Wearing a thick jacket and surgical mask, Haruo Uchiyama silently opens his sketchbook and starts working his pencil lightly over the page. He sits in a cold, antiseptic back room of Bishop Museum in Honolulu, examining stuffed extinct birds—Hawaiian honeycreepers.
These small, colorful songbirds have been called “the jewels of Hawai‘i.” At one time fifty-seven species lived in the Islands, all having evolved in isolation from a single ancestor over a span of five million years. Today nearly half of the forty species known to have survived into the twentieth century are extinct, and the remaining twenty are classified as endangered, some critically.
Hawai‘i’s honeycreepers have a deep connection to the history and culture of the Islands, and these specimens should be exhibited prominently in the museum rather than stored unseen in a dark, refrigerated locker. But stuffed specimens begin to degrade almost immediately after being put on display; their resplendent colors would fade in no time. These few remaining specimens are so precious that they must be preserved for future generations of researchers. But there is a way to offer people the chance to see what these exquisite birds looked like, Uchiyama says, and he is uniquely positioned to assist in that effort. Uchiyama is a master bird carver.
Bird carving is a rarefied skill; it requires close observation and meticulous-ness in both carving and painting to create a wooden replica that’s nearly indistinguishable from a living creature. The tradition started in the United States, with the carving of decoys for hunting wild ducks. Now 67, Uchiyama has won numerous honors at bird carving competitions held on the Mainland. He is a leading expert in the world of bird carving in Japan, even though he is better known across the Pacific. And now he’s working to create lifelike carvings of dozens of species of Hawaiian honeycreepers for display at Bishop Museum. It’s a major undertaking that will take years to complete, but one that Uchiyama is keenly interested in taking on.
Uchiyama visited Hawai‘i for the first time in 2016, when he was invited to speak at the Pacific Seabird Group’s annual meeting, held at the Turtle Bay Resort on O‘ahu’s North Shore. On a stroll through the grounds, Uchiyama was struck by the flowers blooming everywhere and birds busily visiting them. “Hawai‘i is truly a paradise,” he recalls telling a fellow attendee. “But,” the ornithologist replied,“you don’t see a single native Hawaiian bird around here.” Taken aback by this response, Uchiyama returned to Japan and began researching Hawai‘i’s birds. He found that over the last two hundred years, nearly half of all of the known species of Hawaiian honeycreeper had gone extinct.
One might look to the regalia of Hawai‘i’s ali‘i (royalty)—the headdresses and capes made of the feathers from birds now extinct in the Islands—as the cause for their demise. King Kamehameha I’s yellow ‘ahu ‘ula, or feather cape, comprises four hundred and fifty thousand feathers from eighty thousand birds. But ancient Hawai‘i’s bird catchers were careful to take only the feathers needed and release the animals back into the wild.
The primary reasons for the rapid extinction of Hawai‘i’s birds, Uchiyama learned, are complex, including habitat loss, competition from invasive species and, significantly, the proliferation of mosquitoes in Hawai‘i, which were introduced in the 1800s. Mosquitoes turned the introduction of the mejiro (Japanese white-eye) into a catastrophe for native birds.
As sugar cane cultivation became big business in late eighteenth-century Hawai‘i, laborers from Asia came to work the plantations. Japanese migrants nostalgic for home brought the beloved mejiro along with them in cages. Inevitably they escaped and flourished in their new environment. That in itself might not have been such a problem, except that mejiro carry avian malaria, a disease to which they have immunity but native birds do not. Mosquitoes would bite the white-eye and then infect Hawaiian birds, spreading the fatal disease until the endemic species were driven to extinction. Today many Hawaiian birds survive only above the “mosquito line” at about four to five thousand feet.
When he learned about the decimation of Hawai‘i’s birds by an introduced Japanese species, Uchiyama wanted to do something for Hawai‘i, almost by way of apology. He carved three Hawaiian honey-creeper species—an ‘akialoa, an ‘i‘iwi and an ‘akiapōlā‘au—took photos and sent a proposal across the Pacific. “I have this skill,” he wrote to Bishop Museum. “I would like to restore extinct species of birds for display in a way that shows them in their natural habitat, as if they were alive.” Nothing would speak more eloquently about the beauty and abundance of Hawai‘i’s birds than such a diorama. Bishop Museum was thrilled with the proposal, and in January of 2017 Uchiyama flew to Hawai‘i to make preliminary sketches.
Once back in Japan, Uchiyama located, to his great fortune, eight specimens of Hawaiian honeycreepers at the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology. These incomplete “study skins” (as they’re called in taxidermy) had been stuffed 120 years earlier and lain in a drawer for decades with no one taking an interest in them. The silver lining is that the skins were in fairly good shape.
Uchiyama learned wood skills from his father, who was a woodworker. He was classically trained in Toyama and Odawara, traditional centers for woodworking in Japan for centuries, before establishing a studio in Asakusa, Tokyo, thirty-seven years ago. Several years after setting out on his own, Uchiyama received a call from the director of the institute asking if he would create a specimen from a particular study skin. The bird arrived stuffed into a package. Not only had it been prepared by an amateur, but the body was bent into a U shape. A high school teacher in Okinawa had apparently found it and, not recognizing it in any reference books, sent it to the institute. When Uchiyama received it, it came with no photos of a living bird and no name. After examining the specimen, Uchiyama created a photo montage-like series of sketches. Several days later the species of the mystery bird was confirmed as the rare Okinawa rail (Yanbaru kuina), and Uchiyama prepared to carve it.
He faced one significant hurdle, however: the money to buy wood. At the time, Uchiyama was eking out a living and couldn’t afford the cost of quality materials. One evening he went to his local public bathhouse, and the proprietress said, “Uchiyama-san, we just got in some good firewood. It’s over by the hearth. If you like something, go ahead and take it.” There he found blocks of aomori hiba, a precious cypress used in shrines and temples, and he immediately went to work carving the Okinawa rail.
Uchiyama completed the carving around the time that the first photograph of a living Okinawa rail was published. The institute director compared the two and declared with great satisfaction, “They’re one and the same! So if we were to ask you to reconstruct an extinct bird that exists only as a stuffed specimen at the British Museum, you could do it!”
The bird that truly made a name for Uchiyama among devotees of bird carvings was the short-tailed albatross. Also known as the Steller’s albatross, the species is protected by the Japanese government. Its habitat is the Izu Islands, where over one hundred decoys were deployed in a successful multi-year effort to attract the seabirds and expand their breeding grounds to ensure their survival.
The next deployment for Uchiyama’s decoys was at Midway Atoll, part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. This is the natural habitat of the Laysan albatross, but a male and female short-tailed albatross from the Ogasawara Islands had gotten lost and somehow ended up there. For eight years the two birds lived separate lives and didn’t encounter one another. Finally, attracted by Uchiyama’s decoys, they met and became a breeding pair. Their chick survived the tsunami from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and was named Ikaika, Hawaiian for “one who is very strong.” For his work Uchiyama received a certificate of gratitude from the US Department of the Interior and was invited to speak at the Pacific Seabird Group meeting at Turtle Bay.
Now Uchiyama is diving headlong into the Hawaiian honeycreeper project with Bishop Museum, which has already set aside a thirty-two-foot exhibition space in its new natural history building. Funding is being sought, and over a period of four years, the plan is to populate the display bird by bird. Eventually the twenty-three remaining species of Hawaiian honey-creepers, both males and females, will inhabit it.
“But there’s one more thing I want to do in Hawai‘i,” Uchiyama smiles. For thirty-seven years he has been bothered by the fact that no matter how skillful his reproductions are, they can be enjoyed only through visual displays. His dream has been to present exhibitions that give the visually impaired a chance to get to know wild birds by feel. He’d been working on this idea in Japan for many years, and Uchiyama spoke about his “touch carvings” at the Pacific Seabird Group meeting.
Uchiyama’s carvings are like biological Braille; they help the visually impaired experience birds. Their accuracy aids in understanding a bird’s form to its finest detail, and they also help the blind to understand relative sizes: At four inches the mejiro is small. The next size up, at eight inches, is the black-backed wagtail, which has become increasingly common in Japan’s urban areas. The carrion crow is twenty inches. “Wow, I didn’t know a crow was so big!” said one visually impaired person who examined the carving. Because they’re handled often, Uchiyama uses silicone, which resists deformation, instead of wood.
Uchiyama’s touch carvings of more than a dozen species of Darwin’s finches made it possible for blind students to better understand the theory of evolution. His studio teamed up with Chiba prefecture and a local special-needs school to give visually impaired students this learning opportunity; he says he’d like to do something similar in Hawai‘i.
That so many different honeycreepers evolved from a single species offers an important lesson for the visually impaired, and not just about natural selection. Each species evolved to fill a specific ecological niche, and they thrived not through competition but by taking advantage of their special abilities: Some developed a long beak to sip nectar while others evolved a big beak to crush seeds or bore through bark. Teachers of blind children hope to equip them with the skills to become independent in life, and that begins with knowing there’s a place for everyone. HH