The Invisible Someone

Tattooed chief in feather cape and helmet, 1838

William Chillingworthʻs book, ʻIo Lani, The Hawaiian Hawk, was published in 2014, and this winter won an award for the best photography book of the year from the association of Hawaiian book publishers. Williamʻs maternal ancestors were birdcatchers in the district of Kamaeʻe, north of Hilo on the Big Island.  The feathers of certain birds, many of which subsequently became extinct, were used to make the ravishing red, yellow, green, and black capes worn by the chiefs, as well as helmets, leis worn on the head and around the neck, effigies of gods, and the royal staffs known as kahili. The now-extinct mamo, pictured below, was perhaps the most highly prized of all the birds, perhaps because they were particularly difficult to catch. Found only on the island of Hawaiʻi, they were first recorded by Captain Clerke of Cookʻs third voyage in 1779. Their few yellow feathers were more vivid than those of other birds. A cape belonging to King Kamehameha I, which is now in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, was made of 450,00 feathers, 80,000 of which were mamo feathers. As their population diminished, there was a kapu on the birds, but by the turn of the last century, the mamo had been hunted out of existence.

Mamo (Drepanis pacifica)

The following is from an essay by the Hawaiian cultural anthropologist Nathan Napoka of Maui, written for W.ʻs book. This quote from the historian Kepelino (1859) describes the different ways to catch a Hawaiian hawk, or ʻio, whose feathers were not commonly used in decoration or clothing:

There are two methods of catching the ʻio. The first involved the use of a hapapa, a long stick with a shorter stick tied to it in the form of a cross. The catcher would tie a small live bird or a captive ʻio just below the intersection of the sticks. This bait, along with the skilled ʻio call of the bird catcher, summoned the ʻio from its lofty heights. “They…hurry like human beings to save the one who is in distress. Because the Io is a bird who loves its fellow Io when in distress of when taken captive. If a live Io is tied with a cord, it struggles and jerks to and fro and cries ʻfiro.ʻ The others hear the cry of the Io that is tied up; they fly hither to rescue him. If the cord is not well tied, the captive Io will escape with the aid of its rescuers. If a man is careless or foolish he will be badly injured by the Io, as it is a bird that flies into a rage when a man comes too close. Therefore, in order to kill an Io, he should run up with a stick in hand as soon as it swoops down upon the birds tied to the hapapa and thrust it in front of the Io. It will grasp the stick with its talons, then the bird catcher twists the stick around rapidly, thus breaking its legs. And so on.

Feather cloak
Feather helmet, or mahiole, constructed on a wickerwork frame

perched 'io 2

The Hawaiian hawk (Buteo solitarius), which closely resembles the Swainsonʻs hawk and the short-tailed hawk (Buteo brachyurus) found in South America, arrived in the Islands tens of thousands of years ago, presumably blown off course during its annual migration south along the coast of what would one day be California and Mexico. In order to reach the southeastern-most islands in the Hawaiian archipelago, the lost birds would have had to fly for seven or eight days before at last reaching landfall.

North Kohala


The biologist John Culliney writes:

Having established itself across the main islands of Hawaiʻi…before the arrival of human beings, the adaptable ʻio weathered the onslaught of environmental change that began with the expansion of the early Hawaiians [in the ninth century A.D.]. Within a few centuries, lowland forests were greatly altered and diminished as growing human populations burned wide areas for…agriculture. Many bird species became extinct, replaced by new kinds of prey that arrived with the Polynesian canoes…For a time, ʻio populations thrived in the increasingly turbulent ecological disruption brought by the human pioneers, and the Hawaiians took significant notice of these fierce birds that soared with such a powerful presence on the trade winds.

With the establishment of the Hawaiian kingdom in the late eighteenth century and the rise of the Kamehameha dynasty, the ʻio became the bird of kings; a royal totem of enormous power and majesty.

hawk mono
A monotype of the ʻIo made by W.

The high priest of the sacred ʻIo cult lived in the valley in North Kohala where Kamehameha I was first hidden as a child from the rivalrous chiefs who wished to kill him. One of the high priestʻs descendants, Montano, remembered that “the priesthood of Iolani was the highest priesthood of the islands…Neither chieftains nor priests dared utter the word Io…Io is the Holy Spirit, the invisible someone. There was no human sacrifice on this altar…The people by this religious order did believe, however, in stoning a wrongdoer to death. The priests of Io were feared and respected…Io to us is Jehovah to other peoples.”

The ʻio was once on the list of endangered species — they are killed by hunters, poison, dogs, cats, the mongoose, starvation, and the mysterious, at least to me, “actions of introduced ungulates” — but is no longer considered a threatened bird. They are raucous during the breeding season in the spring, when they make a piercing cry, much like their name in Hawaiian. They customarily have a clutch (such a good word) of one egg. Should you be on the watch for an ʻio, mature birds have yellow legs, while the legs of juveniles are fittingly greenish. (An ungulate is a large mammal who may be classified as odd-toed, that is, horses and rhinos, or even-toed, such as cattle, pigs, giraffes, and camels, the latter two yet to be seen in the Islands, at least outside the melancholy zoo in Honolulu.)

theblogazine-kiki-smith-20121001-3 (1)
Portrait of SM with an owl, or pueo, by Kiki Smith

In a survey made by the United States government in 2007, there were perhaps three thousand ʻio living on the Big Island, primarily in the district of Kohala, with a range of 2,372 square miles (58% of the island).There have been occasional sightings of the bird over the last thirty years on Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, and Maui.

Looking south into Pololu Valley

io eye 2 (1)

io hiwa

wsc puu pili

The above photographs of the ʻio and of Kohala were taken over the last two years by William S. Chillingworth. There are more of his photographs on the website

One Seed Every 30,000 Years

This article appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Los Angeles Times last Sunday:

Each year, I await with dread the federal governmentʻs catalog of the endangered species under imminent threat in the Hawaiian Islands, where I was raised and where I live.

The endangered Hibiscus waimeae, or Kokiʻo keʻokeʻo, found in only two places on the island of Kauaʻi
The endangered Hibiscus waimeae, or Kokiʻo keʻokeʻo, found in two places on the island of Kauaʻi

On its 2015 list, the Fish and Wildlife Office included the ‘ea, or hawksbill turtle, as well as the green turtle, Ridley sea turtle, and leatherback turtle. Four mammals are considered endangered — the Hawaiian hoary bat; the kohola, or humpback whale; the sperm whale; and the endemic Hawaiian monk seal. Among the thirty-four endangered birds are the Hawaiian goose, or nēnē; the Maui parrotbill; the Nihoa millerbird; the red- legged stilt; and the iʻo, or Hawaiian hawk. There were once 99 species of land snails in the Islands; of the 25 that have survived, 9 are under threat of extinction. Fifteen arthropods, including the sphinx moth and the oceanic damselfly, are listed. Among the endangered plants are a white hibiscus found only in Wailau Valley on Molokaʻi; the lovely Hawaiian gardenia or naʻu (although now widely cultivated in an effort to save it, there are only two or three plants remaining in the wild), the mountain silversword of Mauna Loa; the loʻulu, or Pritchardia palm; and one small yellow campanula (Brighamia insignis) last seen on a cliff on the Na Pali coast of Kauaʻi.

Sandwich rail (Porzana sandwichensis), or flightless Hawaiian crake, painted by William Ellis on Captain James Cookʻs third voyage of discovery (1776-78), last seen in 1884.
The Sandwich rail (Porzana sandwichensis), or flightless Hawaiian crake, painted by William Ellis on Captain James Cookʻs third voyage of discovery (1776-78), was last seen in 1884.

There is a certain irony that such adaptive and resilient species as those indigenous (native, but occurring elsewhere) and endemic (occurring nowhere else in the world) to the Hawaiian Islands should be allowed to disappear from the planet. The chance of any species reaching and then surviving on an island as distant as one of the Hawaiian chain is infinitesimal, but despite the extraordinary odds, species found their way ashore, carried by the tide or blown by trade winds; inside birds or in their feathers; in the branches of trees; and in the jetsam of sunken ships. It is thought that such an event occurred only three hundred times in the history of the archipelago, meaning that on average, if one takes 70 million years as the life of the Islands, one seed or sapling was successfully introduced every 20,000 to 30,000 years. Many of those original species have now disappeared. According to the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 271 species of all indigenous and endemic flora and fauna (introduced by various means) have become extinct in the last two hundred years.

Feather lei, worn around the head or neck, watercolor by Sarah Stone, 18, private collection
Feather lei, worn around the head or neck, watercolor by Sarah Stone, 1783, private collection

Although the decimation of species is due to commercialization, the loss of forests, hunting, the growth of population, pervasive invasive fauna, and now global warming, it began with the first voyagers from Polynesia in the seventh century A.D., who brought to the Islands their own plants and animals, including pigs, chickens, and dogs, which ensured the survival of the settlers, but threatened those native species which were innocent of predators. In the early nineteenth-century, rapacious Hawaiian chiefs were responsible for the disappearance of vast sandalwood forests, the fragrant wood sought by the Chinese for incense, and for the loss of thousands of native birds killed to make the yellow, red, and green feather capes, lei, and helmets of the nobility. Hawaiʻiʻs first king, Kamehameha I, must be held accountable for some of the early loss of plants, thanks to the kapu he placed on the cattle given him in 1793 by Captain George Vancouver. The cattle, and later goats, were allowed to roam wild in the uplands, where they destroyed the delicate ferns, vines, trees, and grasses that had provided generations of Hawaiians with food, fishing lines, nets, vegetable dyes, timber, medicine, barkcloth, and thatch for their houses. European contact, which began in 1778 with the discovery of the Islands by Captain James Cook, brought disease and the further destruction of ecosystems.

IMG_460078027Feather capes, watercolors by Sarah Stone, 1783

Later in the nineteenth century, the spread of sugar plantations ensured that additional acres of native grasslands and forests, and the creatures who lived in them, many of them natural pollinators, were heedlessly destroyed. Large cattle ranches, particularly on the Big Island, meant that the forests and valleys that were once home to numerous species were turned into grazing land.

The ʻio, or Hawaiian hawk, photograph by W. S. Chillingworth, 2014
The ʻio, or Hawaiian hawk, photograph by W. S. Chillingworth, 2015

Despite its rank as the state with the highest number of endangered or threatened species, Hawaiʻi receives less than 5% of the funding allotted by the federal government’s endangered species program — $1.5 million in 2013, out of $32 million given to twenty states, a third of which went to buy 635 acres of forested land on Oʻahu, while the rest was given to Kauaʻi to plan habitats for birds. Private landowners, community watch groups, conservation groups, local government agencies, and even schoolchildren are increasingly aware of the great loss that is underway, but for many species, it will be too late. Many people despair that there is not enough compassion, not enough will, not enough time or money to go around. Is the disappearance of the Hawaiian cave wolf spider, they ask, or the Hibiscadelphus distans, one of the worldʻs rarest trees, that important to most people? Especially in comparison to human lives? History, it appears, indicates that the human ones will be able to survive without honeycreepers and monk seals, but that is a solipsistic view. If the wolf spider is in trouble, we are in trouble, too.