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Hawaii’s Forests Are for the Birds

A review by Lance Tanino

 Belonging on an Island: Birds, Extinction, and Evolution in Hawaii, by Daniel Lewis

Yale University Press, 2018

320 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 14862

Belonging on an Island takes us on an amazing historical journey, laying out a feast for connoisseurs of Hawaiian natural history and any reader interested in the origins of ornithology and bird conservation in the Hawaiian Islands. The heart and soul of the book is the recognition given to the many early naturalists, paleontologists, conservationists, and researchers dedicated to understanding Hawaiian birds.

Daniel Lewis is a historian, lecturer, and professor, best known to birders for his 2012 biography of Robert Ridgway, The Feathery Tribe. A Hawaiian native himself, Lewis centers this new book on the challenging and controversial matter of what it could mean to speak of “belonging” and “nativeness” in connection with the birds of Hawai‘i. He anchors that broad question in reality by dedicating each of the book’s four principal chapters to a different species with a different status. Thus, the first such chapter explores the islands’ fossil birds, using the example of the Moa-Nalo; this is followed by chapters treating the extinct Kaua‘i ‘O‘o, the critically endangered Palila, and the introduced Warbling White-eye. In the course of his discussions, Lewis introduces the reader to current and historical issues in paleontology, ornithology, evolution, conservation, field biology, extinction, and biological invasion, all viewed closely through a Hawaiian lens.

My favorite chapter, “Counting Extinction,” is centered on the Kaua‘i ‘O‘o, a honeyeater last recorded some three decades ago—when it was the sole survivor of the entire now-extinct family Mohoidae. In addition to the bird itself, this chapter introduces us to many of the great pioneering scientists working in the Islands from the 19th century right up to today, among them John Sincock, Sheila Conant, Doug Pratt, Mike Scott, Robert Shallenberger, Ernie Kosaka, Alvin Seale, George Munro, Henry Henshaw, Kelvin Taketa, and Eugene Kridler. Some of the first-hand accounts by biologists with experience of the Kaua‘i ‘O‘o, Greater ‘Amakihi, Kaua‘i Nukupu‘u, ‘O‘u, and Kama‘o are incredible to read. A priceless quotation from George Munro, writing in 1891, about the Greater ‘Amakihi gives a good general idea of Hawaiian honeycreepers: “They are not so numerous now and very shy, they must be approached in perfect silence; the cracking of a small branch is enough to startle them.”

Lewis provides a number of other memorable statements that paint a picture of the hardships borne by scientists conducting field research and working for bird conservation in the Islands. In 1900, Alvin Seale wrote, “I have found nothing that could discourage an ornithologist so much as one of these islands.” Nearly a century later, Mike Scott reported, “Hawaiian rainforests have been described as having some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world for conducting field research. The difficult conditions include rainfall of 10–20 meters/year, continual cold drizzle for days or weeks on end, frequent dense fog, steep slopes, sheer cliffs, 10–15 deep gulches per kilometer along contours in many areas, nearly impenetrable vegetation, treacherous earth cracks and lava tubes, and remote areas far from road access.” There are reasons that it has taken so long to acquire even a basic knowledge of so many of the endemic forest birds.

But the best quotation in the entire book also serves as a wonderful take-home message for visiting birders and for bird conservationists in Hawai‘i. In March 1899, the collector and ornithologist Henry Henshaw pointed out that in these islands “almost everything you record is a contribution of a positive kind.” That remains true 120 years later.

This is the first book I know that treats the full complexity of the birds of Hawai‘i in such an interesting way. The writing and layout of this well-produced book are clear and easy to follow, and to my mind Belonging on an Island should be required reading for high school and university biology and ecology classes in the Hawaiian islands. I do wish that there were even more photographs and other illustrations in the book.

The only part of the book that leaves me somewhat unsatisfied is the ultimate answer to its original question about “belonging” and “nativeness.” These are difficult ideas in any context, and the author admits his “highly relativist conception of nativism—one that doesn’t care as much about where birds or humans are from as about what they are doing and influencing today.” That is a bold idea and clearly stated, but much of the material in the book, suggestive as it is, might have been more explicitly adduced in support of that concept. Even so, Lewis raises the matter in a way that is thought-provoking and helpful, and I am sure that this book will inspire plenty of debate among scientists and among historians as they seek to come to terms with what it means for organisms, including humans, to belong, on an island or anywhere on Earth.

Born and raised in Hawaii, Lance Tanino has been a birder since age 10. He owns Hawaii Bird Guide LLC, emphasizing Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge and pelagic birding. A tireless promoter of Hawaiian ornithology, Lance is a leader in a wide variety of birding and ornithological initiatives in Hawaii.
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Birding Book and Media Reviews

Birding Book and Media Reviews

Birding magazine publishes full-length versions of all its reviews on its blog. Books and media of all kinds are evaluated for potential interest level to the ABA membership and then assigned for review and edited by Frank Izaguirre. Contact him at [email protected]
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