For the Birds Radio Program: Iiwi
According to current estimates. there are 9751 species of birds on this planet. If we were to choose the top ten most spectacularly and bizarrely beautiful of these, I’m not sure any Minnesota birds would qualify against the Resplendent Quetzal, Hoopoe, or Magnificent Frigatebird. The hummingbird family alone has some of the moot strangely gorgeous birds imaginable, such as the Booted Racket-tail, Wire-crested Thorntail and Horned Sungem. But one Hawaiian bird is as peculiarly spectacular as the best of them— the Iiwi.
This bird is has all the shiny brilliance of a Scarlel Tanager, glowing scarlet body and head contrasting with black wings and tail. But instead of the tanager’s rather simple, ordinary body shape, the liwi is short and chunky, shaped like an improbably fat nuthatch. And the Iiwi has no dainty little beak, but rather a long, thick, down-curved proboscis colored an orangey flesh tone that somehow calls to mind an elephant’s trunk. The yellow ring around its eyes give the livi a clownish aspect, and its thick orange legs and feet seem clumsy and oversized, as if it were wearing clown shoes. Its loud, squeaky calls can sound like a rusty gate or a clown horn. All in all, the Iivi comes to us straight from some avian circus.
Iiwis even act like circus performers, flying in circles overhead, whirring wings and vocal chords announcing their presence over all the sjngers down below. People can’t help but notice Iiwiis, and naturally yearn for something of their brilliance, energy, and engaging personality- in pre-European times, beautiful feather capes, sometimes containing hundreds of thousands of liwi feathers, were a symbol of prestige and power among native Hawaiians.
lf you are what you eat, Iwis are one of the sweetest birds imaginable, surviving as hummingbird do on rich, sweet nectar. Their thick proboscis-like beak was particularly useful extracting nectar from the native Hawaiian lobelioids, many of which are now extinct or endangered. As these trees have disappeared, liwis have turned more and more to blossoms of the still-common Ohia tree. Interestingly, in the past century the liwi bill size has decreased fully half a millimeter, possibly as a result of this dietary switch.
Iiwis also eat some spiders and foliage insects, and have adapted to feeding on the introduced banana poka vine and introduced tree alfalfa. They are one of the very few species found in the exact same form on all the Hawaiian Islands. because they are strong fliers and often move about to investigate new food sources. So this is a very adaptable species.
But Iiwi numbers have declined enormously since the first Europeans arrived in the Hawaiian lslands. They were once abundant at all elevations on all the islands but now are extinct on Lanai, disappearing fast from Molokai and Oahu, and restricted to high elevations on the remaining islands. The main cause of their decline isn’t direct killing or even habitat loss, though that has been severe. The main reason liwis have dwindled is disease. The release of caged birds throughout the Hawaiian islands introduced all kinds of sicknesses to islands where native birds, isolated from nasty organisms for so long, had no resistance at all. Mosquitoes were introduced in the l820s, possibly by a spiteful ship captain, and these blood-suckers have served as disease vectors from one bird to another in Hawaii ever since. liwi are singularly vulnerable to avian pox and avian malaria, both carried by mosquitoes. ln a l995 experiment, one researcher found that nine out of ten liwis bitten once by an infected mosquito died, and all ten bitten more than once died.
Now virtually alI liwi are seen above 3000 feet in elevation, where mosquitoes are rare. When I went on a Hawaii Forest & Trail guided tour into a rainforest on the Big Island, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of liwis flying and singing and mating—they seemed to be everywhere. AII in all, between Maui and Hawaii, I saw at least a hundred on my trip—so many, yet less than five pounds worth. This comical yet exquisitely beautiful bird infuses this little planet with far more loveliness and joie de vivre than its three-quarters of an ounce body could possibly be expected to do. A small but significant amount of this planet’s sparkle and beauty come from the livi, and even way over here in Minnesota and Wisconsin, attention must be paid.