Overlooked and Underappreciated: O`ahu `Amakihi

For folks like me who dream of the fantastic extinct creatures of our recent past, I think we tend to overlook the creatures that are still alive today. I know I sometimes do. For all the marveling we do at the giant sauropod dinosaur fossils we see in museums, probably largest animal ever known (blue whales) still shares this planet with us. It’s one whale watching tour away. And as much as I wonder about the pretty `o`o birds (Moho spp.), Indian peafowl are absolutely stunning birds that I can see everyday at work.

I am luckily that I work at a site where I can see O`ahu `Amakihi every week. Lately I’ve been trying to photograph them more just to share my own encounters with them to a broader audience. For I think they are really neat birds.

There are all sorts of little green forest birds from different lineages of the bird family tree. Maybe not as many as LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs for the birder’s parlance) but I think people can get over accustomed to them: once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Paradoxically, I think that hides what makes the various `Amakihi species (Chlorodrepanis spp.) so interesting.

For `Amakihi come from a long line of finches. The entire radiation of Hawaiian Honeycreepers (which `Amakihi are part of) seem to be sister taxa to the Eurasian rosefinches which are deeply nested within other seed-eating finch lineages. The ancestral Hawaiian Honeycreeper was likely a granivorous bird that looked very much like other finches. With their long isolation and lack of competition, they evolved into a myriad of forms.

We marvel at the unique bill morphology of the `Akiapola`au and the gorgeous plumage of the `I`iwi. We can daydream about the Hawai`i Mamo or the spectacular scimitar-billed Nukupu`u. But `Amakihi evolved just as starkly different from their seed-eating ancestor. It just gets overlooked by these other amazing forms. If the apotheosis of Hawaiian honeycreeper radiation were `Amakihi, we would be gushing and how different it looks from other seed eating finches. We still should.

And as I said before, I think what also makes their story underappreciated is that while this lineage may have evolved drastically from its seed-eating past, it evolved into a niche that folks are familiar with, that of the little forest generalist. In fact, a very similar bird was introduced to Hawai`i that is commonly seen: the Japanese white-eye. They are similar enough in look and behavior that people can easily confuse the two.

That is the paradox for me. The very blandness of ‘Amakihi is what makes them interesting. Yes, they fill that very familiar white-eye niche. But they are not white-eyes. They are from a line of seed-eaters that have evolved so radically different from their original colonizing form. It’s just they evolved into a fairly familiar one. And so completely that no one bats an eye anymore.

So next time you here an `Amakihi calling, stop to appreciate their story. Yes, they are familiar looking birds, but from an unexpected lineage. The finch that became a white-eye.

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