Mauna Kea, Hawaii — "PALILA!" Rob Pacheco cried out in a voice most people reserve for "Hallelujah!" He slammed his giant, teal-colored truck to a halt on a gutted dirt road, 9,000 feet up the slopes of Mauna Kea on Hawaii's Big Island.
We sprinted through a field of brown grass, Madagascar daisies and small trees. We were looking for the poster child of Hawaiian conservation, a yellow-headed, white-breasted finch that was among the first species covered by the original Endangered Species Act of 1973.
The palila is descended from two North American finches that flew to this archipelago in the middle of the Pacific about 25 million years ago.
"Hawaii's isolation," Pacheco explained, "means that only really, really good fliers made it here."
Over time those first finches evolved into 100 species of Hawaiian honeycreepers.
"Everyone knows about Darwin's finches from the Galapagos Islands," he said, his binoculars scanning the treetops. (Observations on the shapes of their beaks helped Darwin formulate his theory of evolution.) "But if you want to study evolutionary processes through a bird species, the Hawaiian honeycreeper is the bird to study. Darwin's 13 finches pale in comparison," Pacheco said.
I listened intently to him, even though I wasn't spotting a single rare feather. It was to learn this kind of obscure fact that I had signed on for a day tour with Pacheco, founder of the eco-tour company Hawaii Forest & Trail, while I was in Waimea for a June horseback riding vacation.
Trouble in paradise
WHEN the Hawaiians arrived in the islands sometime after AD 400, they named this evolutionary wonder palila. By then, the bird had settled on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea, where it nested in the mamane tree and feasted on its orange-yellow seeds.
In the early 1800s, Hawaiian chiefs razed forests to sell off once-abundant sandalwood. Europeans and Americans added cats, rats, cattle and mongooses to the dogs and pigs brought by Polynesians, and all wreaked havoc on island ecosystems and native birds. Ranching turned mountain slopes into grazing fields, and pigs, goats and sheep ravaged mamane saplings. The palila lost most of its supply of the tree's seedpods. Feral cats and rats pillaged their nests.
After the palila was listed as endangered in 1967 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacheco said, a group of local residents sued the state of Hawaii on its behalf. In 1978, a federal court told the state to remove all feral goats and sheep from the bird's habitats.
Pacheco and I were experiencing the effect of the bird's decimation: The palila he had glimpsed vanished before I saw it, and no others had appeared two hours into our tour. My heart was set on seeing this beleaguered bird, and I tromped back to the truck trying not to feel dejected.
I'm no bird nerd. In my family, bird-watchers are the brunt of dinner table jokes. "Look," my grandfather was reputed to have said when my grandmother dragged him out bird-watching. "It's a double-breasted seersucker!"
But, having grown up in Hawaii, I learned from an early age to revere Hawaiian birds and their role in ancient culture. School excursions took us to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, where docents in flowered muumuus told us dramatic tales while showing us such artifacts as an idol of the war god Kukailimoku which was covered in blood-red feathers. Plumed staffs called \o7kahili \f7stood at attention in the corners. But the most impressive feather work was the capes -- made entirely of red, yellow and black feathers -- that Kamehameha the Great and the king's other 18th century warriors wore into battle.
Ancient Hawaiians, the docents said, were early ecologists. Trained bird catchers would trap their prey by smearing a sticky paste on tree limbs, plucking a few feathers and releasing the birds to the forest. For the golden cloak of King Kamehameha I, about 450,000 feathers were collected from more than 80,000 mamo birds.
Today, the mamo is extinct. And it isn't the only one: Twenty-eight percent of the islands' native birds are extinct and one-third -- 32 altogether -- are listed on the federal threatened and endangered species lists. (Hawaii has been called the extinction capital of the world, with 317 endangered and threatened species of flora and fauna.)
In late 2004, from my perch in Northern California, I read of the death of the last poouli, a timid brown bird with a black bandit's mask that once climbed tree trunks and ate insects on the upper slopes of Maui's Haleakala.
"I liken it to the loss of the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel," said Eric VanderWerf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's office in Honolulu. "We can never get another one."
His comment made me resolve to learn more about Hawaii's endangered birds on my next trip to the islands.
Which is how I ended up at 9 a.m. at the base of Saddle Road, the lone route between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, to meet Pacheco. I happily parked my compact and climbed into his Ford F-350 super-duty off-road vehicle.