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City's official bird needs our protection


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POSTED: Monday, March 30, 2009

We all know the state bird, the nene. For almost two years, the City and County of Honolulu has also had an official bird, the white tern (manu-o-Ku, or Gygis alba).

It's a snow-white bird with dark eyes, a black bill with a blue base, and dark gray legs and feet. Black rings around its eyes make it look even larger and darker against the bird's bright white feathers.

The white tern is often mistaken for its close cousin, the fairy tern (Sterna nereis) of Australia. (Older bird manuals do not recognize the two as separate species, but the 2005 Hawaii Audubon Society's “;Hawaii's Birds”; makes the distinction.)

In an ceremony in April 2007, Mayor Mufi Hannemann gave the white tern its official status. The bird had a lot of support for this title from folks who cherish the ocean and land. Lydi Morgan of the Hawaii Audubon Society said that Laura Thompson, mother of Hokule'a navigator Nainoa Thompson, had told the mayor of the white tern's long history of serving as a guide for Polynesian navigators.

Keith Swindle, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent, had enlisted Thompson's help in securing the bird's status. A former resident of Oregon, Swindle had been inspired by Portland's naming of the great blue heron as its official bird—and the environmental benefits that followed.

“;With the exception of individual and dedicated community members familiar with the bird, most Honolulu residents remain unaware of these birds that nest literally in the heart of their city and in their parks and yards—the only remaining conspicuous native bird to do so,”; Swindle said during the 2007 ceremony. “;Most have forgotten or were unaware of the bird's importance to the culture of the Hawaiian people and other Polynesian cultures.”;

Raising the bird's profile, he said, could help protect it.

Swindle had received calls over the years from high-rise dwellers in Waikiki who could look down and see the birds in the trees below, threatened by tree trimmers. He intervened on several occasions when residents alerted him that pruners were headed to a tree that was home to nesting white terns.

Swindle also worked with the Outrigger Enterprise's staff to protect nesting terns during the construction of Waikiki Beach Walk. The birds were allowed to continue raising their young even in the middle of a demolition zone.

These land-based seabirds actually do not build nests—parenting is a balancing act as both parents incubate the egg, brood and feed the young chick.

The chick stays close to the hatching site for up to 45 days as the adults go to sea and bring back small fish for their young.

Most adults arrive in February and depart by September, but some pairs remain on Oahu year-round and nest two to three times, according to “;Hawaii's Birds.”; Peak laying season is in March, which means care should be taken in trimming large trees—especially banyan, monkeypod and kukui—during the hatching season.

Since the white tern became the city's official bird, Swindle has been working with the Hawaii Audubon Society to draft guidelines that protect the birds while allowing city crews to do their work of maintaining more than 250,000 trees. With more than 250 nesting sites from Kapiolani Park to Iolani Palace, that takes planning.

And now you know the rest of the story.