Birdwatching in Hawaii: Paradise Lost

Which bird is native?

Which bird is native?

Bird watching in Hawaii is a frustrating undertaking if you want to see true native species. I noticed a flutter of red in some nearby trees while standing over striking volcanic cliffs on the southeastern coast of the Big Island. Out came my binoculars and I begin to focus on the bird of interest, hoping to lay eyes on a unique native species. What was I looking at through my binoculars? I was looking at that unique Hawaiian bird, the Northern Cardinal. Yes, I was disappointed as well. It turns out that the cardinal was introduced at some point from the mainland. Who knew? In addition to the Northern Cardinal I also saw the Red-Crested Cardinal, a South American bird that is actually not a cardinal. I saw scores of Common Mynas (introduced from India). The Zebra Dove was also plentiful and also not from Hawaii but a native of Southeast Asia. The gorgeous Saffron Finch hails from South America. Did I mention the wild turkey and peacocks I saw congregating on the side of the road (on separate occasions)? I could go on and on and on…

The only native bird I saw for sure was the Nene or Hawaiian Goose (also the state bird of Hawaii) at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I may have seen a Hawaiian Hawk but that may have been wishful thinking on my part. Native birds across the Hawaiian Islands are primarily threatened or endangered due to introduced predators such as the mongoose, rat, and domestic cat that prey on vulnerable birds, particularly the ground nesting species. Habitat destruction from development and agriculture played a role in the demise of birds on the more populated islands such as Oahu and Maui. Competition for food and territory from bird species that were introduced to the islands as game or as pets are also complicate in the loss of native species. The Coqui Frog, a very loud native of Puerto Rico that has inundated the Big Island (as well as the other islands) in a short period of time due to the lack of predators, also competes with native birds for insects. Once again, I could go on and on and on…

Islands are these lovely pockets of diversity where native species can flourish and establish all sorts of niches within unique ecosystems. When you bring many new species and extreme habitat changes into the mix you eventually have very few native species left. Island ecosystems do well in isolation, away from the ecological interruptions of the mainland. My post focused on birds but you could write a similar post on other aspects of native Hawaiian flora and fauna. So try as I might to find native birds, in the end all I found were ghosts…and cardinals.

About the Illustration

A watercolor and colored pencil illustration of native and non-native birds found in Hawaii around a drawing of the Hawaiian islands. The red bird on the left is the ‘I’iwi, a native Hawaiian bird and one of the few Hawaiian honeycreepers left in the state. Honeycreepers are a group of birds that developed specialized bills to extract nectar from flowers. It is believed they evolved from one ancestral form and developed different types of beaks to fill different ecological niches (this is known as adaptive radiation: Above the ‘I’iwi is the Nene or Hawaiian Goose. On the other side of the Nene is the Javan Sparrow followed by the Common Myna at the bottom of the drawing, both birds are non-natives.

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