Changing of Guardians

By Hob Osterlund, Safina Center Fellow

It’s time for the changing of guardians on Kaua`i. Newell’s shearwater chicks are leaping from their mountain burrows, heading out to sea for the first time. On coastlines, Laysan albatross— their larger cousins—will soon be returning from their months of Pacific foraging.

Both are among several bird species credited with assisting Polynesian master navigators in double-hulled voyaging canoes on their journey to Hawai`i. The birds are nā`aumākua, cherished ancestors and family gods. They are considered guardian spirits.

They may not see much of each other. Albatross will arrive by day; Newell’s will leave under cover of night. They are drawn to light, so moonless skies can be confusing. If they’re lucky, the young birds will bypass hotels, stadiums and shopping centers on their way to the sea. If they aim toward electric lights—mistaking them for moonlight—they may collide with them, or circle them until they’re exhausted. They may hit power lines that are all but invisible to them. Once on the ground, they are unable to get airborne again, and are vulnerable to cars, feral cats and unleashed dogs.

Enter the folks of Save our Shearwaters at the Kaua`i Humane Society. Every year SOS sets up multi-unit deposit boxes at firehouses and other strategic spots around the island. Residents and visitors pick up the birds and drop them off at these temporary condos until SOS retrieves them. The birds are assessed, treated if necessary, and released from a safe location.

Newell’s shearwater chick in transport box

By far the coolest annual release happens with a gaggle of school kids. It starts with a bit of Q&A with the teachers and SOS staff, who are themselves excited, which spreads to the kids, who might think this is the most awesome field trip ever. They gawk and point and squint when they see their first Newell’s. Then, as if their Hawaiian Studies teacher is not already the coolest person ever, she is solemnly handed a shearwater to release.

Sabra Kauka, Hawaiian cultural arts teacher, releases a Newell’s shearwater chick

Sabra Kauka walks a few feet away from her students. She lifts her arms, opens her palms and extends her fingers with a certain grace that comes from hands that know hula. The bird now has a choice. As you recall, his first flight didn’t go so well. It ended with a crash, and was full of disconcerting sights, sounds and smells. The shearwater hesitates, spreads his wings, then decides against the whole idea. He turns around and crawls up Sabra’s forearm to bury his face in her kindness. She gently redirects him. Facing the sea again, he pumps his wings.

The children chant in the language of these islands, even though many kids have zero Hawaiian blood in their veins. They chant blessings for the bird, for plentiful food at sea, for his safe return.

The bird sucks it up and suddenly launches from Sabra’s hands. He doesn’t get far. He flutters to the sand and scrambles to the top of a small boulder using his adorable pink legs. Walking is not a shearwater’s strong suit. His legs are too far back on his body to allow for easy ambulation. He can fish and fly and dive and swim, oh yes. But walk? Not so much.

Newell’s shearwater chick still trying to get airborne

He’s returned to Sabra for another go. This time he seems to have a bit more confidence. He looks out from his palm-perch and flaps several times. The back of Sabra’s hand gives him just the right altitude. Suddenly he’s airborne. Everyone claps and cheers as he flies out over the open ocean.

It’s always a moment, this thing called fledging. Not just because another brave chick has safely flown to sea. Not just because his clan helped to lead humans to Kaua`i more than a millennium ago and is now highly endangered because of our lights and wires. Not only because people have picked him up, dusted him off and seen him to safety. No. It’s also because of the homecoming. Sure, we can applaud at graduations and shout for bottom-of-the-ninth grand slams. That’s easy. But when we celebrate the success of other animals purely for the thrill of their victory—often against unbelievable odds— we ourselves come home. We have reunited with our family, with all our cousins. We are great and good and holy. We belong. We can feel it too, if only for a moment.

A moment is all it takes. I have stood with other hikers by a river, cheering for spawning salmon in British Columbia. I have sat on a hillside with countless delighted humans watching thousands of Vaux swifts dive down a school chimney in Portland. I have waited at midnight for a green sea turtle to lay her eggs and drag her heavy body through the sand, back into the weightlessness of the sea, quietly encouraged by a gathering of people at Tortuguero State Park in Costa Rica. I have shivered in the dark of a crowded blind in Nebraska, peering through a peephole as sandhill cranes awaken on the Platte River, ready to join one of the largest animal migrations on Earth. There is magic in those moments, always magic.

We can do this. We can celebrate achievements of our fellow critters. We just have to do it more often. A lot more often. What if people lined the path of caribou on their spectacular route, shouting encouragement much as we would for riders in the Tour de France? What if we applauded a monarch butterfly as she emerged from her chrysalis? Lifted our arms like football referees, signaling for a touchdown when that same monarch’s great-granddaughter landed on a tree in Mexico? High-fived the success of emperor penguin chicks seen on fake-egg cameras in Antarctica? The possibilities are endless. We don’t even have to go anywhere. The investment costs little. It reimburses in unbelievable dividends.

Monarch butterfly just emerged from chrysalis

Isn’t it time for the changing of the guardian inside each of us? We merely have to show up and salute, crash and get up again, donate our bodies to the next generation, dive down the chimney, haul ourselves back to the water, purr in the dark, grow wings, and migrate across continents. To put all our cousins in virtual deposit boxes and treat them much better than we treat gold.

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