Book Review: A Celebration of Hawaiian Forest Birds

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Thane Pratt, Carter Atkinson, Paul Banko, James Jacobi, and Bethany Woodworth, eds. Conservation Biology of Hawaiian Forest Birds: Implications for Island Avifauna. Yale University Press, 2009. 728 pages. $85.00 (hardcover)

If Hawai`i lost its remaining native forest birds, plenty of birds would still fill the skies above the islands. Mountain slopes would continue to be forested. It is hard to imagine that the loss would be felt at all in the daily lives of the islands’ million or so residents, many – if not most – of whom have never seen a native forest bird in their lifetimes.

But, oh, what a loss that would be. Thanks to the phenomenal efforts of the five editors of Conservation Biology of Hawaiian Forest Birdsand to the dozens of contributing authors, we can understand so much better than ever before just how much the extinction of Hawai`i’s unique avian biota would mean, not only – or even especially – for people living here, but for global biodiversity as a whole. Already, most of what was here before the arrival of humans has been lost forever. But what remains is still pretty amazing and if you don’t believe it is worth pulling out all the stops to save it, then you need to read this book.

The very fact that the Hawaiian islands became such a rich, deep well of bird life is the result of a series of wholly improbable circumstances. For a colonizing bird, or pair, to arrive on the archipelago from a land source thousands of miles away would be a remarkable event if it occurred even once; the fact that this occurred many times over the last six million years is astounding.

From the two dozen or so lineages of land birds that arrived on these islands and reproduced arose more than 110 species – and, as Thane Pratt notes in his introduction discussing the origins and evolution of Hawai`i forest birds, “nearly half arose from a single colonization and radiation: the Hawaiian honeycreepers descended from a cardueline finch” (p. 12).

After the first humans arrived a thousand years ago, the first wave of extinctions began. More than 70 species disappeared before 1778, when Captain Cook arrived in Hawai`i. “Since then,” write Winston C. Banko and Paul Banko, “24 more have disappeared.” And what are left are in trouble: “Among the Hawaiian passerines (songbirds or perching birds), 24 (69 percent) of the 35 remaining species or subspecies are federally listed as Endangered Species, although 10 of these may already be extinct” (p. 26). In the last month, two more species – the `akeke`e and `akikiki (Kaua`i creeper), both on Kaua`i – have been proposed for listing as endangered.

The book’s 24 chapters are grouped into five sections: origins, decline, and culture; status, biology, and limiting factors; applying research to management; recovery programs, and the future. Each section consists of chapters by experts in their respective fields, and while much of the material offered recaps work published elsewhere, it is extremely useful to have it all collected in one sturdy binding.

At the heart of the book – literally – are full-color plates depicting not only the extant species of forest birds (most of them portrayed in the gorgeous photographs of Jack Jeffrey), but also photos of three recently disappeared species (the Kaua`i `o`o, the `o`u, and the po`ouli), colored renderings of species that have gone extinct since western contact. Several more plates show typical Hawaiian forest bird habitats, in both pristine and degraded conditions. One plate consists of the famous painting by Douglas Pratt of 26 known species of Hawaiian honeycreepers evolving from one common ancestor. Additional plates show the capes Hawaiians made from forest bird feathers, and a dozen or so maps depicting land and conservation areas, among other things.

In light of past losses and seemingly overwhelming threats to many of the remaining bird species, the editors remain hopeful that extant species can be recovered – and, perhaps more important, that it is imperative to make the effort to do so. “It is neither lack of information nor lack of planning that stands in the way of saving Hawai`i’s endangered avifauna,” writes J. Michael Scott in the foreword. “It is lack of action.”

“[R]esearchers and managers must join together to frame conservation management objectives,” he continues. “These things can be done;they have to be done.”

In his preface, Thane Pratt acknowledges the daunting tasks, but remains upbeat: “Hawaiian forest birds are at a crucial turning point. The sad, uninterrupted history of bird declines continues. Yet for the first time, local declines have been halted and in some cases reversed thanks to field management and research. Can we act in time to save the remaining Hawaiian forest birds? It is the editors’ fervent hope that the information contained in this book will inspire an accelerated effort to pull these birds back from the brink of extinction.”

What needs to be done? First, and perhaps foremost, there’s funding: as Dave Leonard points out in his chapter, endangered Hawaiian forest birds do not receive anything approaching a proportionate level of federal funding for recovery actions, compared to mainland endangered species. “On a per species basis, Hawaiian forest birds fare very poorly nationwide,” he writes, with annual average expenditures of around $112,000 per species, a figure that “is problematic compared with what is really needed to prevent the extinction of more Hawaiian forest birds,” which Leonard says is around $4.6 million per year per species, or a total of $39 million per year.

Funding at that level would go far toward carrying out many of the conservation measures that are identified by the editors, including aggressive removal of predators and ungulates, increased monitoring, expansion of habitat, and control of invasive species, among other things. Beefed-up quarantine protocols, higher public profiles for native birds, revised hunting guidelines, greater research into forest bird ecology – all those also have important roles to play.

For those who are already in the choir of believers in the cause of saving Hawai`i’s unique and invaluable avifauna, this volume can be regarded as the definitive bible. For those who are outside the congregation, if this does not convert them, it is hard to imagine what could. In any event, no library in the state should be without this book on its shelves.

It would also, we note, make terrific bedside reading for members of Hawai`i’s congressional delegation – and for the occupant of the fifth floor of 415 South Beretania Street, Honolulu.


Patricia Tummons


Volume 20, Number 7 — January 2010


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