Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Oo bird

Feather pa'u (skirt) of Princess Nahe'ena'ena, a grandchild of Kamehameha I, at Bishop Museum. Feathers are mainly those of 'oo (yellow and black) and i'iwi (orange). The 200-year-old skirt measures 58.5-by-124 inches.

I've been reading Sarah Vowell's entertaining book 'Unfamiliar Fishes' - about the history, particularly the Americanization, of Hawaii. In it she tells the story of the traditional native feather cloaks, made from the feathers of the now extinct 'oo and mamo birds. These sounded so amazing I had to look up some pictures of them

Unfortunately the story she tells of wise native use of the resources may not be true:

Kamahameha issued an order to the trappers to protect these species to ensure they would survive to adorn his children: 'When you catch the birds do not strangle them. Take the feathers you want and let them go to grow more'.

The Honululu Star Bulletin reveals a slightly more complex story:

There are thousands upon thousands of feathers on this one item, and the 'oo and mamo birds that provided the feathers are extinct. Did the ancient Hawaiians hunt the birds into oblivion? The answer, likely, is no. It was actually recent events that wiped out the birds.

"The oral traditions say the birds were caught, plucked and let go," said Kishinami. "But biology works against that. There are so few yellow feathers on an 'oo that it's possible to grow the feathers back. But the mamo -- take that many feathers at once and it's doubtful the bird will survive. And we know that the birdhunters also ate the birds."

"So ancient Hawaiians were aware of conservation in the classic sense," said Kam. "Use all that you kill, but leave some. That, plus the actual difficulty of catching the birds, mitigated against extinction.

"These birds only started disappearing in large numbers with the introduction of the shot, which made it easier to drop a bird at a distance, but also that the bird could not survive. By the late 1800s, the birds were pretty much gone. That, plus the introduction of alien disease and the impact on the forests themselves, wiped them out."

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