Thursday, December 30, 2010

Birdland: Sooty Terns

A Sooty Tern on Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals, Northwest Hawaiian Islands
(Source: U.S. FWS @ Wikipedia)

"The air was filled with birds screaming very loudly..."

Thus wrote J.M. Brooke of the USS Fenimore Cooper while surveying Johnston Island in the Pacific in March 1859. It is not clear to me what the Fenimore Cooper was doing at Johnston at that time. During the same year, the ship came across French Frigate Shoals (home to the sooty tern pictured above) and members of the ship attempted to claim U.S. sovereignty over the shoals under the 1856 Guano Islands Act. They could do so, they reasoned, because the shoals were uninhabited (by humans, not birds) and contained an estimated 25,000 tons of guano. Unfortunately, two minor details confounded their plan: one, the Guano Islands Act only granted private individuals/corporations the right to claim guano islands as U.S. possessions, thus the law did not cover the claims of persons representing the U.S. Navy; and two, French Frigate Shoals actually had nowhere near 25,000 tons of guano. And whatever they did have was not profitable enough to mine.

That was good news for the Sooty Terns. Yet things wouldn't turn out so well for the Sooties on Johnston Island. Guano mining may have had some effect on them in the 1850s and 60s, but military build-up and weapons stockpiling (and dumping) in the mid-twentieth century most definitely affected their ability to breed. According to one account, by the 1950s the Sooty Terns had been all but extirpated from Johnston Island. (As of 1975 they still had not returned; I'm not sure about the situation today.) But they did keep breeding - in enormous numbers - on Sand Island, a nearby island within Johnston Atoll.

Another Sooty Tern at Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals
(Source: U.S. FWS @ Wikipedia)

What are Sooty Terns?
Well, those who prefer Latin names knew them for centuries as Sterna fuscata. But within the past few decades their genus has been changed to Onychoprion; thus, Onychoprion fuscata. The change is a bit confusing, as Sterna and Onychoprion both commonly mean "terns."
The Rapa Nui call them manutara; manu means "bird"; tara apparently means "tern." You can read my earlier discussion of the importance of manutara (Sooty Terns) in Rapa Nui history in my earlier post about the 1994 film Rapa Nui.
Manu also means "bird" in the Hawaiian language. But Hawaiians have a more specific name for the Sooty Tern: ʻewaʻewa. One online source suggests that the name ʻewaʻewa refers to the "cacophony" (ʻewa: "crooked, out of shape, imperfect") of sound that the birds habitually make. (Remember Brooke wrote in 1859 that "the air was filled with birds screaming very loudly..."!) But ʻewaʻewa can also mean "biased," or "unjust." Might this name describe a certain behavioral or personality trait of the sooties?

But let's move beyond names. In truth, names tell us a lot more about the humans doing the naming rather than about the birds that are being named.
Sooty Terns breed on islands all across the tropics, from the Pacific to the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans. Their feeding range is "pan-tropical": between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Like many seabirds, Sooty Terns spend most of their lives flying across the ocean, looking for food, even sleeping on the wing. Islands only matter to them as places to breed, and that is because their eggs need a place to hatch. (You can't raise chicks in the air or on the water!)

A Sooty Tern egg
(Source: Wikipedia)

So what is life like for a Sooty Tern chick on a Pacific Island? Well, on Johnston Atoll in the 1960s, for example, you probably popped out of your mommy in March. Your first taste of the outside world was from within your egg. You were not laid in a nest, nor even in a bush or a hole or on a tree. You were very likely laid right on the ground. Sooty Terns are somewhat unique in their disregard for where they lay their eggs. This habit is partly the consequence of millions of years of evolution within Pacific Island environments where there were absolutely no mammalian predators. So you can imagine what happened in the 1800s when some of these islands became infested with rats...rats that love eating chicks...and eggs.

Human guests of the Sooties had their own theories for why these terns laid their eggs directly on the ground. Dr. Thomas H. Streets, U.S. Navy, derisively said of the Sooty Terns on Palmyra Island in 1877 that their eggs "are dropped apparently anywhere..." That wasn't a very generous comment. Richard Branscombe Chave, an employee of a guano company who got himself stranded on an uninhabited coral atoll in 1871, had only nice things to say about the "Boobys" [boobies] he found there: "they must belong to a more Christian species than the rest who all laid their eggs on the ground." Quite the back-handed insult against sooties!

Chave referred to the atoll's Sooty Terns as "wide-awake[s]." He wasn't the only one. Apparently this was a common appellation Westerners gave to describe these noisy birds. "[T]hese kept up such a discordant screech all night," Chave wrote, "as to render sleep next to impossible." Dr. Streets of the U.S. Navy gave an even better representation of the annoying sooties, remaking on both their physical and audible presence: " great are their numbers that they form a cloud when driven from the ground, and their clamor deadens the roar of the surf." Now that's loud!

Marine biologist and writer Carl Safina, while conducting research for his book Eye of the Albatross (2002), used these poetic words to describe the various sounds heard one night at French Frigate Shoals: "the guttural grunts and honks of boobies, the brays and bill claps of the albatrosses, the murmurs of the noddies, and the Sooty Terns' squeaky I'm wide awake, wide awake." The Sooty's call sounds like the words "wide awake," but it's not hard to see why the name stuck with humans: a human on any one of these islands could not catch a wink of sleep because these damned birds kept them "wide awake" all night long!

Now. I got a bit side-tracked. You are a baby Sooty on Johnston Atoll. You hatch in April. There are 82,000 little ones just like you also hatching on these 10 acres (or so) of Sand Island (decades of landfill altered the island's geography in the mid-20th century). There are, perhaps, 300,000 total adults breeding on the island during the months February-July. But few eggs will hatch and few chicks will mature exactly according to their parents' highest hopes and dreams. By the end of April there are only 55,000 chicks running around, due to chick mortality. By June, after a 75-day fledging period (or so), you can fly! By July, just about all your peers are flying, too. You've got three weeks to practice flying before you'll abandon Johnston for many years. You'll truly fly almost non-stop for years until you are ready to return to this island, the place of your birth, and have your own little Sooty chicks!

A Sooty Tern chick at Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals
(Source: U.S. FWS @ Wikipedia)

The remarkable thing about Sooty Terns at most islands in the Pacific are their sheer numbers! At Johnston Atoll in the 1960s and 70s, perhaps 600,000 Sooties came to breed there annually. There might only be a handful of them poking around the islands in early winter, but by February hundreds of thousands of them came seemingly out of nowhere in for a landing, stopping here to lay their eggs. And come late summer those hundreds of thousands - and their new chicks - will be gone again. Other seabirds breeding at Johnston Atoll at that time came in numbers only as high as 6 or 7,000; nothing compared to the Sooties. And most birds bred in numbers more like 1,000 or less.

Why were/are there so many Sooties? That's a great question. (I'd like to know how many Sooty Terns there were in the 1850s when guano extraction began on these islands, but that data still needs to be put together.) I figure the Sooties' colonial habits have something to do with it. When they breed in numbers like those seen at Johnston Atoll, the piracy of Frigatebirds surely matter to the harassed individuals, but don't really matter at all in terms of the whole Sooty population. The piracy of rats are another story. It is clear that rats have extirpated breeding Sooty Terns from certain islands in the Pacific. It has even been suggested that as early as the 1850s - even before guano mining began - rats had caused the complete extirpation of Sooty Terns on Howland Island (but this is based on only sporadic human documentation of the island at that time).

The Sooty Terns are represented as one of the most annoying of seabirds, but I, from the view here in New York, find them stunningly beautiful. Often we consider the rarer birds to be more beautiful. We do this, I think, only because we tend to look harder at those things that are harder to see. Thus, Carl Safina is awed by Laysan Albatrosses, yet simply annoyed by the Sooties. Guano workers of the mid-nineteenth century would have found themselves similarly annoyed if not uncomfortably crowded by the breeding Sooty Terns. And they would have had horrible evenings trying to sleep while thousands of birds hovered above calling "wide awake, wide awake." As a historian, I find the Sooties most interesting because I am sure they were the most common seabird that the guano workers I am studying had interactions with. Historical ecologists might find it more interesting that a visiting ship captain saw a Red-Tailed Tropicbird - even just one - or that a shipwrecked sailor killed and ate an albatross. But for me, I love most when I read about the incessant racket of the circling "clouds" of birds overhead. I love imagining how the workers were kept up by the horrible noise all night, and how they were pooped on - again and again - all throughout the day. Loud, messy Sooties! Sooties, sooties everywhere!

A Sooty Tern colony in the Seychelles
(Source: Wikipedia)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Big (Pine)Apple

You have probably heard New York City referred to as the "Big Apple." I think this is a strange name for our city. Don't you? What does New York have to do with apples? Actually, upstate we have lots of apple orchards, and apples have been a part of New York State agriculture for a long time, but do apples really matter here in the city?

I have come to think that "the Big Apple" only describes certain aspects of New York City's diverse community and rich history. I'd suggest that if you really want to know New York City, consider taking a Big Onion Walking Tour. Their walking tours of New York City neighborhoods are really excellent. But today's post is neither about apples nor onions. I want to make the case that New York is also the "Big Pineapple."

Really? Shouldn't that designation go, say, to the great metropolis of the Pacific, Honolulu, with its population of over 300,000 pineapple-loving residents? And considering that Manhattan is an island, isn't there a conflict here between my island (Manhattan) and Lānaʻi, the official "Pineapple Isle" of Hawaiʻi?

Yet New York City is a Big Pineapple (among other fruits), and to explain this, I need to return to the very beginning of what I do. When I began this blog, it was my intent to discover and share the ways in which New York City and the Pacific Ocean intersect. I know they can't actually intersect. I know that light blue Pacific waters will not just suddenly show up crashing against the sand and rocks at Coney Island beach. But I did suspect that New York City was home to migrants from the Pacific Diaspora, and I knew that beyond my incessant trips to museums to look at feathers and fishhooks and beyond my obsession with watching Pacific-themed movies on Netflix, that there must be more direct connections to be had here on Manhattan Island with the people and cultures of the Pacific. This is the "Big Apple," but it is also a "melting pot": as I mentioned in an earlier post on the U.S. census, there are nearly 20,000 people who identify as at least part-Pacific Islander living in New York City. So with the fifth largest Pacific Islander population in the United States, now tell me that my city is not a "Big Pineapple," too!

Pineapple (Source: Wikipedia)

Pineapples are an interesting metaphor (though no stranger than apples, right?). One can look at the pineapple as a symbol of early U.S. colonialism in Hawaiʻi, since, without doubt, it was during the early territorial years after annexation when Hawaiʻi's pineapple industry really took shape. The fact that Lānaʻi is called the "Pineapple Isle" can thus be seen as a good or bad thing, depending on how you think that island's aina (land) should have been put to use. If you doubt me that pineapples are tied to colonialism and imperialism, you need to pick up Gary Okihiro's 2009 book Pineapple Culture (part of his trilogy on Hawaiʻi's place in world history). And if you want the "Cliff's notes" version of Okihiro's take on pineapple history, in less than three hours you can watch Charlton Heston play a pineapple "farmer" (or, industrial agriculturalist really) in turn-of-the-century Hawaiʻi in the 1970 film The Hawaiians. The one scene in which Heston leads a gang of laborers into a South American country in the middle of the night to pirate pineapples from a competitor's plantation is straight out of Okihiro's book. And that's truly how Hawaiʻi got its pineapple industry going: through U.S. imperial intervention, not just in Hawaiʻi, but in South America, and all across a global field of power, piracy, and pineapples.

Of Language (ʻŌlelo)

So what is so Hawaiian about NYC? In this essay I will describe two different ways in which this city takes on the characteristics of a "Big Pineapple": one, through language; two, through community.

A reader of this blog kindly emailed me a month or two ago to tell me his manaʻo (thoughts) about ʻiliahi, Hawaiian sandalwood. He had read that I was interested in ʻiliahi - this is true; you may find many posts semi-related to sandalwood elsewhere throughout my blog - and he wanted to tell me that he had some beautiful sandalwood trees on his property on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. Some day when I have more money, I would like to visit him in Hawaiʻi and see those trees. But in the meantime I am stuck here in the "Apple" doing research. So he was nice enough to point me to a wonderful resource for studying Hawaiian environmental history, which is what I am doing in the meantime:

Nupepa is the Hawaiian word for "newspaper." And is a digital catalogue of Hawaiian language newspaper articles from a variety of island newspapers dating from the early nineteenth century to the era of World War Two. I do not know exactly how many newspaper pages are available on this site, but tens of thousands would not be a bad guess. (If you visit the site and it makes no sense to you, click the button in the upper right corner that reads: "English text.")

What a find, right? So I typed in a keyword from my current research on Hawaiian labor and environmental history: "guano." 40 pages came up! Great, but...I can't read Hawaiian!!! So then my mind quickly went to that dark place where historians' minds often go when they think: how in the world can I tell this story without source x?? Sometimes a historian knows an important primary document is in an archive half a world away, and he or she must build up an arsenal of money just to be able to fly out there to look at that little piece of paper. For me, I realized that Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) were actually talking about "guano" in the 1850s and 60s - a lot - and, better still, the sources were right here on my computer - in the "Big Apple"! But the language issue of course presented a real barrier to me. The historian who has to travel half-way round the world for a source does not publish his or her work until he or she gets that source. Depending on the source, it might really mean that much. Well, for me, what Hawaiians said about guano, or pineapples, or just about anything, really matters. Why? Partly because histories of Hawaiʻi and of the Pacific in general have too long and too often relied completely on English language accounts by outsiders, colonials, or highly-educated creoles. Not that Hawaiian language sources aren't selective, too. I don't know what the literacy rate was in the 1850s in the Hawaiian Kingdom, but surely not everyone could read and write.

But here's the point. Last year I wrote a prize-winning paper about Hawaiian sandalwood, but I had failed to use any Hawaiian voices in that paper (except those rare words overheard [or imagined] and transcribed into English by haole [foreigners]). Now with a topic like guano, how can I continue to ignore the writings of, and about, the Kānaka Maoli who actually dug the guano and did the heavy labor of the industry? How can I still tell a convincing story of labor, environment, and sacrifice on these forgotten guano islands without source x, the Hawaiian language newspapers?!

Solution: I looked for, and found, a Hawaiian language teacher in New York City. His name is Manuwai Peters, and you can read more about him in this wonderful little New York Times article. I hope that he doesn't mind me posting this, but he deserves all the recognition possible for his contributions to the New York City/Hawaiian Diaspora community. I have met Hawaiians here in the "Big Apple," some who have lived here for three or four decades since leaving their native isles, only now finally getting the chance to reconnect with their native ʻōlelo through these language lessons with Manuwai. That's very special.

Language is social power: it connects people. It is also cultural power, and historical power: it not only connects Hawaiian speakers in the here and now, but it connects modern-day speakers in the "Big Apple" with those on the "Pineapple Isle" and with those all across the world, and it connects modern-day speakers with their ancestors, whether biological or cultural ancestors, who also spoke ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. I am not Hawaiian; I am haole through-and-through (see my earlier post called "Am I White?" for my take on racial identity). But even for me the Hawaiian language is social power: it has brought me new friendships with people of similar interests in this crowded, sometimes lonely, city. And it is cultural and historical power for me, too. I spend a lot of my time now reading the words of Native Hawaiians from over one hundred and fifty years ago talk about their lives, their experiences, and their perceptions. How cool is that? (And what a better historian it is making me...)

Of Community

Hawaiian language is a crucial component in making this city a "Big Pineapple." But there is also more than language, and lack of Hawaiian language skills should not keep any New Yorker from feeling welcome within the New York Hawaiian community. (As I should know. I barely even know the language!) When I found Hawaiian language lessons in NYC I also found Hālāwai. Hālāwai is a Hawaiian word meaning "to meet." I encourage you to explore their website and see what this community is up to. There are hula classes and musical performances, parties with lots of tasty food, and of course the language classes I have already mentioned, too.

I can't say much more about what is going down in the "Big Pineapple," because - I must be honest - I spend 99% of my time here in the "Apple" - without the "pine" part - all along neglecting to hālāwai - to meet up - to be part of a community. I wasn't raised in the islands, and my native tongue is ʻōlelo Pelekane (English), not Hawaiian, so perhaps I am excused from being such a novice at all this. Stepping into the world of 1850s-era Hawaiian language newspapers is adventure enough sometimes. On those evenings as I sit there with my Hawaiian-English dictionary sorting out the words of strangers from the past, I feel a real thrill. What a challenge this is. But how great the rewards! Our "Big Pineapple" comprises different elements for different New Yorkers. Some are interested in what I am researching; others I'm sure could care less. But each individual's motivations for reaching out for language and/or community are of course valid. That's what binds the "Pineapple" together! So this essay is my little way of saying mahalo - thanks - to all those neighbors who make up this community and who share their precious manaʻo with us.