Questioning how island birds arrived

We know how the canoes arrived, carrying Polynesians who colonized the separate Hawaiian Islands and settled in for that approximately 1,000-year span before Western contact. Most of us know how the mongoose arrived — or didn’t on this island of Kauai, leading to our not making the mistake of introducing a diurnal creature to hunt and control the proliferating number of rats, a nocturnal creature ruining a good deal of the cane crops. Those rats probably jumped ship in port. Likewise mosquitoes, often attributed to their larvae hatching in water stored in barrels aboard ship. But birds? Avian life?

The first time I visited Hawaii, we came in one of those huge beasties of jets with the upper level cabins, non-stop from Denver to Honolulu. It was the longest flight I’d ever made, and I was fully aware of the thousands of miles of deep, blue Pacific Ocean being crossed by my “bird” with its powerful engines in the air. Once at Honolulu Airport, we had several hours to wait until we caught our flight on one of the old Mid-Pac prop jets to Kauai, our destination.

It was pleasing to find the small garden on a lower level, an oasis in the hustle and bustle, where we could wait in a tropical setting in sunshine, enjoy the tradewinds after that recycled cabin air, stretch a bit and smell the flowers. But what really amazed me were the birds.

These birds were not rare exotic birds. There were doves — fat ones with pink feet and small barred ones — strutting along the open corridors connecting jetways, then a bevy of chirrupy sparrows hopping in and out of the tracery of branches of some small, fragrant frangipani trees (I later learned were called “plumerias” here), some bulbuls, and even a cockatoo (!).

Because I’d just flown the thousands of miles totally reliant on a wide-bodied jet aircraft using what I surmised were tons of fuel, the question of how birds had winged their way over miles of ocean from their homelands flashed on the screen of my mind in large block letters. After I arrived on Kauai and saw egrets aplenty, Brazilian and red cardinals, and cheeky mynahs around the hotel grounds of the old Kauai Surf on Kalapaki Bay, I penned my questions in my poem notebook on a lazy afternoon on the beach between the downpours of rain that preceded Hurrican Iwa.

“Questioning Birds at Honolulu Airport”

C. 1982

Birds of Hawaii, how did you come?

How could you fly, your fragile energies wind-buffeted

to sea-surrounded lava isles?

Unless you are a passerine

you haven’t fuel for such nonstop flight,

and even if you carried seeds,

how could you last? It’s twenty-one hundred miles

or more from California coast or reef at Bora-Bora.

And you’d drop weary, scudding those crests …

To fly as far as I have in a manmade bird

I’d think the sea would lick you from blue air,

your sodden wisps then feathering

sea’s giant salt-heaved breast.

And yet I see six fidgety sparrows in this tree,

bulbuls, too, flipping insouciant tails,

a brash and raucous cockatoo, Brazilian cardinals

and colorbursts of budgies from New South Wales …

How did you come, you birds?

I was also thinking about how the various flora and fauna had arrived in this most unlikely place when I saw bromeliads and trees from my original homes in India and Burma. There was the gold tree near the swimming pool of the old Surf hotel, and the tamarind that grew in the corner of Kalapaki Bay near the cliff end, but those are subjects to be followed up later.

I acquired an Audubon Society bird guide and found answers to my questions. I learned of introduced birds and native birds. I also learned that it was avian malaria and pox that brought the native birds into their precarious situation, where they survived only if living high enough to avoid the deadly mosquito in a cooler clime than sea level environs offer. What a thrill to learn of our native birds living in the Kokee forestlands — some two dozen varieties of honeycreepers that had evolved here into what many view as the “jewels of Kokee.” Scientists believe these sprang from three to five specimens hailing from Asia that were blown here by storm winds thousands of years ago.

Those birds compete with introduced birds for food sources. Now the question is, how will they survive if the climate change that is becoming apparent continues? They haven’t an optional habitat. Our Kokee residents are noticing that it’s been warming 2-3 degrees, allowing mosquitoes to encroach now on sensitive habitats. The Apapane, it’s been reported, have been dropping dead.

The necropsy reports are not yet in; however, methinks this smacks of the old canary-in-the-coal-mine syndrome. It galls me to think that there is no safe place to which these birds may withdraw in the wild. This also translates in a larger sense to my own grandchildren and unborn great-grandchildren, when they have no safe haven left if humanity continues with raping and fouling the earth, water and air. It galls me to think that we may leave this world to the ever-adaptable cockroach.

More, soon, in the creepy-crawly vein. Letters are welcomed.


Dawn Fraser Kawahara, poet/writer, lives with her husband Delano Kawahara, a retired biology teacher, “with books and birds” in Wailua Homesteads. You can find Dawn at work at DAWN Enterprises, which includes teaching for Road Scholar groups that visit Kauai, writing and distributing her books through TropicBird Press, and planning personalized ceremonies through TropicBird Weddings & Celebrations-Kauai


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