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A Thousand Years of Extinctions on the Islands of Hawaii

A review by Daniel Lewis

Extinct Birds of Hawai’i, by Michael Walther

Mutual Publishing, 2016

238 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14693

Most of Hawai‘i’s endemic birds are endangered, some critically, as are many other animals and plants there. Before human settlement, the islands’ life forms had become almost freakishly abundant and diverse—“endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful,” as Darwin described evolution’s workings. Then humans arrived, and kept arriving, and their actions, both intentional and accidental, have reduced the biota to a fraction of its original extent. People bring complications, and their presence creates a tangle of ecological, political, economic, cultural, and philosophical challenges to the survival of endangered species. Much has been lost, and much more will probably be lost in the coming years.

Extinction as a phenomenon has been stubbornly ignored for most of the last 150 years. The British scientist Alfred Newton noted in an 1892 letter to R.C.L. Perkins, the legendary Hawaii-based bird and insect collector, “I know from experience that the belief in the continued existence of an extinct species dies very hard—people can’t understand why things cease to exist and therefore think that they go on.” To a degree, his words remain true today: People still have a difficult time accepting that birds can go extinct. More insidiously, we have had a difficult time understanding why it would matter in our own lives. Part of the equation is our lack of understanding of the species at risk: what they are, what their roles have been in nature’s tangled skein, and what is lost when they are gone.

Michael Walther and the illustrator Julian Hume’s concise but compulsively readable account, a welcome addition to the literature on Hawaiian birds, goes a long way to rectifying this lack of understanding. Its premise is simple: to list every known extinct bird from Hawai‘i, from species known only as fossils to those only relatively recently extinct. The book is modeled somewhat on Walther and Hume’s 2012 Extinct Birds, a text-heavy (and physically heavy!) summation of every known extinct bird. The Hawaiian work itemizes a total of 77 species and subspecies, and is leavened by wonderful color illustrations by Hume and by many images drawn from classic works on Hawaiian birds: Scott B. Wilson and Arthur H. Evans’s Aves Hawaiienses, issued in eight parts between 1890 and 1899 and illustrated by Frederick Frohawk; and Walter Rothschild’s Avifauna of Laysan, issued in three parts between 1893 and 1900, illustrated by Frohawk and John G. Keulemans. The latter covers not just the birds of tiny Laysan Island, far up the northwestern chain of Hawaiian islands, but the avifauna of the main seven islands as well.

Each entry in Walther and Hume’s new book contains a detailed physical description of the bird, a statement of its historic or prehistoric range if known, and—very usefully—a tally of the specimens in museum collections. This last bit of information conceals some very labor-intensive efforts undertaken over the years by a number of people; it is not a trivial task to identify the surviving examples of birds housed in study collections around the world. Tracking down specimens means scouring collections databases, calling and e-mailing collections managers around the world, and taking other measures to ensure an accurate count. The front matter here is also extremely useful, including a brilliantly organized summary by island of land bird extinctions in Hawaii.

Each entry also includes such historical information as when the first and last specimens were recorded by westerners, and finally, a Reports and Observations section. This last element takes up the bulk of each entry, and often makes for engrossing reading. It focuses on the habits and life histories of the birds where known, quoting at length from such well-known sources as Wilson and Evans, as well as accounts by ornithologists like William Bryan, George Munro, and R.C.L. Perkins.

One important bird worker in Hawai’i shows up too infrequently here: Henry Henshaw, a discerning observer of extinction on the islands and uncommonly interested in the habits of the living bird. As Henshaw—a New Englander who had come to the islands for his health—remarked to a friend in 1899, “The Island birds interest me increasingly. They interest me both as specimens and in relation to their habits.” Henshaw’s extremely useful and detailed Birds of the Hawaiian Islands first appeared in Thrum’s Hawaiian Almanac and Annual in 1901, and was published as an independent monograph the following year.

This was information on the Hawaiian avifauna brought up to date for the early twentieth century, including considerable material not in Wilson’s Aves Hawaiienses, which had mentioned other well-known Hawaiian collectors such as Munro, Palmer and R.C.L. Perkins with fulsome praise but said not a word about Henshaw’s contributions. Henshaw’s Birds was everything Wilson’s beautiful book was not: unillustrated, modestly printed, and filled with contemporary discussions of the challenges facing Hawaiian birds. The front matter was full of new contributions, including a section on threats to the islands’ avifauna, among them environmental changes, habitat destruction, and the disease we now know as avian pox. As he finished proofing his book, Henshaw noted, “It is not a thing to be very proud of, but it contains for all that a good deal on Hawaiian birds which now for the first time is within the reach of the Hawaiian public for whom it is particularly intended. I would have preferred to have had more time to write it in.” Henshaw especially wished that he had included numerous notes on the question of the evolution of Hawaiian forms, but “as it was,” he concluded to a friend, “the publisher was badly scared by the length of the paper in its present state.” He told Rothschild that he had written the book for island readers rather than for a scientific public: “I wanted to get the paper where it would reach the people of the Islands, in the hope of stimulating their interest—at present very faint—in Hawaiian birds.”

Walther cites Scott B. Wilson much more often, and many of the measurements here appear to be sourced from Wilson and Evans’s Aves Hawaiienses; many contemporary reviewers and commenters, however, considered Wilson less than reliable. Also frequently cited is Walter Rothschild, likewise hardly a paragon of accuracy. In his original, 1892 description of the Laysan ‘Apapane, for example, a bird that would go extinct in a three-day sandstorm 31 years later, Rothschild misspelled the name of George D. Freeth, the middling guano magnate he intended to honorand went on in his Avifauna of Laysan to use four different forms of the scientific name he had coined (fraithii, fraithi, freethi, and freethii).

Julian Hume’s workmanlike illustrations are a strength of the present book. In many cases, they show the birds, some of which have never been painted before, hunting endemic Hawaiian insects among endemic Hawaiian plants. The plumages of those species known only from the subfossil record are necessarily speculative, but they are all reasonable. Hume is no Frohawk, Keulemans, or Lear, but his work is very capable, and he’s got the added benefit of a Ph.D. in paleontology.

The index is much better than no index at all, but it misses a couple of opportunities to be more useful. Common and scientific names are listed in two separate indices rather than being integrated. Though the index of scientific names groups the species belonging to a genus, the common name index does not: thus, for example, to look up any members of the Mohoidae, it’s necessary to know the full common name, and if you want to locate, say, the text for the Kaua‘i ‘Ō‘ō, you can’t just turn in the index to “‘Ō‘ō” to find all of the members of the family.

Another issue—perhaps too complex to tackle here—is posed by the vast synonymies for many of these birds. Some have been known by many different scientific and common names, and placed in a variety of families; some birds now occupy an entirely different genus from the one they were assigned to while they were still extant.

For those seeking more extensive detail, Extinct Birds of Hawai’i is best used in conjunction with the authors’ 2012 work, which appears to include all of the birds in this book but with more information. That earlier book also groups together species known from both historic and prehistoric eras, so that the Narrow-Billed Kioea is noted immediately after the other members of the Mohoidae—the only family of songbirds in the last two centuries to have suffered complete extinction. In this new volume, birds known from the fossil record and those known historically are treated in two separate sections, which makes for a less coherent overview. Extinction is forever, as they say, and whether a bird disappeared prehistorically or historically seems less significant than what group it was part of.

At the same time, though, one of the great services this book provides is its amplification of the story of the wholesale extinction of birds in Hawai’i before European contact. The original Hawaiians were not ecologically spotless, and they were culpable, either through accident or intention, for the largest number of extinctions of Hawaiian birds.

Countless words have been written about the role of humans in extinction over the past several hundred years. Pre-industrialized societies have received considerably less attention in the discussion, but they too played a huge role in the demise of plants and animals. Extinction is a grave threat in today’s Hawai‘i, but at least for birds, it was much worse in the centuries between the original colonization by humans around 1000 CE and the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778. In Alison G. Boyer’s phrase, a “catastrophic wave of extinction” accompanied humans’ arrival in the islands. Judging by the fossil record, at least half of all bird species went extinct during those first roughly 800 years, while far fewer—more like 20%—have been lost since the arrival of Europeans. In fact, the rate of extinction for bird species in Hawai‘i before European settlement was more than twice as high as it has been since.

The effects on the current avifauna of Hawai‘i are indelible. Famously put another way by William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We’ve probably lost something like 70% of the bird species in the Hawaiian archipelago since the Polynesians hauled their double-hulled canoes up onto land a thousand years ago, and the bulk of these extinctions preceded Europeans and their consuming ways.

People who are interested in birds and their survival want to help. What to do? Walk lightly on the planet. Give money to organizations that preserve open land and manage protected land, or whose explicit mission is to study and protect Hawaiian birds.

Continue to formally prohibit the arrival of bio-entities that are known to dampen diversity, especially plants; animal importations are now relatively well controlled, but plants less so. Also understand, though, that the introduced species already present actually contribute to biodiversity. Ask whether those species are producing benefits or harm to biodiversity, human health, ecological services, and economic values.

And get to know the birds themselves. Tell your students, your friends, your family about them. More of Hawai‘i’s endemic birds will surely be gone soon.

– Daniel Lewis is Research Professor of History at Claremont Graduate University and Chief Curator of Manuscripts and Dibner Senior Curator of the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library. He is the author of numerous articles, books, and poems, and has been on broadcast programs on National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service.

Recommended citation:

Lewis, D. 2017. A Thousand Years of Extinctions on the Islands of Hawai’i [a review of Extinct Birds of Hawai’i, by Michael Walther]. Birding 49: 86-89.

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