Back when ocean-crossing canoes were lifelines in Hawai‘i, ritual and ceremony guided each step of their construction. Ancient canoe carvers watched their dreams for signs, offered pigs, red fish, ‘awa and coconuts to the gods, and spent days high up in the rainforest searching for a straight and strong koa tree. Upon selecting a tree, the men recited oli (chants) at its base, asked for divine permission and swung stone adzes against the trunk. And still, a single omen could derail the whole venture: a visit from a hungry little forest bird named ‘elepaio.
Unafraid and notoriously nosy, the ‘elepaio is considered a kino lau (physical manifestation) of the canoe-building goddess, Lea. If she—in bird form—merely skipped up to sing hello, all was fine. But if the charismatic bird began pecking at the chosen log, that indicated the wood was riddled with insects and therefore unfit for a canoe. The carvers would abandon their efforts and start afresh. Thank you for the tip, ‘elepaio.
This wee, winged creature isn’t restricted to playing Lea’s body-double, either; ‘elepaio have diverse roles in many Hawaiian mo‘olelo (stories, myths). When a shark god disguises himself as a handsome chief, it is an ‘elepaio that whispers his true identity into the ear of a protective wizard. When a jealous prince murders his fiancée, it is an ‘elepaio that witnesses and reveals the terrible deed. “The bird ‘elepaio is the favorite messenger or agent for carrying out plots in Hawaiian myths,” wrote nineteenth-century ethnologist Abraham Fornander. The early twentieth-century ornithologist Henry Wetherbee Henshaw agreed: “No bird has a more important place in Hawaiian mythology than the ‘elepaio.”
That’s a lot of influence for a bird that weighs at most eighteen grams. Small but stylish, the ‘elepaio resembles a Victorian-era socialite winging about the forest in a tailored, brownish-black jacket with white lace at the shoulders. It often perches with its coattails cocked up, flashing white petticoat feathers. The birds do not belong to the celebrated lineage of Hawaiian honeycreepers; rather, they are monarch flycatchers. Like other flycatchers, ‘elepaio have whisker-like feathers around their beaks that allow them to sense their air-borne prey. The active insectivores are ever on the hunt, snatching mosquitoes midair or plucking grubs from rotten logs.
“Perennial restlessness is an outstanding Elepaioan trait,” wrote Vaughan Mac-Caughey in his profile of the bird for the January 1919 issue of The Auk, the journal of the American Orthinologists’ Union. “The birds are always on the move. They chase and scold one another. Fearlessness and curiosity make the elepaio conspicuous in the woodlands, whereas the other native birds slip away silent and unseen.”
The genus Elepaio includes three separate but very similar species: one found on Kaua‘i (identified by its grayish jacket), another on Hawai‘i Island (with brown streaks on its chest) and the third on O‘ahu (the smallest in size and population). Unlike its siblings, O‘ahu’s ‘elepaio is listed as federally endangered. This is especially discouraging given that only a hundred years ago, Henshaw observed that the ‘elepaio was the most common native forest bird on O‘ahu—easily spotted even in non-native and degraded woodlands. He predicted that if all of Hawai‘i’s indigenous forests disappeared, along with their specialized birds, the adaptable ‘elepaio would persist. Biologists hope that theory won’t be tested. Habitat loss, disease and introduced predators have already extacted a savage toll on the species.
In 2013 Eric VanderWerf counted just 1,261 ‘elepaio on O‘ahu. The tall, amiable ornithologist came to Hawai‘i in 1990 looking for a graduate study subject—a bird that could hold his interest over several years. He chose ‘elepaio. While not as flashy as sickle-beaked ‘i‘iwi or as imperiled as the ‘alalā, the Hawaiian crow, the local flycatcher appealed to the biologist. “No one had really studied it yet,” he says. “It seemed like a cool little bird with a lot of character.” Twenty-six years later he’s only more convinced.
As large as ‘elepaio loom in Hawaiian lore, they are equally captivating from a biological standpoint. VanderWerf did his doctoral research in the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge on Hawai‘i Island, where he studied the plumage patterns of the resident ‘elepaio. For three years he spent nesting seasons in the thick of the rainforest, first in a backpacking tent and eventually in a sturdier shelter that could withstand the frequent cloudbursts. He caught ‘elepaio with mist nets, banded their twig-thin legs and got to know their habits. “They’re not as colorful as some of the Hawaiian birds, but they more than make up for it with personality,” he says. “The way they hold their tail up and chirp at you … they have charisma.”
VanderWerf is now the acknowledged expert on ‘elepaio. He lives on O‘ahu and runs his own company, Pacific Rim Conservation, which gets government contracts to research and manage Hawaiian bird populations. He has authored over seventy scientific papers investigating everything from disease resistance in ‘elepaio to same-sex partnering in Laysan albatross. He attributes the ‘elepaio’s well-known curiosity to its broad eating habits. It employs an amazing variety of foraging behaviors, perhaps wider than any other bird, he says.“They catch insects in the air like a fly-catcher, glean insects off leaves like a warbler, cling to trunks like a nuthatch, hop on the ground like a thrush and hang upside down like a chickadee.” This versatility has served them well as Hawaiian forests and insects have been overrun and replaced by exotic species. While the endangered palila bird subsists solely on native māmane seeds, the ‘elepaio isn’t so picky. It shifts to non-native food as it needs to.
Hawaiian mo‘olelo reflect the ‘elepaio’s changeable nature, too. Fornander describes just such a bird in the legend of Hoamakeikekula. In that tale, the ‘elepaio is the messenger of the lizard king Kalamaula and can transform into human form at will. One day the magical bird comes across a young maiden collecting lehua blossoms. Struck by her beauty, the bird changes into a man, chants a mele (song) and beckons her to meet his master. When she declines, the ‘elepaio summons a dense fog to carry her away to the lizard king’s house.
While the real-life birds may not be shapeshifters who can conjure fog on a whim, ‘elepaio do possess a unique power. They are the only Hawaiian species that has been observed “anting.” Ants secrete formic acid, which has insecticidal and antibacterial properties. Some birds—‘elepaio included—appear to use ants and other toxic organisms as a natural form of pest control, rubbing them on their feathers to repel mites or other parasites. It’s a curious behavior that scientists have yet to fully understand.
VanderWerf saw this for the first time in Pia valley on O‘ahu. A female ‘elepaio had hold of a garlic snail, a minuscule mollusk that emits a strong-smelling chemical when disturbed. He thought she was going to eat the snail, but instead “she wiped it under each wing, like you’d put on deodorant,” he says. Parasites often congregate under the wings. Next VanderWerf watched as the bird methodically preened, using her beak to spread the chemical around to her other feathers.
“It was super cool. I was really excited,” says VanderWerf. He’s since observed this behavior four times, with four different applicators: the snail, an ant, a millipede and a fruit from the Christmas berry tree. None of these things are native to Hawai‘i, and each produces a different toxin. Incredibly, this means that in less than two hundred years ‘elepaio have identified various chemicals produced by multiple organisms and figured out how to use them to their own benefit.
This impressive experimentalism does not extend to the ‘elepaio’s home range. Once a bird chooses a nesting site, it may never leave. ‘Elepaio spend their entire lives flitting about the same two acres. On O‘ahu’s Wiliwilinui ridge, a wide trail cuts through a canopy of spindly strawberry guava and Formosan koa. It’s a favorite spot for hikers, dog-walkers and flycatchers. VanderWerf can walk five minutes down the path and point to groves where individual ‘elepaio live. Six pairs inhabit this ridge; as many as forty-five live down below in Wailupe valley, VanderWerf’s main research site.
The inquisitive birds respond readily to his calls. He has only to play a recording of another ‘elepaio’s song—or blow raspberries on his arm—and the resident bird will thread its way through the canopy to investigate. “Their territory is everything. It’s life or death to them,” says VanderWerf. He once witnessed two male ‘elepaio fight over a choice patch of woods. “They’re cute and curious birds, but they can also be really fierce.” Indeed, the loser of the fight suffered fatal pecks to the head.
‘Elepaio aren’t always the good guys in Hawaiian legends, either. While most mo‘olelo depict the birds as helpful or friendly, some are less flattering. One of the most famous stories, told by Mary Kawena Pukui, concerns a kolohe (naughty)‘elepaio. It goes like this: A man fell asleep after filling his water gourd at a mountain spring. An ‘elepaio spotted the gourd and, intrigued, pecked a hole in it. The man woke and saw the water running out. In anger he threw a stone at the bird and injured its leg. ‘Elepaio flew off and found an ‘io (Hawaiian hawk). “Oh, ‘Io! I was stoned by a man,” ‘Elepaio cried. “What did you do?” asked ‘Io. “Pecked the man’s bottle,” ‘Elepaio said. “Then the fault is yours,” replied ‘Io. Dismayed, ‘Elepaio flew on and met a pueo (Hawaiian owl). The same words were exchanged. So it was with the ‘i‘iwi (scarlet honeycreeper) and all of the other birds. Receiving no sympathy, ‘Elepaio sat and thought and finally admitted that he, indeed, was to blame.
Ka Leo o ka Lahui, a Hawaiian-language newspaper, evoked this parable in 1894, shortly after the overthrow of the monarchy. The writer referred to John L. Stevens, the US ambassador to the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, as “Stevens Elepaio,” insinuating that after the American minister conferred with England and France, he would see the error of his country’s role in abetting the over-throw. In 1912 a column in the Hawaiian periodical Ke Aloha Aina compared Republicans clamoring for statehood to an ‘elepaio. The name ‘elepaio mimics the bird’s musical call, “‘e-le-pai-o,” which is sometimes translated as “‘ono-ka-i‘a.” The latter is also a homophone for “the fish is delicious.” It’s used in reference to someone who is happy to eat fish but doesn’t go fishing—someone who consumes but doesn’t produce.
According to Sam ‘Ohu Gon III, back in those days “the ‘elepaio story was so well known that you could make metaphoric puns and people would immediately understand what you meant.” Gon is senior scientist and Hawaiian cultural advisor for the Hawai‘i chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Having spent many years tromping through Island forests, he has an ‘elepaio tale of his own—a true story.
During a hike up in the forested valley between Wai‘anae and Mākaha, he and some colleagues sat down to picnic beneath a low-branched tree. “An ‘elepaio bounced in to see who we were,” says Gon. “He was right in our faces, only a few feet away. So I picked a piece of foxtail grass, which had a little bristle brush at the end of a long stem. I held the bristles out toward the bird.” Turning its head side to side, the ‘elepaio came closer until the bristles of the grass were in its chest feathers. Gon twisted the grass stem between his fingers and the bird leaned into it, receiving a gentle massage. Gon was delighted.
‘Elepaio can live upward of twenty years—making them some of the planet’s longest-lived songbirds. They have with-stood the onslaught of threats that have decimated the majority of Hawai‘i’s native avifauna. That any Hawaiian birds survive on O‘ahu at all is a miracle. Habitat loss has been extensive. Worse, there is no escape from mosquito-borne avian pox and malaria. Birds on Maui and Hawai‘i Island can take refuge in forests above four thousand feet, where it is too cold for mosquitoes; O‘ahu birds have no such asylum. Fortunately, ‘elepaio appear to possess some resistance to these often fatal diseases. But the birds have yet another nemesis: the black rat.
When VanderWerf first began working with O‘ahu ‘elepaio in the 1990s, he noticed right away that the birds were doing poorly and that the females were suffering dis-proportionately. “That made me think of rats,” he says. Rats are most active at night, when female birds are at their most vulnerable: half-asleep incubating eggs. He suspected that the rodents preyed on both the nestlings and the parents. Sure enough, when he put out rat traps and rodenticide, nest success rate went up and female mortality went down.
As the saying goes, heaven helps those who help themselves. ‘Elepaio have devised their own solutions to the rat problem. They’ve started nesting higher in trees. One of VanderWerf’s many scientific papers documents a 50 percent increase in the average height of O‘ahu ‘elepaio nests over a sixteen-year period, from twenty-five to forty feet. This small shift upward has raised hatchlings out of the immediate danger zone.
“Other birds haven’t shown much response to threats. They’re kind of stuck,” says VanderWerf. “This case is unusual.”
That “Elepaioan restlessness” might be the species’ ticket to survival. For now, the gregarious little bird is still out there in the forest, claiming its branches with song, fanning its splendid tail and delivering auspicious messages to those who pay attention. HH