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Monday, December 4, 2000

Birdsí calls sound
like human moans

ONE dark night in a remote research station of Hawaii's northwest wildlife refuge, several biologists sat around a candle-lit table. One worker was new to Hawaii, and they were all getting acquainted.

Suddenly, through the sounds of breaking surf and blustery wind came an agonizing groan. The conversation stopped. Another moan cut through the shrieking air.

"Someone is hurt," the newcomer gasped.

The refuge manager jumped up. "Let's go."

The workers grabbed flashlights and rushed out the door. The eerie moans grew louder. Stooping, the manager shined his light underneath the old barracks. "Oh, my God. Look!"

The newcomer bent down and stole an anxious glance into the odorous space.

And that's when the veteran biologists burst out laughing. Instead of a dying person, the newcomer was looking at a surprised wedge-tailed shearwater wailing loudly for a mate.

This practical joke (popular among refuge workers) is easy to pull off because the spring mating calls of shearwaters sound much like humans groaning in pain. By fall, these moaners have mated, raised chicks and taken off. Now their youngsters are venturing out to sea.

Unfortunately, fledgling shearwaters don't always make it off our crowded islands. Some lose their way, then get stranded on our lanais, lawns and doorsteps.

NICKNAMED wedgies in Hawaii, wedge-tailed shearwaters spend most of their lives skimming, or shearing, the water's surface in search of larval fish and flying squid driven to the surface by schools of fish. This makes wedgies important to anglers, who use the birds as markers.

Wedgies, who mate for life, return to their nesting colonies between February and April. There, mated couples face each other and sing long, wailing duets. Single birds groan alone to attract a mate. Soon the pairs renovate or dig ground or rock burrows, mate and tend their one egg.

Most wedge-tail chicks are ready to leave their burrows by late fall. The fledglings take their first flight at night and head for the ocean.

But not always. Electric lights on the main islands confuse the birds, and instead of flying seaward, they fly inland, crashing into trees, power lines and houses. Without rescue, grounded birds get hit by cars or eaten by cats, dogs or mongooses.

Here's how you can help a grounded shearwater:

1. Put the bird in a box with air holes in the lid. This is not cruel. Dark, snug spaces are home to wedgie chicks. If you aren't used to handling birds, drop a small towel over it before gently placing it in the box. These mild-mannered birds can scratch or peck when frightened.

2. If the bird has no fluffy down feathers on it (meaning it's mature), take it to a uncrowded beach in the daytime, preferably with an offshore wind. Set the bird in the sand, step back and wait. Sometimes, it takes 30 minutes or more for the bird to get the idea and fly off.

3. If the bird is still downy or doesn't fly away, take it to Sea Life Park before 5 p.m.

4. If you can't drive out there, call state Biologist Dave Smith at 973-9786. Someone will try to come for the bird.

5. The Hawaiian Humane Society (946-2187) also picks up stranded wedgies.

If you keep the bird overnight while awaiting pickup, don't try to give it food or water. Just let it rest in a cozy, well-ventilated box.

And if by chance you hear moaning in the night, check the bird before dialing 911.



Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, "Ocean Watch",
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,