First and Last Songs: The Extinct Song of the Kaua‘i ‘Ö‘ö


In spring, the birds are singing. The males call for females to mate and nest with them. I can’t help but think how wonderful it would be to see people doing the same, to walk down the city street and see a man on every corner—crazy-eyed from nine months celibate—singing desperately for sex, swaying to his own love songs, praying that only through the sweetness of his voice some stranger will suddenly stop, overwhelmed by the beauty of it, lean in for a kiss, and then roll out her blanket to sit down beside him for the summer.

The trees pull up a million gallons of sweet water; the ground crackles with new growth; a billion insects swarm in the evening; flowers bloom; buds rip. If we could hear it all, it would be cacophonous. But the trumpet-boom of this season falls on the birds’ shoulders, on the singing boys. And when I hear the first bird songs, I always think of a story I heard from my ornithology professor, a story about the last song of the Kaua‘i ‘Ö‘ö—a small, honey-eating, copper-gray, and now extinct songbird endemic to the Hawaiian Islands.

The ‘Ö‘ö had been around for five million years before it was killed off in about a hundred and fifty—weakened first by the arrival in the early 1800s of American whaling ships carrying rats (which ate eggs, nestlings, and birds), and then by the introduction of mongooses let loose in 1883 by sugar plantation farmers to kill the rats (the mongooses ate nestlings and eggs, but not the rats, because rats are nocturnal and mongooses, diurnal); they finally succumbed to severe habitat loss and avian diseases (transmitted by the mosquitos brought by whaling ships) for which millennia of adaptive radiation and genetic drift had not prepared them. But in the 1980s, my ornithology professor told me, just before the ‘Ö‘ö was listed as extinct, three biologists heard a male singing, turned on a tape recorder they happened to be carrying, and made a recording of, perhaps, the last ‘Ö‘ö alive. (There is a possible sighting in 1987.)

It’s a story I couldn’t stop thinking of, because, well, just listen to the ‘Ö‘ö. It gets under your skin. You can imagine the male calling, as it were, to nothing, to a forest devoid of potential mates. His bell-like, gulping song sounds like a lamentation, a sob for his ancestors, for the impossibility of offspring. But this is anthropomorphizing: he is just a bird, doing his best to attract a mate that particular season.

With the help of some friends at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I tracked down the man who made the recording. I wanted to talk to someone who might have heard the last animal at the end of its species’ five-million-year run on earth.

James (Jim) Jacobi grew up in Hawai’i and now works at the Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center. He maps the distribution of plant communities through the Hawaiian Islands, focusing on watershed and erosion science. On the phone he told me that the ‘Ö‘ö’s extinction was only a part of the Hawaiian story—one that you could sensationalize, he said, at the cost of an awareness for larger conservation needs in Hawai’i, which are not insignificant. Looking through the list of endemic Hawaiian birds is startling: of the original seventy-one recorded species, twenty-six are extinct and forty-one are on the endangered list. I’ve gotten the sense that when you talk about Hawai’i and you’re not from there, you likely misunderstand the complexity of the islands—in natural or social history.

I told him I understood. But still, I wanted to know what happened the day he made the recording. If he had felt the significance then.

“It started with John Sincock,” Jacobi said. “He was like the Indiana Jones of conservation in Hawai’i in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. A dedicated field person, a mud-on-the-boots sort. He came out in 1966 as part of US Fish and Wildlife Services endangered species research project and established two field stations in Hawai’i. They put researchers in stations, gave them a huge operating budget, and said, go find out what you can about Hawaiian birds.”

After decades of work, establishing a survey of the Hawaiian birds, Sincock decided that it was time to retire, to head back to the mainland. But just before he left, in 1984, he asked Jacobi and another biologist named Peter Stein if they wanted to head into the Kaua’i forest. To go in one last time.

“We met in Kaua’i, and helicoptered into the Alaka’i swamp,” Jacobi said. “We landed in a boggy area, set up a camp. Spent the night. The next day we hiked in to where John had seen some ‘Ö‘ö nests years before. As we came down this ridge and into the stream system that goes through that area, John said, ‘Let’s stop here and listen for a minute.’ So we listened. All of a sudden, we hear ‘Oo’oo – oo-auh.’ ” Jacobi sang over the phone. “Even right now it gives me chicken skin,” he said. “Thinking about it.”

He was silent for some time. Though he’d checked my eagerness for the ‘Ö‘ö story, with a warning not to sensationalize it, I heard in his voice that it was hard not to be moved by it.

“It came so close that we didn’t even need binoculars. He was looking at us, calling. On an ohi’a tree. I took out my tape recorder, clicked it on. The bird sang again, then flitted away. I quickly rewound my tape and then I played it again to see what I got, and I turned up the volume so John and Pete could hear it. And then, bam! All of a sudden, the bird came right back. I thought, this is great, it came back! And then it hit me: The reason it came back is it heard another bird. And it hadn’t heard another bird in, you know, how long. And it turns out this was probably the last one there was.”

And so, the story became even sadder. No more was this the story of the last bird singing into an empty forest, the story of the silence between the notes and the silence when its song ended. The story of the unmatched male. Now there was Jacobi’s playback; the ‘Ö‘ö’s enthusiasm; the moment when it might have thought it wasn’t alone; and the inevitable reality that he was hearing only his own voice.

“We’re never going to hear the ‘Ö‘ö sing in the wild again,” Jacobi said. “Period. End of story.”

In addition to the recordings of the ‘Ö‘ö, the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology was also gifted video footage recorded by John Sincock. (Behind every ‘Ö‘ö story, there seems to be the watermark of Sincock. He passed away in his home in Pennsylvania in 1991.) Eleven short clips. Most are blurry and only show the bird in silhouette, lounging in flowery trees. But in the clearest of the bunch, you see the ‘Ö‘ö on a silver limb in front of a purple and overcast Hawaiian sky. The tree quivers in the wind. You see the ‘Ö‘ö’s white shoulder markings—a male. He stands alert on the limb, twitching, before flitting away, out of frame, leaving the camera focused for a moment on an empty limb.

At home in Massachusetts I don’t hear birds with voices lush and thick like the ‘Ö‘ö’s—I hear whistling trills, the airy cascade of the wren’s notes, the rasp of the catbird, the bobolink’s kaleidoscopic song from the tall grass, the sudden spray of notes that the red-winged blackbird makes from the ponds. We have the talented sopranos, the beautiful but shriller sort, and not tenors of the world. Which is why, while in Amsterdam this past spring, the sound of a nightingale stopped me. It was late at night. I was walking home alone along the cobblestone streets.

The nightingale is a European and African bird. It is gray and unremarkable in coloration, like the ‘Ö‘ö, and also has a full-bodied, liquid voice. The males call up to the stars, hoping to lure down a female migrating north in the night. Because you don’t hear them in America, I paced Amsterdam’s streets, looking for him. The air was warm, the sky clear. The trees lining the canals were still locked in winter, leafless.

I stepped through the archway of a courtyard to hear his watery voice, if not echoing off the brick and stone, enlarged by it. A soloist in an empty church. I sat on a bench beneath the tree in the center of the courtyard, listening to him call to the stars, to the invisible females that must have been flying overhead. This, I thought, is the first night of spring. His voice wasn’t as endangered as the last ‘Ö‘ö’s, but for those minutes it seemed just as rare.


Rumpus original art by Maryam Afaq Ansari.

Ben Shattuck is a graduate and former Teaching-Writing Fellow of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He is the director of the Cuttyhunk Island Writers’ Residency, the curator of the Dedee Shattuck Gallery, and a recipient of the 2017 PEN America Best Debut Short Story Award. His writing can be found in the Harvard Review, Lit Hub, The Common, Salon, The New Republic, The Paris Review Daily, and other publications. He lives in coastal Massachusetts, and spends most of his time painting -- his work can be seen here: More from this author →