|Female volcano ʻelepaio
Chasiempis sandwichensis ridgwayi
The ʻelepaios are three species of monarch flycatcher in the genus Chasiempis. They are endemic to Hawaiʻi and were formerly considered conspecific. They measure 14 cm long and weigh 12–18 g. One species inhabits the Big Island, another Oʻahu and the third Kauaʻi. Being one of the most adaptable native birds of the archipelago, no subspecies have yet become extinct, though two have become quite rare.
The ʻelepaio is the first native bird to sing in the morning and the last to stop singing at night; apart from whistled and chattering contact and alarm calls, it is probably best known for its song, from which derives the common name: a pleasant and rather loud warble which sounds like e-le-PAI-o or ele-PAI-o. It nests between January and June.
The species are:
- Hawaiʻi ʻelepaio, Chasiempis sandwichensis
- O'ahu ʻelepaio, Chasiempis ibidis
- Kauaʻi ʻelepaio, Chasiempis sclateri
Uniquely among Hawaiian passerines, the distribution of the ʻelepaio is peculiarly discontinuous. It does not – and judging from the lack of fossil remains, apparently never did – occur on Maui Nui or its successor islands. If this assumption is correct, the reasons are unknown at present. However, the strange "flycatcher finches", extinct honeycreepers of the genus Vangulifer, are only known to have inhabited Maui and probably evolved on Maui Nui. There, they probably filled the same ecological niche as the ʻelepaio did on the other islands. Competition from Vangulifer may thus have prevented a successful colonization of Maui Nui by Chasiempis.
In Hawaiian tradition, the ʻelepaio was among the most celebrated of the birds. It is associated with a number of significant roles in culture and mythology. Chiefly, it helped kālai waʻa (canoe-builders) to select the right koa tree to use for their waʻa (canoe). The ʻelepaio is a bold and curious little bird, and thus it was attracted to humans whom it found working in its habitat, and it quickly learned to exploit feeding opportunities created by human activity, altering its behavior accordingly – which incidentally made it even more conspicuous.
For example, it followed canoe builders through dense vegetation, watching them as they searched for suitable trees. They considered it their guardian spirit, an incarnation of their patron goddess Lea, because if the bird pecked at a fallen tree, it was a sign that the tree was riddled with burrowing insects and thus not good anymore, but when the bird showed no interest in a tree, it indicated that the wood was suitable. This is the origin of the ancient Hawaiian proverb, ʻUā ʻelepaio ʻia ka waʻa ("The canoe is marked out by the ʻelepaio").
In addition, the bird was well liked for another reason – it was good to eat, and not subject to kapu restrictions. Due to its insectivorous habit, farmers believed the ʻelepaio to be the incarnation of Lea's sister goddess, Hina-puku-ʻai, who protected food plants and was a patron of agriculture.
As the bird was just as useful – perhaps even more useful – to humans alive as it was as food, overhunting of populations, while theoretically permissible under the kapu laws, did not usually occur. Additionally, although deforestation for agriculture destroyed some habitat, the ʻelepaio managed to adapt well to the initial settlement. Thus, its population was large enough to withstand the additional pressures that came about with Western colonization of the islands.
- James, Helen F. & Olson, Storrs L. (1991). "Descriptions of Thirty-Two New Species of Birds from the Hawaiian Islands: Part II. Passeriformes" (PDF). Ornithological Monographs 46: 1–88. doi:10.2307/40166713.
- Kanahele, George S. (1996): Waikiki 100 B.C. to 1900 A.D. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, p. 29, ISBN 0824817907.
- Soehren, Rick (1996): The Birdwatcher's Guide to Hawaiʻi. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, p. 1, ISBN 0824816838.
- VanderWerf, Eric A. (1994). "Intraspecific variation in foraging behavior of Elepaio in Hawaiian forests of different structure" (PDF). Auk 111 (4): 917–932. doi:10.2307/4088824.