The Black Mamo

This Black mamo painting was created for a section on extinction for National Geographic School Publishing. In the foreground is a species of Lobelia flower, whose nectar is the exclusive food of this now extinct native Hawaiian bird.

illustration of black mamo The Black Mamo

The Black Mamo

 

FOR MILLIONS OF YEARS, life was sweet for us black mamos. We lived like everyone else on Hawaii, taking it easy, hanging loose. We did what we had evolved to do: sip sweet nectar from curved, tubular and very abundant Lobelia flowers with our sickle-shaped bills. We weren’t pretty, but that was fine with us. When the Polynesians arrived and started trapping our cousins, the Hawaiian mamos, for their bright yellow feathers to make capes for their kings, they left us alone. We had no fear.

Until we were “discov­ered” by science in 1893, in the form of a partic­ular biolo­gist named Robert Perkins. Professor Perkins named our “new” species <i>Drepanis funerea</i> because our colors reminded him of a funeral suit—and also because, for some reason, he thought we wouldn’t be much longer in this world. As it turned out, we were dressed up for our own funeral.

And sure enough, the last verifi­able sighting of one of us was made by another biolo­gist only 14 years later—just before he shot it. I quote from his field notes: “To my joy I found the mangled remains hanging in the tree in a thick bunch of leaves, six feet or more beyond where it had been sitting. It was, as I feared, very badly mutilated. However, it was made into a very fair cabinet skin.” How’s that for adding insult to injury?

Artist Paul Mirocha painted these black mamos to illus­trate the word “extinct” for first-grade kids. Extinct: A living thing becomes extinct when no members of its group are alive on Earth. I just about shed a tear when I first saw the art. That’s a flattering profile, my good side, and he also got it right about how things were back “in the day.”
So when you next go to Hawaii to hang loose, take it easy, and sip a Mai Tai, remember the black mamo.

Aloha.

illustration of Screen shot 2011 09 16 at 12.19.36 PM 1024x622 The Black Mamo

 

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