Of lovebirds and loving the Earth

Party of six, your table is ready.

Er … your  ledge is ready.

The setting sun hovers above the Pacific Ocean, burnishing the cluster of lovebirds with brilliance. They take turns flitting between a spindly stalk poking up toward the second-story landing of the stairwell, and the commodious ledge.  Are the stalk-clingers outcasts, or performers? It is unclear, but as the sun sinks, everyone is soon ensconced on the warm ledge side-by-side. Two lean together. Another pair groom one another’s feathers. They are adoring, and adorable.

After only a few days in Maui, we’ve seen more wildlife than I can easily recall. Some standouts include:

(just a flash, while driving) an Indian mongoose;

(while snorkeling) sea turtles, butterflyfish, Wrasse fish, triggerfish, and flounder;

(assorted bird-watching ops) egrets, Hawaiian honeycreepers, doves, mynas (they’re everywhere), quail, domestic chickens and roosters (also everywhere), and the photogenic  lovebirds;

(insects in the house) miniscule ants and a confused praying mantis (which was very happy to be gently escorted out onto the deck, but less happy about the flash photography) and

(insects outdoors) beetles and swallowtail butterflies.

A nature-lover by disposition and upbringing, I am always delighted (often with a seasoning of triumph)  to see something “wild.” But my research on the things I’ve seen in Hawaii has repeatedly turned up the awareness that many of the critters here are “wild” in the sense of “feral,” not “natural.”

Like many isolated bits of land, this archipelago for millennia was alone in a vast ocean, allowing animals and plants here to evolve for some 70 million years without as much competition as those on larger land masses. The only native land mammals are Hawaiian hoary bats. (Fun fact: one fifth of all mammals on the planet are bats.)

When humans came to Hawaii (researchers say around 1,000 to 1,500 years ago), they immediately introduced some new species that have wreaked havoc with the original ecosystem: dogs, pigs, and chickens. The pigs rapidly became feral and have been running roughshod over the landscape for centuries. Despite the best efforts of the state’s humane society, there are still feral chickens and even some wild dog packs.

Still, those species have been here long enough to at least have reached some kind of modus vivendi, with the help of human efforts at control. But since the Europeans arrived in the 1800s, things have really gotten rolling. Rats, of course. And then, to control the rats, the Indian mongoose. And on and on. Things introduced because we think they’ll help, or because we like them, or because they stowed away. Many new arrivals go hog wild, because there are no native large predators to balance things out or to thin the ranks of the invaders. The introduced critters too often trample the native species, who evolved with fewer protections than their mainland counterparts.

Back to the lovebirds. These little cuties came in as pets, and either escaped or were released to the wild by irresponsible owners. Not irresponsible to the lovebirds, mind you. They came to no harm: they are native to Africa, and find the plentiful fruit and warm climate conducive to ever more lovebirds. Like other non-natives, however, they can crowd out the native species, such as the tiny pair of Hawaiian honeycreepers I saw flitting around Kihei one morning.

The most humane solution to the lovebirds specifically, some say, would be to establish an aviary where captured lovebirds could live out their lives under the care and control of humans. The Invasive Species Council of Hawaii has no budget for such an aviary, however, and is focused now on attempting to prevent new invasions, such as the brown tree snake that has decimated bird populations on Guam. They fear Hawaii will be next. (There are no native snakes on Hawaii.) So the lovebirds seem destined, at least for now, to continue snuggling in public.

Despite their cuteness, they are a sobering reminder that humans have a long, long history of bulling into the natural world as if we know what we are doing, heedless of reams of historical evidence to the contrary. Education, research, and self-control seem  the obvious answers. Hawaii is one of the most beautiful places on a planet that is beautiful beyond all reason. There seem few species more invasive than humans themselves.

Could we yet find ways to live once more in harmony with the rest of the planet? I believe we can, if we will devote the intelligence and resources we have to that end. One example is the efforts to save the coral reefs off the Florida Keys, described in this Washington Post clip:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/business/how-floridas-dying-coral-reef-might-devastate-the-economy-in-the-keys/2017/06/25/2010da4c-54fc-11e7-840b-512026319da7_video.html?tid=hybrid_mostviewedvideo_1_na

Successes such as these, however preliminary, show we can do better than we have in the past to restore the Earth’s ecosystems. I pray we will.

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