For the Birds Radio Program: Geography and History: Laura learns about Hawaii

Original Air Date: Feb. 16, 2000 Rerun Dates: Feb. 16, 2004; Feb. 13, 2003

Laura never had a solid sense of geography until she became a birder. Now she’s fascinated with Hawaiian history.

Duration: 4′44″


When I was in elementary school, history and geography were my least favorite subjects. I grew up in a small blue-collar suburb of Chicago, and the only times we left the city during my childhood were for two vacations to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, until we took a family vacation to Florida my senior year of high school. We drove from Chicago in one long stretch, much during the night when roads all look the same. I remember the brilliant reddish brown soil of Georgia in the early morning light, and Spanish moss draping exotic-looking trees through Georgia and Florida, but that’s all the natural sights I took in. We stayed in Miami Beach, where every hotel had a wooden wall separating its beach from the next hotel’s beach. I didn’t have a clue what a stretch of uninhabited beach might look like and didn’t realize that such a thing existed on the planet.

One day we took a drive to Busch Gardens or some other place like that and saw monkeys hanging from trees. It wasn’t until college that I learned that those weren’t wild, and that monkeys aren’t native to Florida. I’d seen a Blue Jay once in Lake Geneva, which made it genuine wilderness in my limited imagination, but I didn’t notice a single bird in Florida. Somehow I didn’t even see, or realize that I’d missed seeing, a pelican on that trip.

The far away places of geography class were as abstract and far away as the heaven and hell I learned about in religion class. I never knew how much was true and how much exaggeration or fiction. In history I memorized long strings of dates and names and tried to match them properly together, but it was all vague abstractions beyond the scope of my imagination. No one looking even remotely like George Washington or General Custer or Sitting Bull or Marie Antoinette walked down my block, and I couldn’t imagine life in any other time or place.

It took experience and travel for me to discover how fascinating geography and history are, though I admit both subjects became more important to me when I realized how much I could learn about birds through them. For the first time in my life, I’m learning about Hawaiian history because I’m about to go there. I’m just now learning that Polynesians colonized Hawaii sometimes between 300 and 600 AD. They brought dogs, chickens, and pigs with them. Many Hawaiian birds, living for so long with no natural enemies, had lost the ability to fly, and a great many nested on the ground or in underground burrows. They had no chance against pigs, who uprooted plants and ate eggs, even digging them out of deep burrows. The Polynesians developed beautiful feather arts, decorating clothing and tools with feathers woven together, and some naturally rare birds with spectacular feathers dwindled.

Back when Captain Cook was mixed up in my mind with Peter Pan’s Captain Hook, I never realized that the real Cook was an explorer who charted many Pacific Islands for Britain. He claimed Australia for Britain in 1770, and came across the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. He sailed on to America, and returned to Hawaii the following year only to be killed in a dispute with native people. Another ship captain during the late 1770s became angry with the Hawaiians and emptied a cistern of water laden with mosquito larvae on the islands, introducing them to a land that had never been exposed to mosquitoes. Between the measles that sailors brought and malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases, a huge number of native Hawaiians died, and almost every forest bird that lived below 3,000 feet died out as well. Hawaii is a land of unbelievable beauty and unbelievable sadness. The basic history lessons of the use and mis-use of nature and the high cost of mean-spiritedness are there for all to learn.