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Hawaii's Vanished Birds

For the National Zoological Park, an artist depicts the diversity of the islands' extinct avian species

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Hume had already completed his battle scene, dressing the giant Hawaii geese in plumage similar to that of the emperor goose, when he got the news. Not only did he have to change the plumage to make the goose look Canada-like; he also had to change the background of the painting. His scene was set in an open lava field, but Olson and James pointed out that the fossil geese were found in the montane forest belt. Says Hume, "I had to move the big fat thing up into the mountains and grow a forest around it." To get the vegetation "right" in his paintings, Hume regularly risked his neck climbing Hawaiian cliffs to look at remnant examples of Hawaii's ancient flora.

Paleontological fieldwork in Hawaii is hardly a day at the beach. In the 23 years they have been working in the Hawaiian Islands, the now husband-wife team of Olson and James has explored sand dunes, limestone sinkholes, lava tube caves and crater lake beds in their effort to illuminate Hawaii's splendid isolationist past. Out of this they have gleaned numerous bird genera and at least 50 extinct species new to science.

And there is more to uncover. Recently Olson and James have been hard at work at a cave-sinkhole system on Kauai, where they've found feathers and bird skulls so complete they seem to have been deposited just yesterday.

Not surprisingly, Hume — now studying for a doctorate in paleobiology himself — has already been down, sketchbook and paints at the ready.

By Adele Conover


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