Bird Fall

by | Jun 25, 2023 | Writing the Weather

(Apologies. This runs longer than 500 words. Once the story got started, it needed 300 additional words to finish it! No pressure to read. Just want to be accountable;-)


Some years later, when we’re speaking again—all except Jackson, that is—we’ll say it was the third summer of El Niños. The summer five hurricanes swirled on all points around our island in the Pacific. The summer the entire year’s green sea turtle nests got washed out to sea during an out-of-season north swell.
We’ll gather on a rain-forested mountaintop at the invitation of a young brood of scientists hoping to resurrect the lost birds of Hawaiʻi using DNA from dead skins in musty museum collections to re-wild the forest, silent for too long. We’ll talk of bygone days, honeycreepers ornamenting trees, an orchestra of sound day and night before all the birds fell from the sky.
What was it like to hear the forest go quiet? an eager-faced ornithologist will ask.
Lily, as the last person to hear the call of the vermilion-colored ‘iʻiwi, a striking honeycreeper with a salmon-colored bill the shape and length of a fish hook, will share that it was on the spring equinox as the sun rose over Mt. Waiʻaleʻale. How the call likened to that of a rusty gate woke her, and she scrambled out of her tent in her underwear, binoculars in hand.
Tell us about their behavior in the wild.
Tayler will share how a tiny puffball of an ‘anianiau, the color of the sun itself, used to flit from one scarlet ‘ōhiʻa blossom to another, pollinating as it fed. How cooperative the species was with males constructing nests, females incubating eggs, and both parents feeding their family of hatchlings.
We’ve heard some crazy stories about extreme measures.
Julie will explain how they patched together extension ladders running 100-feet in the air, collecting eggs from parentless ‘akekeʻe nests to hatch and raise in captivity, a last gasp at saving the species.
No one will mention how that experiment failed. How the greenish-yellow honeycreepers with a black mask and high-specialized beak like a Swiss army knife didn’t take well to captivity, never pairing up, never reproducing until a few years later, the species was not only extinct in the wild but in captivity, too.
What about ‘akikiki?
No one will say the missing Jackson’s favorite bird was the ‘akikiki for the very reason it was so easily overlooked. Not charismatic red or yellow but pale gray on its back, off-white on its belly, and a tiny faded pink-colored beak. Not a nectar feeder, flying from one blossom to another, but more enigmatic, creeping up and down tree trunks, pecking and pulling at bark in search of grubs and insects.
No one will mention Carrot. Not yet.
No one will need mention the story might be completely different if the science-deniers and conspiracy theorists hadn’t roadblocked the scientific solution to the invasive mosquito problem long enough for the last birds to go extinct. How the avian malaria-laden mosquitoes, having invaded the Islands during the whaling era of the 1800s, greedy for more habitat, kept moving up the mountains as the world heated up until no birds and no more refugia remained. How one bite of an infected mosquito was enough to kill—and led to the extinciton of more than a dozen species of endemic birds, found in Hawaiʻi and nowhere else in the world.
No one will ask why this minority of people, newcomers themselves, wouldn’t listen to the scientists with decades of success in this particular form of mosquito control. Why they couldn’t hear Native Hawaiians who spoke about reverence for their birds, how each bird represented a different story of their culture, how the loss of these birds equated to the loss of their people.
Later, after the crowd leaves Lily, Taylor, and Julie alone, someone will bring up that last night in camp so many years ago after a day of searching for Carrot, a day racing through streams, traversing up and down muddy banks as if working a skateboarding half-pipe, the sun ready to drop like the splashdown of a breaching Humpback whale. And because it would be odd not to mention him, someone will ask if anyone has heard from Jackson and everyone will shake their heads. There will be quiet. Then, someone will say it was Carrot who pushed Jackson over the edge, and everyone will nod and remember Carrot, the male ‘akikiki Jackson had caught in a mist net some seven years before. He’d circled two orange-colored bands around Carrot’s leg, their way of identifying individual birds. Carrot named carrot for his orange bands. Carrot who fell dead from the sky their last night together and—and this is the truth—landed square in Jackson’s lap.
If you had it to do all over again…? Someone will ask.
And we all agree we’d say Jackson was with us the night the science deniers went missing.

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