Tale of 2 Stilts
Over the holidays, I had the chance to go back home to Hawaii for some quality family time, good food, and the beach! While I was there, I also said hello to one of my favorite native birds: the Hawaiian Black-necked Stilt. As there have been for the past several years, a couple of these gangly, endangered birds hang out in the local school park (of all places) and I can see them regularly in the morning. Sometimes, I can hear people accidentally spook one or two at night as they cut across the field, the birds rising into the air with high-pitched cries, and it’s not uncommon to find four or five them regularly posted on the grass, poking around for insects.
At first glance, the Hawaiian Black-necked Stilt, or ae’o, looks remarkably like the Black-necked stilt we have here in in Texas. They are both estuarine wading birds with the characteristic stilt-like profile: long legs, long beak, and graceful curving neck. The Hawaiian subspecies has more black on its face and neck than its mainland counterpart, as well as a longer beak, tail, and legs, but the general shape and color scheme are the same. In flight, their stick-leg pink legs stick out behind them, making them an endearing and slightly comical sight as they drift in to ponds or wet swards. (In fact, stilts’ legs are longer in proportion to their bodies than any other bird but the flamingo and the Hawaiian name “ae’o” translates to “standing tall”!)
The Black-necked Stilt which can be found along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts as well as wintering in South and Central America, is an adaptable species. The population of Black-necked Stilts is stable and even trending upward, as these delicate-looking birds adapt to make the most of artificially created habitats such as sewage ponds, dikes, etc. But its subspecies, the ae’o, is federally endangered and its population contains less than 2,000 breeding individuals.
Once wide-spread on the lowland watersheds of most of the Hawaiian islands, the ae’o’s population has contracted and never fully recovered from hunting and habitat loss. Like other waterfowl, it was a popular game bird species and hunting continued unregulated until 1939. At the same time, it was losing significant chunks of its wetland habitat to agricultural projects that weren’t conducive to its foraging or breeding needs. And, unlike the Black-necked Stilt, the ae’o was especially vulnerable to introduced predators including dogs, rats, cats, black-crowned night herons, and cattle egrets. Having evolved in isolation on the Hawaiian islands, the ae’o lost most of its wariness to predators, and when they were re-introduced it (like many other native Hawaiian birds) suffered extreme predation not only of adults but of eggs and chicks.
Conservation efforts are in effect to try and stabilize and grow the ae’o population in Hawaii. Not too far from my house, is a country club pond which harbors both the ae’o and another endangered species: the Hawaiian Gallinule. Why this particular, urban pond is the site to be for these birds, no one really knows, but conservation groups have been working together with the club to modify and restore the habitat around the pond and to put up cat-proof fencing to protect the birds. The proximity of this pond to the local school might explain why I frequently see ae’o digging around the baseball pitch, but I still feel lucky to glimpse them on my morning walks and every time I see a Black-necked Stilt here in Texas, I have to smile a little as I remember their Hawaiian counterparts.