and those hearty enough to survive the most destructive introduced species, the human, are continuing to die.

Since the first Polynesian Settlers arrived, the birds have been disappearing. No one could blame the settlers for staying. After traveling over 2000 miles from the nearest land, they found islands with fertile soil and easy targets to hunt. These settlers brought crops like sugar cane and breadfruit and began clearing forests. The Polynesians, who celebrate their connection to nature, began to incorporate birds into their cultural traditions. Not only did they hunt them for food, but their feathers were used for decorations and clothing in religious ceremonies. By the time Captain Cook brought the first English explorers in 1778, some species were already extinct.

With the arrival of the Europeans, the islands changed more in the following years than it had in the 1300 years since the Polynesians first made land. Boat loads of settlers began to arrive. Apart from humans, two of the most destructive pests stowed away on these ships, the black rat, and the mosquito. Whole ecosystems began to disappear as land was cleared for homes and large-scale farm operations and the islands changed into what they are today.

Now, wild goats, pigs, deer, cows, and sheep trample the forests not already cleared by humans, uprooting trees and turning lush green havens into baron rocks and mud wallows. The forestry service must employ numerous people to hunt and kill these free-ranging animals. Mosquitoes spread malaria, avian pox, and avian TB to birds and humans alike. Feral animals run rampant, as people introduce more cats, dogs, and other animals onto the islands.

Of course, those trying to save the islands are not entirely blameless either. Scientists have taken numerous species from the wild for the purposes of study. One might find any number of stuffed native birds in museums around the world, caught and killed for education. Then, there are the colossal mistakes scientists made in efforts to eradicate pests. Perhaps the worst was the introduction of the Mongoose. This species was initially introduced to control the rat population, but those in charge didn’t pay attention to the fact that rats are active at night and the mongoose hunts during the day. Also, someone forgot to tell the mongoose that he should not eat birds and their eggs. Now, the mongoose is one of the worst pest species, proving good intentions are not enough.

In the face of such hopelessness, there are amazing people continuing to work towards saving the last remaining native species. Many work long hours, tirelessly attempting to clean up the mess to keep small parts of the native ecosystems intact so future generations can experience the hypnotic and distinct beauty that was Hawaii. CSI types like my friend test blood from hearty birds immune to some diseases and attempt to create more effective vaccines. Educators speak out to tourists and residents about ways to help save what little remains of the natural environments. Wildlife officials work around the clock to eradicate pests like the mongoose. Park officials pull up pest plants like the ginger, which is choking native plants, the staple foods for specialized native birds. And around the world, people like Pam Longobardi inspire and teach others about the disappearance of wings. To be equally inspired visit the Maier Museum of Art in Lynchburg, Virginia from January 20th – August 8th, 2009 or visit her website at . To find out how you can help save the native species of Hawaii, visit the Hawaii Conservation Alliance at .