This story was first published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
The last po’ouliThe unusual nest was where the bird died. The songbird, a brownish-greyish one, was too weak to perch so he sat on a small towel that was twisted into a ring. He was the last of his species and the last of an entire group. The finch never appeared anywhere else on Earth, except in Hawaii. Scientists tried for weeks to find him a mate. he had been getting sicker. The only remaining po’ouli had just one eye. He was alone in the towel, and he closed it.
He was born, like all po’ouli (pronounced po-oh-oo-lee), in Maui’s Hana rainforest, on the slopes of Mount Haleakalā—“house of the sun”—where it rains all the time. His species, also known as the blackfaced Honeycreeper was discovered in 1973. Researchers then estimated the total bird population at 200.
Scholar Mary Kawena Pukui gave the bird its name, meaning “black head.” Her book of Hawaiian proverbs includes this one: Hāhai nō ka ua i ka ululāʻau, “the rain follows the forest.” The phrase has a double meaning: It is a hint and warning. For water, search for forests. But also, if one element of an eco-system is destroyed, the rest will surely follow.
By 1997, just five po’ouli remained. Researchers caught one for the very first time that year on an unusually bright day. Paul Baker, a British ecologist, spent half of each month traveling long distances to catch the bird. This took him two years. Climbing up and down Mount Haleakalā’s muddy hills meant that at just 33, he would soon need a knee operation. It was worth it.
After untangling the po’ouli from a mist net, Baker took the bird’s measurements and charted its colors. The po’ouli weighed just 26.2 g, or less than 1 oz. The shades of his brown feathers alone included umber, raw sepia, ground colour sepia, warm sepia, sienna, antique brown, cinnamon, dark cinnamon, hair brown, mars brown, warm buff, olive brown, Prout’s brown, Vandyke brown, Natal brown, Verona brown, army brown, and dull brown-black.
Holding the po’ouli in one hand, Baker photographed him with the other: The bird is seen upright and from the back, his head turned to the side, as though modelling a coat worn just off his shoulders. Baker released the po’ouli, but the bird stuck around. From a branch six feet 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. We don’t know much about his time there, nor do we know how the rest of his species did it. They flew, foraged and slept through more than 500 inches of rain (12x the New York State average annual rainfall). They were the quietest of all Hawaiian honeycreepers. They rarely sang or chirped. They ate small beetles, land snails, and butterfly larvae.
Snails were becoming harder to find due to European domestic pigs, black rats, and other animals who pounced on the forest floor where birds ate. The pigs, the rats, cats, and mongoose who probably preyed on po’ouli and their eggs were all brought to the island decades earlier by humans, as were mosquitoes, which carry avian malaria. Invasive species have caused a third of the world’s extinctions since 1500. Two-thirds of the endemic bird species in Hawaii have been lost.
By the new millennium, there were just three po’ouli left. They lived only a few kilometers apart, but it is unlikely that they ever met. Instead—perhaps out of loneliness, perhaps out of confusion—each spent time with yellowish, hook-beaked Maui parrotbills, which had a similar call.
Meanwhile, ecologists, ornithologists, conservationists and others sent frantic emails and held tense meetings. They also pulled each other aside at conferences.
It took three years—or roughly a third of a po’ouli life—to reach a decision. Researchers found what they thought was a female in 2002. After feeding her 15 waxworms and two snails, researchers released her into the territory of the last male.
The blind date for the transplanted female began at dusk. At dawn, she began to fly home, as unaware of the male po’ouli’s existence as he was of hers.
In 2004, the po’ouli got one last chance. Six people spent 18 months and $300,000. to catch a bird. It was, remarkably, the same individual that Baker had snared seven years previously, when he became the first person to hold a live po’ouli. The bird had lost one eye during that time. He was old—at least nine—and found captivity stressful. He died in Maui, between 10 and 11:30pm on November 26th, of multiple (tiny), organ failure.
He was the last po’ouli ever seen. Researchers trying to capture a female po’ouli could not find one of the remaining birds. The species was declared endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2019. Extinct.
“When you get too involved with something like that, it can’t help but sort of change you personally,” said Baker recently. Baker began to cry, his voice wilting.
“I’m actually really upset right now, thinking about it,” he said. “I remember the day I heard the bird had died and, stupid as it sounds, I wept for the species.” He sniffed. “And I’m crying for it again now, all these years later.”