Editor’s note: Iconic Welsh artist Ralph Steadman illustrated the Maui parrotbill for our special multimedia project on the plight of the kiwikiu. Here’s how that came about.
Weird is the word that Hanna Mounce uses to describe the critically endangered Maui parrotbill, or kiwikiu.
“The fact that they stay together in a pair year-round — weird,” says Mounce, who leads the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project. “The fact that they lay one egg — weird. The fact that their chicks stay with them for up to 18 months — not a typical songbird.”
Her comments stuck with me when I returned to Honolulu after a 10-day stint in the woods with Mounce and a team of biologists trying to save the species from extinction.
The word “weird,” in particular, kept rattling around in my brain. And there are exactly two people who come to mind when I think of weird.
Hunter S. Thompson, the late gonzo journalist who wrote about being “too weird to live, and too rare to die,” and Ralph Steadman, a Welsh artist whose own illustrated memoir of sorts is titled “Proud Too Be Weirrd.” He first partnered with Thompson in 1970 to cover the Kentucky Derby and went on to do the iconic art for “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “The Curse of Lono” and other strange sagas.
Several years ago, Steadman turned his focus to endangered and extinct birds while working on books with English author-filmmaker Ceri Levy. I’ve lugged my coffee table-sized copy of their first foray, “Extinct Boids,” to the last five places I’ve lived.
Its illustrations and accompanying dialogue feature many Hawaii birds that have gone extinct. The Lanai hookbill, the Bishop’s oo, the greater koa finch, the Kona grosbeak, the Hawaii mamo.
It also includes Steadman’s renditions of several still clinging to their existence here in the islands. The apapane, the iiwi, the amakihi, the alauahio, the akohekohe.
But no kiwikiu. That is, until now.
I fired off a long-shot email to Steadman last month, explaining that I was working on a multimedia piece about the work biologists are doing to save this species from extinction.
Might a new piece by the famed artist help draw the public’s attention to the plight of the Maui parrotbill?
To my surprise, I heard back within 24 hours from his daughter Sadie Williams, who manages his vast art collection, and Levy. We set up a Skype call between England and Oahu and chatted about the project as well as their latest enterprise, Gonzovation, which is about adapting conservation into your daily life.
Levy and Steadman invented the word in 2017 in their last book, “Critical Critters,” which is about the world’s endangered animals.
Here’s how they define it:
Levy and Steadman are asking folks to sign a Gonzovationist manifesto, a pledge to stand up for the natural world by taking action big and small. Cleaning up litter. Planting flowers. Volunteering at a nature reserve.
Basically, they are asking people to do anything more than just “ticking a like box on social media.” That, they say, is not gonzovation but a dereliction of duty.
I sent my initial email on a Wednesday. By Monday, Sadie had sent me Ralph’s first-of-its-kind kiwikiu, describing it as a “very endearing little chap.”
“Serendipity is frequently the architect of our gonzovationist work and we have to be ready to spring into action when situations appear out of the blue,” Ceri says. “This is an opportunity for us to get back in the bird game.”
Here’s Ceri’s account of the chat he and Sadie had with Ralph about this project.
Ceri: Hey Ralph, there’s a bird we need to cover that we didn’t talk about previously. It’s the Maui Parrotbill or to give it its Hawaiian name, which it was only given in 2010, the Kiwikiu.
Ralph: If it’s a Kiwi, has it travelled from New Zealand?
Ceri: No! It’s a Kiwikiu … It’s from Hawaii. It’s a honeycreeper and we have previously depicted several Hawaiian birds including honeycreepers. If you remember we got in a tangle as to whether certain birds were alive or extinct. We got very confused.
Ralph: Yes, we went all confused.com. Hawaii? Last time I was there I covered the Honolulu Marathon with Hunter for what would become The Curse of Lono. It was chaos. True Gonzo. I remember Hunter and myself running the first three miles of the race and then a truck picked us up and took us the rest of the way to the bottom of Heartbreak Hill and there we got off and got ourselves into a position where the runners came past us after running twenty miles and while holding drinks in our hands we shouted at them, “Run, you bastards, run!” Breathless runners were hurling abuse back at us and accused us of being non-sporting! Perhaps I should feel a little guilty, so if there’s something we can do to help them over there …
Sadie: So this is your chance to make amends to the good folk of Hawaii. Draw the Kiwikiu! Cue the Kiwikiu …
Ralph: Righto, I’ll get right on to it. Now where’s me yellah ink?
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