Hawaii’s Vanished Birds

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

English artist Julian Pindar Hume's pristine scene of a bird kingdom in third-century Maui looks as lush and inviting as Eden. But something is terribly wrong with the picture. The ibises — usually so long and elegant—here have short legs. The gooselike birds have lumpy piano legs like a Galápagos turtle, and seem to have a set of teeth. Clearly they are birds — after all, this group portrait of them hangs in the National Zoological Park's Bird House — but just as clearly, many of them can't fly. Their wings are at best vestigial.

We know that birds had the ability to fly as early as the Jurassic age. Wings were a great survival tool that let them forage and rise above their enemies. So why have these birds given up such an advantage?

Hume's painting is based on the scholarship of Smithsonian Institution avian paleontologists Storrs Olson and Helen James, and it turns out that for these particular birds at that particular time the loss of flight made a lot of evolutionary sense. It was "on purpose" that flightless avians retained into adulthood the features of young birds — big feet and stumpy wings. Their state of neoteny was an adaptation, say Olson and James, to an ecosystem in which there were no mammals or reptiles around ready to eat them. The Hawaiian archipelago was a complete ecosystem, but because it was without the usual lineup of predators and prey, herbivores and scavengers, some birds began taking over these niches themselves.

Flightless rails foraged the dry forest floor like mammals, as likely to rob an egg from a ground-nesting bird as gobble up endemic snails. The owls, which did fly, used their unusually long legs to snatch other birds from the air. Among the analogues for mammal herbivores like sheep were the moa-nalos — a name coined by Olson and James to describe a generic assembly of large, flightless "gooselike ducks," 16-pounders who chomped abundant ferns, aided by toothlike, horny projections on their bills.

There are other evolutionary theories, too. Some scientists believe that because of the steady blast of the trade winds, light, winged birds might have run a high risk of being blown off some of the small windswept islands that make up the northwest part of the archipelago. In that case the flightless ones might have given up wings because they could become "sails," and instead favored heavy legs and feet for ballast.

Still, some Hawaiian birds kept on flying, and maintained the physique that flight required. There was even a flighted top predator, the white-tailed sea eagle, which snagged baby moa-nalos and any other birds it could get its talons on. Unusual island crows wandered about, as ready to munch on fruit as rob a nest or scavenge leftovers. A bunch of pioneer finches — blown from some unknown continent to Hawaii between three million and six million years ago — adapted to "fill in" for absent songbird species in the customary continental landscape. Natural selection reshaped the beaks of pioneer finches in much the same way Darwin's famous finches' were in the Galápagos. There were "woodpeckers," "warblers," "parrots" and "honey creepers" — variations of 50-odd species that make the Galápagos finch tribe's bill adaptations seem run of the mill.

Today most of these birds — airborne and earthbound alike — are extinct. Olson and James say they would probably still be around today if Polynesians had not made their landfall on the islands some 16 centuries ago. The vulnerable flightless mega-ducks, geese and rails were the easiest to catch and so may have been the first to go extinct.

Eventually three-quarters of the versatile finches disappeared, most dramatically because Polynesian kings feathered their robes of office so lavishly. That old terminator habitat destruction, set in motion by the farming methods of Polynesian and Europeans alike, also added to the death toll. So did the introduction of non-native species that competed for resources with, and sometimes preyed on, indigenous birds. The record of many of these birds remains only in a collection of thousands of bones painstakingly reconstructed by Olson and James, then given the appearance of life in artist Hume's portraits.

Hume is a self-taught artist who has been depicting birds most of his life. In 1988, he wrote the Smithsonian from his home in England to see if anyone could use the services of a painter of ancient birds. Not long after, he found himself en route to Hawaii to join Olson and James. Besides the group "study" of early Maui pictured on page 38, Hume's individual re-creations include warring, flightless geese (the so-called giant Hawaiian geese) "leaning" into each other like Sumo wrestlers locked in battle, and a flightless ibis just as it stumbles to its death in a lava tube. His picture of a pioneer flight of ancestral finches being blown into the prehistoric northern coast of Molokai is matched with portraits of some of their flashy descendants armed with reshaped bills — curved for nectar seekers, straight and slender for insect pickers, massive for serious seed-crackers.

The bill shapes and their ecological "uses" are all faithfully based on the sleuthing of Olson and James. With their help, Hume chose "authentic" colors to paint the feathers, based on extrapolations from related birds' feathers housed in museum collections. At first this method worked well — at least no one could argue about it — until DNA studies complicated everything. The work of the National Zoo's chief geneticist, Rob Fleischer, and his former student Ellen Paxinos changed their visual concept of at least one "big fat" bird, Hume says. Originally, on the basis of fragmentary fossils, Olson and James had pegged the giant Hawaii goose as related to the emperor goose. Then Paxinos and Fleischer changed its familial place based on their DNA studies. The base pairs of the giant Hawaii goose's DNA indicated that it was a relative not of the emperor goose but of the Canada goose.

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.

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