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Gone: One Beautiful Bird

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed removing 23 species of animals and plants from the Endangered Species List. Occasionally there are species, such as the Gray Wolf and the Northern Brown Kiwi, that are removed from this list because their populations have rebounded. Those that lost their designation this time were not so fortunate. All have become extinct.

One of those missing beings is the Kauai O’o. This black, brown, and white native of the Hawaiian island of Kauai had feathers of bright yellow on the upper part of its legs. Its long, tapered beak gave it access to its favorite food, flower nectar. It built its nest inside the cavities of rainforest trees, and both male and female guarded the fledglings. Among the causes of the birds’ demise were rats, mosquitoes, domestic pigs, and habitat destruction. The Kauai O’o has not been seen or heard since 1985.

I am writing this because, in their online report about the 23 vanished species, the New York Times featured a blurry video and a recording, courtesy of Cornell Ornithological Laboratory, of the Kauai O’o. The high-pitched, variable whistle sounds reflective, as if the bird is commenting on various things: the location of the sun, the nearness of its mate, the breeze. The song is beautiful and we will never hear it again. 

How do we live with the loss of the Kauai O’o and all the other beings who are no more? How do we live with the knowledge that climate change will eradicate many thousands more species?

One option is to participate in the Remembrance Day for Lost Species, which takes place every year on November 30th, with people all over the world honoring extinct beings through art, music, and ceremony. As for me, I’m going to start building a cairn in my yard. Each stone will represent one species that has vanished from Earth. This cairn will not be built hurriedly. I will get to know a species first by reading about its habits and, if possible, listening to its voice. Then I will thank that being for its life and add a stone to the cairn. The first stone will be for the Kauai O’o.

Trebbe Johnson explores people’s relationship with nature through her writing and work with the nonprofit she founded and directs, Radical Joy for Hard Times, which is devoted to finding and making beauty in wounded places. She is a recent collaborator with DAF on the Deep Live Gathering, as co-creator of the Earth Ceremony that was a part of the online/offline gathering.

This article was originally published in Radical Joy Revealed, Oct 20, 2021, a newsletter for Radical Joy for Hard Times.

biodiversity, climate grief, extinction, Remembrance Day for Lost Species

Comments (2)

  • I loved your short essay. It touched me particularly as I am aware of the O’o bird. Infact he/she appeared in a poem I wrote about extinction and responsibility. I also remember seeing an image of the bird from the Cornell Lab. I used to live in Hawaii and until the pandemic taught Hawaiian dance. And I am deeply moved by your ritual of the cairn. I do some small quiet rituals myself, and I think I will find myself a way to mark Nov. 30 going forward.

  • The Argentine writer Jorge Louis Borges wrote a short piece called, “The Witness.” Here is the first section:

    “In a stable lying almost in the shadow of the new stone church, a man with gray eyes and a gray beard, stretched on the ground amidst the animal odors, meekly seeks death like someone seeking sleep. The day, faithful to vast secret laws, continuously displaces and confounds the shadows in the wretched stable. Outside stretch the tilled fields, a deep ditch filled up with dead leaves, and the tracks of a wolf in the black mud where the woods begin. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten. The bells calling to prayer awake him. In the kingdoms of England, the sound of the bells is already one of the customs of the afternoon, but the man, while still a boy, had seen the face of Woden, had seen holy dread and exultation, had seen the rude wooden idol weighed down with Roman coins and heavy vestments, seen the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he would be dead and with him would die, never to return, the last firsthand images of the pagan rites. The world would be poorer when this Saxon was no more.”

    I thought of that when reading this post. Somewhere there are people who actually heard the Kauai O’o sing. And someday the last person who ever heard the Kauai O’o sing will die. Humans may be able to hear an imperfect rendition of the song on some recording somewhere, but the memory of the joy of hearing it live will vanish, just as the Kauai O’o has.

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