Rarotonga's Birds: Barometers of Cook Islands Environmental Health and Concern.
Flower images, Lucia Appleby
Rarotonga's Birds: Barometers of Cook Islands Environmental Health and Concern by Lucia Appleby.

People visiting Rarotonga in the Cook Islands often hear the cheerful whistle, "ee-oi, ee-oi!", without knowing what bird made the call. Or if they are very fortunate, they may actually see the grey brown, medium-sized bird - a little smaller than a myna -named after its distinctive call.

The Rarotonga starling or I`oi, is one of only four native landbirds that live on this lush volcanic island. Within the past two centuries, at least three species of starlings native to the Pacific have become extinct.

The flycatcher Kakerori, is another well-known native, found only on Rarotonga. The Kakerori was until recently on the verge of extinction, but is now making a comeback. Due to the efforts of the Kakerori Recovery Program, a population increase from 29 birds in 1989 to 140 in 1997 was documented.

The Rarotonga starling is being closely montitored to ensure it does not become endangered.
Rarotonga starling.
 Gerald McCormack
Rarotonga flycatcher, Kakerori, makes great bird pictures on vacation.
Kakerori parenting in their juvenile plumage. Birds four years and older are grey. Gerald McCormack

William Wyatt-Gill, a missionary in the 1800s, wrote about the I`oi when he was in Rarotonga, and described hunting methods for catching flocks as they fed. It's also been suggested that when myna birds were introduced to the island at the turn of the century, they drove other wild birds to the highlands. This could explain why I`oi are largely found in the highlands today, although they still make the occasional appearance in gardens at lower levels.

Knowledge of this small brown bird has been minimal though research is currently under way by local environmental groups and individuals into the bird's population and distribution around Rarotonga. Estimates differ widely from 3,000 to 500. Anna Tiraa, a local islander and independent researcher studying the bird, doesn't believe it is endangered yet: "It's classified under international standards as "vulnerable" because it is restricted to one small island, but the numbers have to be below 500 before it is considered "endangered"."

South Pacific map including Cook Islands.
The Cook Islands consist of 15 islands scattered over some 2 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean. Most are coral atolls, while Rarotonga has a high volcanic base. They lie in the center of the Polynesian Triangle, flanked to the west by the Kingdom of Tonga and the Samoas and to the east by Tahiti and the islands of French Polynesia.
Map courtesy of www.mapsouthpacific.com

Just as there's very little printed material on the I`oi, there's even less anecdotal information. In 1999, during a Rarotonga-hosted environmental workshop for Polynesian countries, the Cook Islands flagged establishing I`oi numbers as a priority project. As part of Anna Tiraa's subsequent research, interviews established islanders' lack of knowledge about this native. Only a small number of younger locals had heard or seen it compared to their elders. Even with a photo of the I`oi and the call imitated to interviewees, most still hadn't a clue what bird made the distinctive "ee-oi" call.

"The younger generation are just not as aware of their flora and fauna as their elders," says Anna. "This is reflected in our change of lifestyle over the years . and a lot less interaction with our natural environment."

Anna's 2003 fieldwork has involved counting and mapping birds over a 12-month period, with a survey of sightings and calls in the major catchment areas and side valleys across the interior of Rarotonga.

Native flora and fauna are under siege in the Cook Islands, as they are in many parts of the world. Clearing of land for agriculture and building [including for tourism development], use and overuse of chemicals, and domestic animals, like cats, introduced to the island are all challenges for the I`oi.

Rarotonga rare bird pictures,Cook Islands birding holidays,Cook Islands birdwatching.
On a hike in the Rarotonga highlands, you're never
far from the sea.
 Lucia Appleby

Gerald McCormack of the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust believes that a monitoring program is essential: "This will ensure early warning if the bird is being pushed into a serious decline by a nature hazard like a major hurricane, or an introduced hazard like avian pox or malaria. Like any other single-island endemic bird, the I`oi should be regularly monitored."

To read Lucia Appleby's personal observations about independent vacationing on Rarotonga, click here.

Love those birds? Don't miss other richly-illustrated articles in our web magazine collection about the birds of the Hawaiian Islands and the birds of Trinidad and Tobago.

Based in Australia, Lucia Appleby is a freelance editor and journalist whose work has appeared in a wide range of newspapers and magazines. She also operates a public relations and media consultancy.
Email: luciaappleby@hotmail.com

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