Monday, May 30, 2016

Close Encounters

Why wildlife at Midway Atoll aren’t afraid of people and what that does to you

One of the great mysteries of modern biology is how it is that Charles Darwin knew so damn much. Not only did he correctly explain the mechanism by which the diversity of life on earth was created (i.e., the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection) but as if this was not enough Darwin applied his genius to a variety of other subjects including the domestication of pigeons, earthworm biology, and the geology of islands. One of the first stops made by the HMS Beagle made on its voyage to explore South America was the Galapagos Islands where Darwin noticed something very strange about the wildlife there. They weren’t afraid of people. Darwin had an explanation for this, of course. On remote islands where mammalian predators were absent for thousands of years, there was no advantage for an animal to flee when approached by one. And if there was no advantage, maintaining that behavior would be a liability over evolutionary time. It all comes down to this: maintaining any unnecessary feature – anatomical or otherwise – constitutes a cost to an individual which over time results in lower fitness compared to an individual possessing only the things it needs to survive in its environment.

Had the Beagle sailed for the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands instead of the Galapagos, Darwin probably would have still come to the same conclusion. Like the Galapagos, these remote islands were never inhabited by people until very recent times and the native wildlife – predominantly birds – evolved with no predators. The lack of fear that the birds of Midway have for people explains why shipwrecked sailors in the 18th and 19th century and early feather hunters had such devastating effects on them. When approached the birds did not flee so anyone wishing to capture them for either the stewpot or the cargo hold could do so with little effort. Tens of thousands of birds were taken as a result and the populations of albatrosses, terns, shearwaters, and other species plummeted until regulations were affected by US President Teddy Roosevelt during the first decade of the twentieth century.

A Laysan Albatross hangs out on the sidewalk in front of the Midway Gymnasium.

As populations began to recover, people began finding reasons to inhabit these remote islands. The first were personnel hired by the Pacific Commercial Cable Company to build and operate a  telegraph station established on Sand Island of Midway Atoll in 1904. Employees – mostly from the mainland US – found themselves living among millions of seabirds that seemed to take little notice of them which certainly must have been perplexing. Despite decades of persecution, the birds still did not fear people. (Darwin would likely have an explanation for that too!) Laysan albatrosses, the most numerous birds on the island, built nests out in the open making little effort to conceal them, left their young unattended on the front porches of houses, and conducted their elaborate courtship rituals in close proximity to anyone who happened to pass by. Other species – terns, noddies, tropicbirds, etc. – behaved in similar fashion. Maybe, by living in such close proximity to such magnificent creatures, it was inevitable that these early residents of Midway developed a genuine respect and deep appreciation for their avian neighbors. Early records attest to this in various ways: from the decision to ban cats and dogs from the island to the formation of the Goofy Gooney’s Club which honored "the silent cooperation given them by the curious residents of the Midway atoll to the new strangers and the hazards they brought”.

It wasn't long before the Midway and other Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were recognized for their potential strategic military importance. But even as Midway was transformed from a sleepy telegraph station to a prominent Naval Air Facility, amicable relations between the seabirds and the human inhabitants persisted. This is not to say that there wasn't an impact on the birds; habitat was destroyed, antennas, seawalls, and other hazards to birds were erected, and many seabirds were undoubtedly killed through collisions with aircraft and other causes. Some species, such as the Laysan Rail, were not able to cope with the change and went extinct but most were able to adapt. Through it all, the people of Midway seemed to take a certain pride and interest in the birds. The official insignia of Midway – an image of two Laysan albatross “sky mooing” – eventually embellished everything from a the island newspaper to the movie theater.

Early residents of Midway identified strongly with their avian neighbors and recognized them in a variety of ways. A symbol representing courting Laysan Albatrosses adorned everything from the newspaper to the theatre on Sand Island.

Today, the folks living on Midway continue the tradition of tolerance and respect for their avian neighbors. People dodge albatrosses every day while travelling to and from work and pick up chicks off the road when necessary. When the sun sets, windows covered with curtains or blinds in religious fashion lest Bonin petrels, nocturnal seabirds attracted to light, fly into them. In the morning White Terns perch on the windowsill and stare at you through the window. Tropicbirds brood their chicks in the front yard in full view and emit a harsh bark only if you get so close as to risk stepping on them. Laysan’s ducks forage on the patio and parade their chicks through the yard. And people still pay homage.  The electrician’s golf cart has an image of an albatross painted on its side and at a recent evening of karaoke seabirds were displayed along with the lyrics to the songs.
Because the native fauna of Midway don't have any innate fear of people, close encounters with wildlife is common. Clockwise from upper left: A Laysan Duck outside forages outside my house; this newly hatched white tern stared at me intently while I took its portrait; Sooty Terns on Eastern Island lay their eggs directly on the ground in plain sight of no one; a Red-Footed Booby on Eastern Island sits tight on its nest as I walk by.

After being here for about a month and a half, I still can’t fully wrap my brain around how living so closely to all of these birds affects me. Certainly, I feel a connection to them and affection for them. But it goes beyond that as well. There's something about living in a place where the hustle and bustle isn't about selling something or taking care of people's needs. to be in a place where birds are truly at center stage has a strange effect on a person. I'm not sure I can say much more that that for now, maybe I will elaborate in a future post. In the meantime, I’ll continue to say “good morning” to the albatrosses outside my front door, beg forgiveness when I pass too close to a tropicbird’s nest, and continue to learn more about these fascinating animals through these close encounters. 

3 comments:

  1. Another excellent post, Robert! Keep on bringing us up to date with the history, and speculating on how we--and the birds--got to where we are today.

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  2. Thanks so much for writing, Rob. Interesting to hear that living in such close proximity to these amazing creatures is having an impact on our soul. How could it not. Makes me of course wonder what it was like when our species lived live this, prior to distractions like money and digital devices. Be well over there!

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