Extinction obituary: why experts mourn the peaceful and beautiful Hawaiian po’ouli | Hawaii


Jhe last po’ouli died in an unusual nest. Too weak to perch, the brownish-gray songbird rested in a small towel twisted into a ring. He was the last of his kind, the last in fact of an entire group of finches, and appeared nowhere on Earth outside of his native Hawaii. For weeks, as scientists tried to find him a mate, he grew sicker and sicker. The only remaining po’ouli only had one eye. Alone in the towel, alone in the world, he closed it.

He was born, like all po’ouli (pronounced po-oh-oo-lee), in the Hana rainforest of Maui, on the slopes of Mount Haleakalā – “house of the sun” – where it rains all the time. Also known as the black-faced treecreeper, its species was discovered in 1973. Then researchers estimated the total population at 200 birds.

Scholar Mary Kawena Pukui gave the bird its name, which means “black head”. His book of Hawaiian proverbs includes this one: Hāhai nō ka ua i ka ululāʻau, “the rain follows the forest”. The expression has a double meaning: it is a hint and a warning. To find water, look for forests. But also: if one element of an ecosystem is destroyed, others will surely follow.

In 1997, there were only five po’ouli left. That year, on an unusually bright day, researchers captured one for the first time. It had taken Paul Baker, a British environmentalist away from home, half of each month for two years. Climbing up and down the muddy hills of Mount Haleakalā meant that, at just 33, he would soon need knee surgery. But it was worth it.

Extinction Obituaries is a series of memorials to species that have been lost to living memory.

After untangling the po’ouli from a mist net, Baker took the bird’s measurements and noted its colors. The po’ouli weighed only 26.2 g, less than 1 oz. Shades of her brown feathers alone included ombre, raw sepia, ground color sepia, warm sepia, sienna, antique brown, cinnamon, dark cinnamon, hair brown, March Brown, Warm Buff, Olive Brown, Prout Brown, Vandyke Brown, Natal Brown, Verona Brown, Army Brown, and Dull Black-Brown.

Holding the po’ouli with one hand, Baker photographs it with the other: the bird is seen standing and from behind, its head turned to the side, as if modeling a coat worn just over its shoulders. Baker released the po’ouli, but the bird stayed. From a branch two meters away, he looked at the man as if to say: “Who are you? What have you done ? What are you?”

Then the po’ouli flew off into the rainforest. What we know about how he and the rest of his kind spent their time there is very little. They flew, searched for food, and slept in nearly 500 inches of rain (12 times the average annual rainfall for New York State). The quietest of all Hawaiian Honeycreepers, they rarely sang or chirped. They ate small land snails, beetles and butterfly larvae.

But the snails were becoming harder and harder to find, thanks to European domestic pigs and black rats disturbing the forest floor where the birds foraged. The pigs, rats, cats and mongooses that likely fed on po’ouli and their eggs were all brought to the island decades earlier by humans, as were mosquitoes, carriers of avian malaria. Invasive species have caused one-third of the world’s extinctions since 1500. Hawaii alone has lost two-thirds of its endemic bird species.

By the new millennium, there were only three po’ouli left. Although they lived within a few miles of each other, it is unlikely that they ever met. Instead — perhaps out of loneliness, perhaps confusion — each spent time with yellowish, hook-billed Maui parrots, which had a similar call.

Meanwhile, conservationists, birders and conservationists sent frantic emails, held tense meetings and sidelined at conferences, worrying and arguing over what to do and who would pay for it.

It took three years – about a third of a po’ouli’s life – to come to a decision. In 2002, researchers captured what they hoped was a woman. After feeding her two snails and 15 waxworms, they released her into the territory of what they believed to be the last remaining male.

The transplanted female began her blind date at dusk. At dawn, she began to return home, as oblivious to the existence of the male po’ouli as he was of her own.

In 2004, the po’ouli had one last chance. It took six people and $300,000 18 months to catch a bird. It was, remarkably, the same individual Baker had trapped seven years before, when he became the first person to hold a live po’ouli. At that time, the bird had lost an eye. He was old – at least nine – and found captivity stressful. He died on Maui 11 weeks later, between 10 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., Nov. 26, of (miniscule) organ failure.

It was the last po’ouli ever seen. Searchers hoping to catch a female could not find any of the remaining birds. In 2019, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the species extinct.

“When you get too involved in something like this, it can’t help but change you personally,” Baker recently said. His voice was shaking and he began to cry.

“I’m actually really upset right now, thinking about it,” he said. “I remember the day I learned the bird had died and, as stupid as it sounds, I cried for the species.” He sniffled. “And I mourn it again now, all these years later.”


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