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Birds of the Big Island, Hawaii: Introduced Game Birds

posted by Ryan O'Donnell at
on Thursday, December 1, 2011 

In the early part of November, I went to the Big Island of Hawaii to present some of my research at a conference.  But of course, while I was there, I did a lot of birding.  Here is the first of what I intend to be several blog posts about the natural history of Hawaii; this one on the introduced birds.

Hawaii is a very unique place, thousands of miles from the nearest continent.  It has a unique biota that evolved on the island, with thousands of species found only in this island chain and nowhere else on earth.  (More on some of those later.)  But, the island has been heavily impacted by the humans that have lived there, first by the Polynesians, who arrived around the middle of the first century A.D., and later by more recent human arrivals, starting with Captain Cook's arrival in 1778 and continuing today.  These human arrivals have brought with them a variety of species from around the world, for a variety of purposes.  So many species have been introduced to Hawaii that at times, birding there seemed like birding in an outdoor zoo.  Many of these species have been introduced for food, initially for sustenance and later for recreation.  This post will focus on the game birds, and a later one will focus on the songbirds.

The Red Junglefowl, a.k.a. "chicken" was introduced by the Polynesians for food.  There were large bird species already on the islands, but these were quickly hunted to extinction.  The descendants of the Polynesians' chickens still live in the wild on the island of Kauai, but feral chickens of more recent origin can be found on many of the other islands, including Hawaii.  This one was photographed near the Waimea airport.  It is a descendent of a more recent introduction, but these species are wild on the Big Island and I believe they are sustaining their numbers through their own reproduction.

Several species of introduced game birds will be familiar to North American birders, because they have been introduced to North America for the same reason.  Others were native to North America, but were transplanted to Hawaii to increase hunting opportunities there.  One of the later is the Wild Turkey.  These were introduced in 1815 from North America and can be found on several of the islands.  This one was photographed at the edge of a golf course.

Another species familiar to North American birders is the California Quail.  My book says these were introduced "before 1855," so I guess the actual date of introduction is not known.  Gambel's Quail is also supposed to be present on the Big Island, but I didn't see any in my time there.  Based on my experience and on records in eBird, I think California Quail far outnumber Gambel's Quail on the Big Island.  This one was photographed in the rain near Hakalau Forest NWR, one of the best places to see the native honeycreepers.  That pretty yellow flower in the background is also an introduced species, called gorse.

(I saw a few other species that are also found in North America, including Chukar and Ring-necked Pheasant, but I didn't get any photographs of them.)

A few of the game birds introduced to Hawaii are not found in North America.  These were more exciting for me, because most of them were new to me.  All three of these species are in a group called Francolins, one of the most diverse groups of game birds.  Francolins were once considered one genus, Francolinus, but they are now split among several genera.  Francolins are native mostly to Africa, with a few species from Asia.

The Gray Francolin was common in the lowlands, and was the only species of Francolin I had seen before (on a previous trip to Hawaii).  I saw them near the hotel, along golf courses, and from several roads around the towns.  They are native to India, and were introduced to Hawaii in 1958 for hunting.

The Black Francolin was probably the rarest of the Francolins I saw.  Like the Gray Francolin, they were introduced from India in the late 1950s for hunting.  In my experience, they seemed to be found at higher elevations and in more remote locations than the Gray Francolin, although I only saw a handful of these in my two weeks on the island.

Finally, the Erckel's Francolin was probably the most common game bird I saw on the island.  Like the Black Francolin, these were usually found away from the coastal cities, on the highways and other roads in somewhat higher country, although I did see quite a few of these on a golf course near a city.  The Erckel's Francolin was introduced from Africa in the late 1950s, around the time of the other francolins.  This one was photographed at sunset along the Saddle Road.

In total, I saw nine species of introduced game birds on the Big Island.  I looked for a few others that are known to be present, including Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and Red-billed Francolin, but I didn't find them.  Coming next: watch for a post about the introduced songbirds of the Big Island, and later, a few posts about the native birds!

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