Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

Most Oahu visitors don’t get a chance to see native Hawaiian forest birds. They’re tough to spot on much of the island, and sightings in bustling, urban Waikiki are extraordinarily rare.

Starting next month, however, travelers headed to the Aloha State’s most popular tourism island can check out “Lele O Na Manu: Hawaiian Forest Birds,” a new exhibition at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum offering a comprehensive look at Hawaii’s remarkable native avian species.

“The goal of this exhibit is to educate people about the tremendous cultural and natural resource of these unique creatures,” said Blair Collis, president and CEO of the Bishop Museum, “and to instill a call to action to help save the remaining species before they are lost forever.”

Before the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaii, traveling onboard ocean voyaging canoes more than 1,000 years ago, the islands were home to over 110 species of birds found nowhere else on the planet, according to museum officials. Today, biologists believe the Aloha State is home for just 48 native avian species.

An endangered iiwi feeding on Mamane in Hawaii.
An endangered iiwi feeding on Mamane in Hawaii. Photo Credit: C. Robby Kohley Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project

“Hawaii is sometimes called the extinction capital of the world, because so many species, including most of the forest birds, are critically endangered,” said Michael Wilson, the exhibit designer for “Lele O Na Manu,” which begins March 19 and runs through July 31.

Dwindling native forest habitats, often choked out by invasive plant and tree species, and the introduction of disease, such as avian malaria, have taken a heavy toll on the Island’s endemic birds. The exhibition will, in fact, feature nearly 25 specimens of now-extinct Hawaiian birds.

“For most of these birds, the only way you could see the actual feathers and the actual bird would be to come to this show or be a scientist that could use our facilities,” Wilson said of the preserved extinct species on display.

Along with information about ongoing threats to Hawaii’s native forest birds, and details about efforts being made to conserve them, “Lele O Na Manu” offers visitors a look at these avian creatures’ remarkable diversity and rich natural history.

According to Wilson, Hawaii’s collection of honeycreepers all evolved from one species of finch that was likely blown to the remote volcanic archipelago by a powerful storm over 5 million years ago.

“Finches don’t, as a general rule, fly 2,000 miles,” he explained. “It was quite possibly a hurricane, but some major event blew finches here. [And] in a very rapid period of time for evolution, they diverged to fill every single ecological niche a finch could, including woodpeckers, carnivores, omnivores, strict nectar feeders, all different kinds of bird shapes, colors and sizes.”

The exhibition also showcases the direct connection between Hawaiian forest birds and the health of native forests along with their importance to traditional Hawaiian culture.

“It used to be taxes were paid by high chiefs, or alii, to the king in feathers,” Wilson said. “So feathers were worth more than their weight in gold.”

Hawaiian rulers often wore beautiful cloaks, or ahu ula, made from as many as 10,000 yellow and red bird feathers, gathered by hahai manu, or bird catchers. These specialists would lure species like the ‘i‘iwi, or the now extinct o‘o, with their favorite flowers and use bird calls before sometimes trapping them thanks to a sticky sap. They would then often collect only a few feathers before releasing the birds.

“King Kamehameha actually made a law at one point saying you could only catch and release birds,” Wilson said.

Another prominent example of the unique relationship between the Hawaiian people and the Island’s native birds is the ‘elepaio, a species of monarch flycatcher. Hawaiian canoe craftsmen knew not to harvest trees where ‘elepaio dined regularly on insects and worms because the trunks were likely rotten.

Museum visitors will be able to take part in an interactive game featuring the ‘elepaio in the exhibition as well as trying their hand at flying through native forests like a bird using a virtual reality exhibit. Exhibition goers will also be able to hone their traditional Hawaiian bird-catching skills.

“You’ll have a hahai manu avatar who teaches you about bird songs,” Wilson said of one the show’s high-tech interactive exhibits. “You choose the bird song, you’ll hear the song, and then you’ll have an opportunity to copy the song, and then the hahai manu, or the computer program, will evaluate how well you did. So it trains you to be a hunter of birds or at least a singer of bird songs.”

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