Sunday 24 June 2012

Tahiti - Introduced Birds

The islands of Polynesia are ecological disaster zones — from New Zealand in the west to Easter Island in the east and to the Hawaiian islands in the north. They have suffered from human migration and settlement that brought predators, pests, destruction of habitat and the introduction of competing non-native species.
We first arrived in Tahiti in 2009 by air from New Zealand to join m/v Clipper Odyssey for a Noble Caledonia Expedition Cruise around French Polynesia. We were intrigued to see in the grounds of the Hilton Hotel (a less than efficient establishment that closed in 2010 because the tourist fashion had moved from Polynesia to pastures new) Chestnut-breasted Mannikins (Lonchura castaneothorax) and Red-browed Firetails (Neochmia temporalis) from Australia. Short walks produced Common Waxbills (Estrilda astrild) from Africa and Silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis) from Australia. Asian Common Mynas (Acridotheres tristis) were everywhere.
Information on the birds of French Polynesia is difficult to obtain (the best source of information being the website of the Société d’Ornithologie de Polynésie (MANU). I read that the myna had been introduced in 1910 to combat insects and thought, wrongly, that some of the other species’ presence must have been the result of cage birds escaping.

Hilton Hotel - Chestnut-breasted Mannikins and Red-browed Firetails abound

Only recently and quite by chance did I discover that thousands of birds had been deliberately imported and released in the early decades of the 20th Century. I had acquired a number of old Avicultural Magazines and for another purpose entirely (more of this later) was skimming through them looking for articles. I came across an article published in 1938 and written by Eastham Guild entitled Tahitian Aviculture: Acclimatization of Foreign Birds (Avicultural Magazine Series 5, 3, 8-11 with a follow-up letter on page 63).

I can do no better than quote the following extracts from the article:
To the average person the mention of a tropical island immediately brings forth a vision of rich green foliage, brilliant flowers, and exotic birds. Tahiti is no exception to this general impression as far as foliage and flowers are concerned, but for some reason there is practically no bird life, and, according to reports made by early voyagers and by ornithologists visiting the island later there have never been many kinds of birds here.
Since the climatic conditions were favourable and the profusion of grasses,  weeds, and flowers provided a variety of foods, I could see no reason why certain small birds from other countries of similar climate should not thrive here and I started the experiment with a few Fire Finches and Cordon Bleus which I personally brought with me from Dakar, West Africa. The French Government has been very sympathetic in my experiments, giving me necessary permits to import birds and has passed local laws prohibiting all shooting and trapping. Likewise the British Consul General has aided me considerably to obtain permits to secure some of the exquisite and rare Australian finches. I am just now expecting through the curtesy of Mr H.B. Brown, Secretary of the Taronga Zoo of Sydney, a shipment of about five hundred birds from Australia, including Gouldian, Long-tailed and Star Finches all to be liberated as soon as they have been properly conditioned.
So far, I have liberated about five thousand birds, of forty-four different kinds…
Before liberating any birds they are kept in aviaries a sufficient length of time to observe their habits and to condition them. Upon arrival they are put in a special house for observation and any sick birds are immediately removed. The well birds are put in conditioning aviaries to stay until they are in perfect plumage.
As soon as I feel they are in a normal condition the birds are transferred to the liberating aviaries which face the rose garden beside my house. In the rose garden are feed dishes for the birds at liberty, to which five or six hundred birds come regularly four times a day, in response to my whistle. In the flights of the liberating aviaries are feed dishes exactly like the ones outside in the rose garden...On the side of the flights facing the garden and feed trays are trap doors which can be operated from the terrace by cords. When I feel that the birds in the aviaries are sufficiently accustomed to the routine of feeding, I carefully pull open the trap door and let a few birds out every day until the cage is empty…
Gradually, through the presence of the birds I have imported, people on the island are becoming bird conscious. The Governor, Monsieur Chastenet de Géry, has established a feeding dish in the grounds at Government House; also James Norman Hall, co-author with Mr Charles B. Nordhoff of Mutiny on the Bounty, has put one up on his property to attract any birds that may wander to his side of the island. Mr Nordhoff, who is keenly in water fowl, has done a great deal to promote this interest by liberating Wood and Mandarin Duck as well as California Quail and Pheasants.
We are receiving great help and encouragement from France through the untiring efforts of Monsieur Jean Delacour who is doing everything possible to protect the birds throughout the French colonies.

Strange as it may seem in the 21st Century, the deliberate introduction of foreign species for the benefit of man was not uncommon and acclimatization societies existed for that very purpose. Indeed, such activities were included in the Royal Charter of the Zoological Society of London (1829) with robust demands from Fellows of that society for the domestication of antelope, for example, as new farmed species for their English estates. As late as 1871, the American Acclimatization Society was founded with the aim of introducing European animals and plants into North America ‘as may be useful or interesting’.

Guild’s use of the word acclimatization in the title of his article reflects the use of the term in that context, not just as we may use it today to mean adaptation. Sadly, the acclimatization movement did damage, and, even though defenders of the mindset still exist in 2012, the whole idea is now looked on with horror and disbelief.
Out of such introductions, accidental or deliberate, the only good that has arisen seems to be from studying the ecological factors that enabled populations of some species to thrive while others died out. In this connexion it is interesting that of all the species of bird introduced into Tahiti, only a few have thrived. References to some of this work are at the end of this post.
I was intrigued by Eastham Guild and a Google search soon produced lots of leads. He (‘Ham’) and his wife, ‘Carrie’, were American socialites who flitted between their house in Tahiti and the USA. There are shipping records in of his passages from Tahiti to the ports of the USA, the first I can find being in 1925. His wife was a a big game fisher, catching a world record black marlin in 1932. A large tuna he sent to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia was named after him. Unfortunately, the name was overturned as a synonym of the yellow-finned tuna or albacore (Thunnus albacares).The Guilds were apparently responsible for naming the cocktail ‘Mai Tai’ in Trader Vic’s restaurant in San Francisco. In short, they were American old money.

The article in the Boston Globe and reprinted throughout the USA gives some idea of the lifestyle (this is the version in Milwaukee Journal 21 July 1948):
Boston Couple Carved Paradise Out of 10 Acres of Tahiti Jungle
Tahiti is a long, long way from Boston, but it’s really worth the trip, says Caroline Guild, who spent 17 years in the soft, lazy paradise.
I turned my back on Boston years ago, she says.
Miss [sic] Guild was educated at Wellesley, disillusioned with conventional society after graduation and “reborn” in Tahiti.
Back for a spell of civilization, the tall, wiry individualist sat in the offices of Doubleday, publisher of her recent book Rainbow in Tahiti. She puffed at cigarets [sic] through a long holder, and she wore a blue blouse with mandarin sleeves. Her feet were encased in cerise slippers and she stretched them out languorously.
Although my New England ancestors date back to 1633, I had to get away, she declared. I didn’t want to be bound to the dull Joneses or the Cabots. I didn’t care to be bound to any routine living, and so I wanted to escape. I was an only child. Maybe that had something to do with it.
Miss Guild (it is pronounced to rhyme with wild, or she gets that way) voyaged to Tahiti with her husband, Eastham Guild, formerly of Newton. They met in a conventional way, a tea, and he shared her views on romantic escapism. Her prime interest was horticulture (flowers) and his aviculture (birds) and so Tahiti became their destiny. But first they escaped to Europe and dwelt for a considerable time in Holland.
Holland was the land of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, and appealed to us at first, she remembered.
Then we read a book, Frederick O’Brien’s Mystic Isles of the South Seas. You might say that this one book really decided us to move to Tahiti. We went, and took our daughter, Martha, with us.
At first the searching couple found Tahiti very ugly, and full of unlovely smells. But with great industry and faith they turned a 10 acre bit of jungle into a beautiful home with spacious gardens.
Miss Guild sat in her chair, clutched the shining dragon that was pinned near her heart. One cerise slipper began tapping the floor.
We not only discovered, but we developed our paradise. she said. We made our home the show place of the south seas.
On wrapping paper she had drawn plans for the house. Furniture was shipped from Boston, bathroom fixtures from San Francisco, and fine logs from a nearby shipyard. The place was christened Te Anuanua (Rainbow’s End) and the natives gave her a name Pikake (which means Jasmine).
I landscaped those 10 acres of gardens, every inch of it myself. There were 10,000 tulip trees, gardenia bushes by the hundreds, rare hibiscus, ginger plants. I raised the flowers and gave them away to the natives to beautify the island.
We got up very early, and all day long I would work in the garden, remembering how stunted my life would have been had I remained in Boston. And my husband, Ham, spent his time with the birds. He imported hundred of gorgeous species and let them breed.
To their “show place” came trans-Pacific travelers [sic] by the score. Guests included Vincent Astor, Zane Grey, Dole Porter, and Billy Leeds, the tinplate king. The authors of Mutiny on the Bounty cycle, Nordhoff and Hall, were very friendly.
“Carrie” as she was known to the guests, had not entirely lost her American ways. She insisted upon everyone dressing for dinner, even though everyone walked about in shorts during the day. And she cooked gourmet delights.
She had brought down a Fanny Farmer cook book, and taught the natives some of the American recipes. They taught her the joy of eating varo — a fat sea centipede prepared in herbs and olive oil.
Varo is out of this world, she assured her listener. You break the shell with your fingers, dip it in sauce and suck out the meat. And we also loved suckling pig.
Then she invented a rum recipe.
It has a rum base, tropical crushed fruits and dozens of fresh limes. Also native brown sugar. You let the whole thing stand 24 hours, dilute with white wine, then pour the whole business over a block of ice. Gardenias float on top of the bowl for decor. There is only one thing left to do: Push the gardenias aside and drink it.
And the parties!
When there is a full moon over the tropics, the sky is so light you can read a newspaper; and the stars seem to fall to your feet. We held most of the parties in the light of the full moon, along the end of our 180 foot pier.
Natives gliding by in their canoes would be silhouetted in the distance. There would be singing and guitar playing and dancing, with the young men and women going through their paces. The drinking was copious, and everyone would start doing the hula-hula. The Tahitian hula-hula is much faster than the Hawaiian kind, more hip movements and less gesturing with the hands. Those were unforgettable nights.
Next morning, when the natives came around with hangovers, she would pass out aspirins.
When asked if she missed the gimmicks of civilization - theater, movies, golf, bridge, gossip - Miss Guild pursed her lips in a frosty smile.
No. she said.
Another question: When she walked about in her shorts through those tropical jungles wasn’t she afraid of being bitten by a snake?
Again her answer was very definite. There are no snakes in Tahiti, she replied.
Mrs Guild has one very special feather in her bonnet. An expert fisherwoman, she has written many magazine articles under the name Carrie Fin. And she holds the woman’s world record for having reeled in an 823 pound black marlin off the coast of New Zealand, after a 31/2 hour battle that left her knuckles skinned.
Miss Guild, who has strong muscles in the shoulder area, said she had been an athlete in her Wellesley days; she rowed on the varsity crew. She also had been interested in college dramatics, later tried in vain to become an actress in the style of Charlotte Greenwood, whom she always admired.
Perhaps, she finally admitted, if I had succeeded here on the stage I never would have run off to Tahiti. I felt the next best thing was to create my own stage: it was a sort of substitute. Maybe that was the real reason for going away.
I do not know where their house, Te Anuanua, was in Tahiti. The membership list of the Avicultural Society just shows a PO Box Number, Papeete.
After that vicarious people watching, another long quotation would be too much. However, I cannot resist this one from the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pennsylvania) 5 September 1939:
The Sunday party was given by Mr and Mrs Brooke in honor of their house guests, Mrs Eastham Guild and her daughter, Miss Martha Heywood, of Tahiti. Mr Guild, incidentally, in addition to being the woman who holds the world’s record for the biggest marlin ever caught, and to writing fishing articles for various sportsmen’s periodical, has recently been decorated for horticulture by the French government, for having added to the natural beauty of Tahiti by importing all sorts of flowers and trees from other parts of the world. Both she and he daughter, who is planing to attend Barnard, will live in New York this winter…Entertainment at this particular affair, in addition to everything else, although purely impromptu, was decidedly superior too. Miss Heywood in native Tahitian costume did wonderful native Tahitian dances to the accompaniment of the Brookes’ Tahitian victrola records - and when I say wonderful I mean just that. Although she has lived in Tahiti for 16 of her approximately 17 years, it took her four of them to learn the dances, which look deceptively simple until you try to emulate them.
Poor Martha; just copying that was embarrassing.

Tahiti Iti, the southern part of Tahiti connected by an isthmus to Tahiti Nui. Photograph taken from the grounds of the Paul Gaugin Museum

Links to references: