My case for Hawaii
The birder internet has been burning up lately because of the results of a non-binding referendum solicited by the ABA on the subject of expanding the venerable ABA-Area to include Hawaii. This, more than perhaps any discussion this side of feral cats, has clove the birding community asunder. It’s brother against brother out there. Tilly hat versus tilly hat. The arguments for and against are well known. “Tradition!”, cry the opponents. What of Big Year records past and current Hawaii-less ABA area lists the result of decades of birding on the North American continent sans the Island State? Sandy Komito’s impossible 748 will undoubtedly fall once the floodgates open to include the Hawaiian endemics and the various established introduced species.
“But what about conservation?!” say the expansionists. Hawaii’s birds are among the most endangered in the world. Those gorgeous honeycreepers with the impossible names and ridiculous bills are the pinnacle of divergent evolution and a thousand treatises on island biogeography. And truly, Darwin’s famous Galapagos finches have nothing on the Hawaiian honeycreepers, only that the avifauna of the Galapagos is largely intact while that of Hawaii remains only in the bare threads of what was once in intricately woven piece of cloth. Hawaiian birds are in serious trouble, beset upon by a veritable murderer’s row of introductions, pandemics, and habitat loss that have claimed far too many already. We need to do something, anything, to draw attention to their plight before any more fade into memory.
I have to admit, I find neither of these argument particularly compelling. Tradition is a salve, meant to placate the those with an interest in the status quo, namely in this case, big listers who don’t want their ABA list sullied by the upstarts who undoubtedly smash those records with extreme prejudice once freed to tick all the Oahu endemics. I like striped stirrups and hate the designated hitter as much as the next right-thinking baseball fan, but I’ll be damned if I have to return to the dead-ball era, or the technicolor 70s with artificial turf. As I mentioned before, experience can be a form of paralysis, stultifying your mindset and preventing growth.
But neither do I believe that the sudden countability of Hawaiian birds will have a measurable effect on their conservation status as many seem to think. I may never get to Hawaii – and that’s fine it’s not really the easiest place for a birder stuck on the east coast to get too – but I’m interested in knowing about the birds there. And perhaps knowing about them will make me more sympathetic to their plight, or, at least, sympathetic enough to do something about it. But I doubt it. Not that I won’t care, but that birders in general won’t care enough.
Take, for instance, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. It’s highly range-restricted and, because of that, very rare. It is under threat primarily due to habitat loss, exacerbated by the continued incursion of the fossil fuel industry into its limited range to drill for natural gas. It is an ABA Area (heck , a United States) endemic and completely countable on any birder’s ABA. And yet, that fact doesn’t seem to be doing a whole heck of a lot for the Gunnison Sage-Grouse or, for that matter, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken or the Cerulean Warbler. So I don’t really see how the sudden inclusion of these faraway birds, as good intentioned as it may be, will do a lot to save their slow roll towards extinction. That’s not to say the modicum of attention given Hawaiian birds in the event of their inclusion in the ABA Area won’t bring some attention to the concerns surrounding them, but more than a list is going to be needed to accomplish anything resembling
So what, then, is there to do? The argument seems to be in favor of continuing the status quo except that Hawaiian birders lack any sort of national organization to coordinate their efforts with those of birders continent-wide. Nor can they count their backyard birds on their ABA Area life list as the rest of their fellow Americans can. That, alone, should be a reason to expand to Hawaii. Forget the status quo, which needs shaking up from time to time. Forget the well-intended conservation argument, the result will be marginal. Include Hawaii for the Hawaiians, not just for those of us who dream of visiting someday.