Like me, most birds I meet in Hawaiʻi, came from somewhere else. Swept in on rogue thermals, loaded off old ships, or escaped from fancy cages, they unleashed new diseases and competed for limited resources, contributing to the endangerment, disappearance, and extinction of over 100 native bird species.
Though I love bird watching, I rarely watch birds here. I ignore the North American birds who’ve made these islands home because I checked them off my life list ages ago. I don’t count the Asian birds because, to see them, I should have had to fly to Asia. Of the 33 remaining endemic species, most live on remote atolls I can’t visit, or atop sacred mountains I shouldn’t. Besides, how am I supposed to learn all those vowelled names?
Anyway, my life list is not an actual list. Not anymore. But it started as one.
On a gray November day, as Canada Geese drew black “Vs” on slate skies, my seventh grade biology teacher handed us field pamphlets of Wisconsin’s birds. Organized by type—“Waterfowl,” “Waders,” “Doves,” and so forth—each bird was tagged with points: Robins were 5, because you could see them out your bedroom window; Wood Ducks were 15, because they hid in hidden ponds and flapped off at a twig snap; Pileated Woodpeckers were 25, because no one ever saw them. Had the Ivory-billed Woodpecker been on that list, he would have been 100 points.
Our year-long homework, as I understood it, was to spend hours in the field and collect as many birds as we could.
My dad entrusted me with an old pair of binoculars and drove me to nearby marshes. We’d walk wooded paths around cat-tailed ponds, briskly enough to keep mosquitoes moving but quietly enough to keep Green Herons still (20 points).
My parents got me The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Western Region, a color photo bible I still prefer to Sibley’s exquisite illustrations. I’d memorize each bird’s glossy photo, then flip to the tissue paper notes to learn its behaviors, habitats, and range. Vermillion Flycatchers, Sage Grouse, and Indigo Buntings lived outside my range. But I memorized them too. Because you never knew what you might see out there, and if you saw a bird, and you couldn’t name it, then you didn’t see it.
By May I had checked off all the 5, 10, 15, and 20 point birds and a few 25 pointers.
But my teacher forgot about the assignment. Or maybe there never was one. Because when I proudly handed him my checklist, he said no other students had bothered.
How had I misunderstood? What was wrong with me?
Because, reasons, I could not relate to the kids in my class. Flocking through tunneled halls and shrieking off surplus hormones, my fellow students left me frazzled. But forests gave me comfort. That winter while I strolled back trails to my favorite duck pond, I might spot a White-breasted Nuthatch pecking his way down a barren bark, or hear a Black-capped Chickadee dee dee warming the silent snow, or step on a Great Horned Owl’s regurgitated pellet. Someone was here, or had been here, long before I had arrived, and would be here long after I left. In those cold, quiet woods I caught glimpses of the larger world.
Being in middle school, in the Middle West, in the middle of nowhere, I felt I was being funneled into a middle of the road life.
But those birds had been everywhere.
Each spring they returned from exotic wintering grounds, flashed vibrant feathers, then hastened to adventures North.
“Reasons” complicated my young life. But these birds pondered nothing. They flew because the harvest moon was dazzling the cold night and frost was biting oak leaves. They flew because snow was melting and trilliums were breaking through ice crusts. They flew and flew and flew. And wherever they landed, they were home.
By age 20, I was ready to fly, to extend my range, and that fall I followed the geese’s honking arrow South.
In Texas I saw Cormorants (10 points) and Anhingas (20).
In California I saw Brown Pelicans, Golden Eagles, White-tailed Kites, Red-shouldered Hawks, Western Bluebirds, California Quail, Roadrunners, Magpies, Barn Owls, Burrowing Owls, Northern Pygmy Owls, and one magnificent California Condor (100 points).
In New York I saw Saw Whet Owls, Barred Owls, Snowy Owls, and countless warblers and LBJs (“little brown jobs”).
In Florida I saw the long legged Waders who had long evaded me—Limpkins, Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, Little Blue Herons, and Great White Herons (Great Blue Herons in “white morph”).
The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Edition, which I had picked up along the way, includes Florida’s rarities, but neither the Eastern nor the Western editions include Hawaiʻi’s. Why would they? Hawaiʻi may currently be an American state, but geographically it’s an isolated Pacific island chain.
So when I arrived in Hawaiʻi I had no guides. The North American transplants were familiar: English Sparrows bickered, Cattle Egrets trailed tractors, and Pigeons pecked rice from fallen musubis. The accessible endemic birds seemed familiar because they looked like their North American cousins.
But one day I heard the woman in charge of our Native stream restoration project refer to a Common Gallinule, who had returned to the stream to nest, not as a “20 point Wader,” but by his name: “ʻAlae ʻUla.” To her, the Black-necked Stilt who returned later that year was, “Aeʻo.” The Black-crowned Night Heron was, “ʻAuku,ʻu.” Like an uncle.
I rarely go bird watching in Hawaiʻi, but I’ve met many of Hawaiʻi’s rare birds. Descended from the Short-eared Owl, the Pueo appears when needed. I know I saw him at Haleakalā’s Palikū’s cabins after I set my drenched pack on the candle crusted table and warmed my tired muscles by the cast iron stove. I think I saw him at Kawainui Marsh as I comforted a lonely friend. I believe he overflew Native Hawaiʻian conservationists on the eve of their victory to protect the Keawawa Wetlands.
I’ve never seen ʻUa’us, but I’ve heard them. For months, even years, they live on the ocean, before returning to nest in Haleakalā’s volcanic-pocked cliffs. Under the cover of night their colony cooes, whoops, and barks like alien puppies. Or ancient spirits. God help the camper with a troubled conscience.
One day I was biking on Kauaʻi’s red dirt coast when I heard a familiar honking overhead.
“Those are Nenēs!” I shouted.
“No they’re not,” my partner said. “They’re Canada geese. Nenēs can’t fly.”
Before that day I had only seen single pairs of Nenē, webbed feet firmly planted on steam-vented volcanic ground. That day twelve overflew us in a familiar “V.” Descended 500,000 years ago from the same Canada Geese who once beckoned me to fly, these gentle Nenēs, it turns out, could fly and could go anywhere. Even back to Wisconsin. Yet here they stay.
What’s wrong with me? I say I don’t birdwatch here, and I don’t, yet clearly I do. It’s not because I am a colonizer. Although I am. And it is. And it’s not because of all those vowels. Although there are a lot of vowels.
I guess it’s because, reasons.
It’s because I’m not sure I belong here. It’s because I haven’t figured out what belonging means. It’s because in Hawaiʻi “birds of a flock, feddah togeddah.” It’s because I can’t see the scarce endemic birds without thinking of the wiped-out millions. It’s because on an island of avian colonizers, I’m not sure which birds “count.”
Normally I fly home this time of year to bathe in the fall colors and say hello to the migrating geese. But during COVID I haven’t been able to fly anywhere. For several months tourists couldn’t fly here either. Big metal birds abandoned our skies. Small feathery birds filled them. A North American Hooded Merganser graced an ancient fish pond and dazzled local bird watchers. An Indian Shama Thrush began visiting my yard, singing melodically at day’s end. A Malaysian Zebra Dove fledged two fluffy keiki in my lilikoi trellis. A Hawaiʻian Pueo left a calling card feather near the rescued wetlands. Five Indian Peafowl—more reverie than bird—strutted their surreal selves in front of my bike on Bellows’s back roads.
It’s like they’re shouting out the answers, if only I’d listen. Or at least, reminding me how to live in a place that I cannot call home and that I cannot currently leave.
How does a migrating bird make a place home? I can start, I think they are saying, by seeing the place I’ve landed.
And it probably wouldn’t kill me to learn everyone’s names.
I mean, how hard can it be? I’ll start at the beginning with the Brown Booby. His name, it turns out, is one vowel, the first vowel, and very easy to remember.
Rachael Ann Siciliano holds a Ph.D. in French Literature from the University of California at Santa Barbara and worked for twenty years as a User Experience Researcher unearthing other people’s stories. These days she volunteers, growing industrial hemp, restoring native ecosystems, and meditating with women who live in the prison up the road. She lives on Oahu with her blue fish, Max.