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Make me a honeycreeper

Updated on: 05 December,2023 01:20 AM IST  |  Mumbai
C Y Gopinath |

Once there were over 60 species of honeycreepers on Hawai‘i, making everyone happy. Now there are only 17. Everything happened after humans let mosquitoes in

Make me a honeycreeper

Over millennia, the lobelia developed a curved, tubular flower almost mathematically matched to the scarlet honeycreeper

C Y Gopinath I’ve never seen a honeycreeper. When I first heard the name about a week ago, I thought it would be a kind of bee, creeping from flower to flower looking for nectar and honey. It turns out to be a small bird, about the size of a tennis ball with feathers. I haven’t seen it and you’re not likely to have either, even if you’re a birder, unless you’ve been to Hawaii.

Even if you’ve been to Hawaii, chances are slim that you’ve spotted a honeycreeper unless you  went trekking up the mountain and crossed the 1,500-m line. Then, if you’d stayed a few days and been very watchful, you might have seen small, fleeting explosions of colour in the bushes or trees, gone before you could get a good look. If it had a long, gently curved bill, it might very well have been a scarlet honeycreeper (Vestiaria coccinea), or ‘i‘iwi (ee-EE-wee) as it is locally known.

Perhaps you only heard the ‘i‘iwi’s song. It’s a two-note samba, a pure high note and a lower one like an afterthought, with a leisurely pause in between. To my ears, it sounded exactly like the bird was saying, “Time’s up!” Over and over again.

Why the sudden interest in a bird I’ve never seen and probably never will? Last week, researching something, I came upon a photograph of a lovely scarlet bird with black wings, perched in a shrub and sipping nectar out of a blue, bell-like flower. Its long scarlet beak was curved like a kitchen gadget I use to peel prawns. 
What stopped me in my tracks was the flower. It was also curved, and its curve exactly matched the bird’s beak. It was as though someone had designed this particular flower exclusively for this particular bird’s beak.

Nothing in nature evolves in a hurry. Flowers and birds have found their shapes, colours and fragrances over countless eras of trial and error and mixing and matching. How long would it have taken for this specific flower to evolve to exactly match the shape of this specific bird? 
That’s how my journey to Hawai‘i started.

We’re back at a time 7 million years ago when there were no honeycreepers and no Hawai‘i, just a scattering of islands covered with dense forests. Into this Eden, we learn from fossil records, a bird called the Eurasian rose finch flew in and settled down.

With nothing to disturb them, the children of the rose finch evolved and proliferated, playing around with colours, shapes, sizes, wings and beaks. Some went yellow, some blue and others mixed their palettes. Everyone was having fun.  Soon there were almost 60 species of honeycreepers, a delirious explosion of colours and song.

Hawaii’s flowers, eager for the birds to scatter their pollen over the islands, flirted with the honeycreepers, competing with each other to be attractive. Love sparked between two of them, the blue ‘ōpelu (Lobelia grayana) and our scarlet honeycreeper.  Over millennia, the lobelia developed a curved, tubular flower almost mathematically matched to the scarlet honeycreeper. Now they were friends for life.

I wish I’d been around to see the dance of life in this paradise at that time.

Or maybe I don’t. The first humans were Polynesians and the first thing they did was clear the forests so that they could farm. Suddenly the honeycreepers had nowhere to nest. They fled up the mountain where the forest was still pristine.

The European colonisers came about 200 years ago, in their stiff suits with their strange customs and preferences, and superior airs, bringing mayhem to paradise. They brought their pets and introduced vicious new birds. Pretty soon, honeycreepers were getting eaten by cats and dogs and hawks.

Everything changed after 1826, when a ship called HMS Wellington docked in Lahaina. Some sailors, tasked with getting fresh water supplies, dumped dirty water from their barrels into a canal in Maui. They could not have known that in those dregs were thousands of eggs of an insect called the mosquito, till then unheard of in Hawai‘i.

The parasites that cause malaria in birds, Plasmodium relictum, have probably existed in Hawai‘i for millions of years, but without mosquitoes to ferry them around, they were impotent and could not cause disease. Now, thanks to a clutch of merry British sailors, Hawai‘i had the mosquito.

Reports of a new insect reached the Reverend William Richards, in charge of the Mission Station at Lahaina. It made its presence known by “a singing in the ear”, they said.  With the song came the killer parasites that cause avian malaria.

Only 17 species of the original 60 or so honeycreeper species remain; the rest are extinct, claimed by avian malaria and other disasters humans bring with them. With the lowlands taken by humans, the birds fled to cooler heights, but the planet is warming up, and the mosquitoes are going higher too. Soon there will be nowhere for 
honeycreepers to hide.

Lord, make me a honeycreeper. I do not want to be the human who casually wiped out in 200 years a family of gorgeous birds that nature took 7 million years to create.

You can reach C Y Gopinath at

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