If an endangered finch disappears, who cares?
I stalked a bird while whispering, on tip-toes, with 29 other people. We watched silently, binoculars poised to get a better look at the golden head, greyish back, greenish wings, and light belly of the critically endangered palila. Found only in the dry forests near Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, this bird is observed by only those who search for it. With fewer than 2,000 birds left on the planet, the palila has become somewhat of a celebrity among bird-lovers. The state and federal governments, after decades of conflict, are finally working together to preserve its habitat. Entire salaries and millions of dollars in fencing have been dedicated to the cause. All for a tiny finch who eats māmane seeds and sings pretty songs?
What does it matter if one more bird disappears? Will anyone notice? Our islands have already lost 30 known species, and life goes on as usual. Why should we fret about the fate of a finch?
In reality, it is never just about a little finch. Humans impact entire ecosystems, for better or for worse. The precarious future of the palila is what moves us to action, but it is only one beneficiary of many. Its survival is the yardstick we can use to measure the progress of general restoration efforts.
Below is a comparison of two sides of a fence. Notice the differences in the diversity of plants on ranch land vs. protected dry forest:
Before Western settlement, these two areas looked similar to the forest on the right. Cows do well in the pasture on the left, but most native species struggle to survive. On the right, fenced off from all feral ungulates, native trees and shrubs are gaining some ground.
Palilas feed primarily on māmane seeds, flowers, and insects. Among other native species, māmane trees have declined due to the introduction of goats and sheep on the slopes of Mauna Kea. These animals, introduced as game for hunting, eat seedlings and prevent the growth of the forest. Alien insects such as wasps and ants have also entered the picture, often eating the native caterpillars that palila chicks rely on for food. Human-introduced rats and feral cats are also a threat to eggs and chicks. Not to mention the droughts and fires that dry forests are vulnerable to.
Without habitat restoration efforts, these birds and the trees that sustain them don’t stand a chance. With increased efforts, diversity of life in this area will be preserved. As many biologists have discovered, biodiversity is what helps an ecosystem bounce back from environmental or human-caused trauma. When pieces are missing, ecosystems are less resilient. The famous biologist, naturalist, and conservationist E. O. Wilson explained the importance of preserving biodiversity this way; “This is the assembly of life that took a billion years to evolve. It . . . created the world that created us. It holds the world steady.”
Below are images of a few of the diverse plants one can find in a healthy, high-elevation dry forest:
On our island, the palila has become a symbol of what will be lost if we continue to destroy native habitats. A habitat restoration project on the slopes of Mauna Kea is the first field experience of our Ahupuaʻa Environmental Science course, set for July 2013. Partnering with the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project, our students will have the opportunity to contribute to the cause of the palila (and hopefully see one or two!).
Aldo Leopold once wrote; “If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something else we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” In other words, our efforts to help one bird do matter. It is not our place to carelessly discard what nature has created.
Bauer, Jackson. Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project work day pre-lecture. 28 Sept. 2013.
Leopold, Aldo. Round River. 1953
Volunteer Packet, Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project. 2009.
Wilson, Edward O. The Diversity of Life. 2010