American Birding Podcast



Another Incentive to Visit Hawaii

A review by Dennis Paulson

The Birds of the Hawaiian Islands, by Robert L. Pyle and Peter Pyle

Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, 2017

On line at

I was happy to be asked to review this online book: I might not have paid much attention to it otherwise, preferring the rustle of pages as I sit in a comfortable chair. I’m of that generation, I’m afraid, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not on line every day!

The information provided in this study of the birds of the fiftieth state is extremely detailed, including often lengthy discussions of individual records. Of course, that very exhaustiveness is the reason that the book is unlikely to be printed. A physical set of concise summaries would be great to have in the hand, but online publishing like this has real value in increasing the enjoyment and education of the reader.

A Primary Checklist in table form gives the reader immediate access to the general status of all bird species accepted in the Hawaiian Islands. Status is given separately for the northwest and southeast groups of islands, and there are further tables showing the status of each species on each island.

The tables make it immediately apparent just how many species visit this mid-ocean archipelago. Even knowing what good fliers birds are, it’s mind-boggling to see the length of this list. With so many birds finding these specks in the ocean, how many more transoceanic wanderers must miss them? There may be floating plastic to land on, but there’s not much to eat out there in the water for anything other than genuine seabirds.

The species accounts are PDFs, each of them just a click away from the full list of species; a back arrow takes you right back to the list. After lots of back and forth between different parts of the whole, it feels as if I’ve read the movie, and now I’d like to see the book.

For almost every species included here, you can click on “Photos” to find a plethora of images of both live birds and museum specimens. In some cases, I might have winnowed the photos a bit more, avoiding the presentation of so many photos of the same individuals. Subspecies identification has been attempted whenever possible, giving an even more precise idea whence regular visitors and vagrants came. An especially nice feature is that clicking on a specific numbered record within a species account takes you immediately to the photo collection, where you then have to navigate to the relevant photos. Another click takes you back to the species account.

There is a very long list of species that have been introduced but are not established, on top of the very large number that have been established. It is amazing to me that so many people have spent so much effort to introduce birds to places where they are not native. For the most part, this shows our love of birds, although in some cases it is our love of shooting and eating them.

There is so much to learn here. To compare the status of species across some of the larger groups, I looked at the waterfowl and shorebirds, two groups well known for their flight abilities. There are three resident waterfowl species, 14 regular enough to be called winter visitors/migrants, and 22 rare enough to be considered vagrants. The same figures for the shorebirds are one, 19, and 36. The ratios aren’t very different, and the comparison shows us that these birds really don’t breed on oceanic islands, for all their impressive ability to reach them; a lack of suitable breeding habitat might have something to do with this.

Beyond basic status information, there are also tables showing the most recent population estimates for all the breeding seabirds of the archipelago. The Northwest (Leeward) Islands support particularly significant seabird colonies; George W. Bush proclaimed the region a marine wildlife reserve, the largest in the world. Honestly, the reserve’s name is too long for me to include it here, but I know that it is the source of the marine invertebrates and fishes that these birds need to eat to survive.

The authors trace the fate of each species over time; these accounts can be heartbreaking, as nowhere else have avian declines and extinctions been so well documented. Thirty-one species are listed with an ‘X’, never to be seen alive again—powerful reminders of the importance of continued research and conservation efforts in Hawaii.

There is also a table showing changes in the status of extant Hawaiian birds, from as long ago as 1944 to almost the present, by way of five Christmas Bird counts, three of which are still being conducted each year. More such analyses would be welcome in state bird books. Just for my own interest, I tabulated increases and decreases as indicated in this table; not sure of the statistical significance, I can only present the facts. (Some species were considered cyclic in some or all counts and so could not be included.) Among the water birds, 11 species increased on individual counts, 31 showed no trend, and 12 decreased. For non-native land birds, the figures were 19-33-32, and for native land birds 2-4-8. It’s noteworthy that declines seem in general to be occurring  in the land birds, native and not.

If I lived in Hawaii, I would be so pleased to have this much information about every species readily available. With Hawaii now part of the ABA Area, the islands will probably receive even more birding visitors, and we now have a superb record of their avifauna offering them a background and an incentive to their visits.

– Dennis Paulson retired a decade ago after a long career of university teaching and research, and it didn’t take the Seattle native long to discover that “retirement” had to have quotes. To follow his field guides to North American dragonflies and damselflies, he is currently working on two more dragonfly books, one a natural history and the other a guide book for Costa Rica.

Recommended citation:

Paulson, D. 2018. Another Incentive to Visit Hawaii [a review of The Birds of the Hawaiian Islands, by Robert L. Pyle and Peter Pyle]. Birding 50.1: 65-66.