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Wilson's I'iwi

The intriguing story behind a small red stuffed bird from Hawaii by Dan Gordon (the museum's Keeper of Biology).

Wilson's I'iwi

Among the Great North Museum: Hancock’s many pieces of taxidermy is a small red bird. Unlabelled and clearly quite old, it has no accompanying information. However, its bright scarlet feathers and powerful, scimitar-like bill are rather striking.

When I found it, it struck me as an interesting puzzle, and my quest to identify it has uncovered some fascinating insights into the Society’s collection.

I had a vague sense that it might be a honeycreeper – a native Hawaiian bird. To try and confirm this, I got in touch with Paul Sweet, curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He concurred, and was even able toidentify the species – the I’iwi (pronounced ee-EE-vi) Drepanis coccicinea. Like a hummingbird, the I’iwi can hover and drinks nectar. It is an altitudinal migrant, following the progress of flowers as they develop up the volcanic slopes through the year. It is still fairly common on most of the Hawaiian islands although now extinct on some. Its restricted range means that it is listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN.

Vestiaria_coccinea_-Hawaii_-adult-8_(3)

A quick search of our museum database revealed an old entry in the museum’s Accession Register from 11 November, 1889:

Specimen of Corvus hawaiiensis from “Kona” Hawaii. Two of a Honey-Eater from Keauhou, Kona. Presented per J. Hancock by Scott Wilson Esq. Heather Bank, Weybridge

Wilson entry

So my bird was more than likely one of the ‘Honey-Eaters’ mentioned. I set about tracking down the other two birds mentioned in the book. The Hawaiian Crow Corvus hawaiiensis I had seen before, a skin. Notable for the fact that this species is now classed as Extinct in the Wild by the IUCN, the large black bird seemed the polar opposite of the tiny red I’iwi once I’d laid them out together in the store. My next task was to track down the other ‘Honey-Eater’. Sure enough, this turned out to be another skin, this time with handwritten labels confirming the details in the Accession Register.

So, who was the donor, Scott Wilson Esq.? A little online sleuthing, and I was able to discover via the work of journalist Andrew Esposito that Scott Wilson was quite notable in several ways. He was the younger son of successful industrial chemist and entrepreneur George Fergusson Wilson, the man who established the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley in Surrey. Scott Wilson studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge, and while still a young man he led a highly successful collecting expedition to Hawaii in 1888, then known as the Sandwich Islands. Wilson’s Aves Hawaiiensis, written following his return to Britain (and illustrated by Frederick Frohawk, his picture of the I’iwi shown here), was the first comprehensive work on Hawaiian birds and in it he named a dozen new species. It’s amazing to think that our specimens were alive on Hawaii when many of the island’s native species were still numerous. Species like the Koa Finch and Hawaiian Rail, which have now become extinct, would have been around at the time.

Plate from Aves Hawaiienses

Plate from Aves Hawaiienses

A letter in the Society’s archive indicates that Wilson was friends with John Hancock, which helps explain why these specimens came to the Society. Given that there was no record of the I’iwi arriving as a mounted specimen, it seems probable that Hancock mounted the bird– we know he did this with other important specimens in the collection, such as the Huia skins he received from New Zealand.

Wilson seems to have been rather a tragic figure. Despite this early scientific triumph, he struggled to establish himself as an academic, and his choice of career was very unpopular with his entrepreneurial father. The story reached a sad end in January 1923, when, overlooked professionally and struggling financially, Scott wrote to his sister Alice from his home in the village of Evenden, Hampshire. “I have been wandering the forest all day. I am up against a stone wall. You have been the staunchest of sisters”. Alice, deeply troubled by the letter, immediately made plans to visit him. Sadly, before she had a chance to see him he had taken his own life.

So, this small red bird with no label turns out to be from a very significant donation, and a rather poignant reminder of the impermanence, not just of species, but of life in general.