The Kona Grosbeak

Remembering One of Hawaii’s Extinct Birds

by Les Drent

The Kona Grosbeak

Already rare when Wilson visited Hawaii, the Kona grosbeak was found at elevations of about 5,000 feet in the Kona district amid the koa forest. In 1887 Wilson was one of the last to observe the bird in life, for it was last reliably sighted in 1894. He saw only three specimens in a four-week stay, and so rare was the bird that it apparently had no name in the Hawaiian language.

The bulk of Wilson’s report on the Kona grosbeak (also known as the Kona finch or grosbeak finch) is an excerpt from Robert Perkin’s rather disapproving notes, published in The Ibis in 1893:

The Chloridops kona (Kona grosbeak), though an interesting bird on account of its peculiar structure, is a singularly uninteresting one in its habits. It is a dull, sluggish, solitary bird and very silent-its whole existence may be summed up in the words “to eat.” Its food consists of the seeds of the fruit of the aaka (bastard sandal-tree, and probably in other seasons of those of the sandalwood tree), and as these are very minute, its whole time seems to be taken up in cracking the extremely hard shells of this fruit, for which its extraordinarily powerful beak and heavy head have been developed. I think there must have been hundreds of the small white kernels in those that I examined. The incessant cracking of the fruits when one of these birds is feeding, the noise of which can be heard for a considerable distance, renders the bird much easier to see than it otherwise would be. It is mostly found on the roughest lava, but also wanders into the open spaces in the forest. I never heard it sing (once mistook the young Rhodocanthis’ -greater koa finch song for that of Chloridops), but my boy informed me that he had heard it once, and its song was not like that of Rhodocanthis. Only once did I see it display any real activity, when a male and female were in active pursuit of one another amongst the sandal-trees. Its beak is nearly always very dirty, with a brown substance adherent to it, which must be derived from the sandal-tree.

The bastard sandal-tree referred to here is more commonly known today as the naio tree (Myoporum sandwicense), which grows primarily on medium-aged lava flows.

In his illustration Frohawk has accurately depicted the Kona grosbeak sitting on a branch of the naio tree; the small fruit is also shown. The nondescript olive-green colors are well rendered, as is the heavy beak; the gender is unspecified. Somehow this bird appears disgruntled, as if it knows that extinction lies ahead for its species.

Make room for nature... KEEP KONA COUNTRY!

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