Can you bruise your eyeball? Because I think I did. And the perpetrator was a giant moth. It happened last night. I was outside, with a backyard light shining, walking my two dogs before bed. I saw the moth, thought, Holy moly, that thing’s big, as it circled the light, and made a sudden detour like a missile—for my eye.
I dropped my dog’s leash to the ground and covered my face with my hands. Doubled over, stunned, and in pain, my brain reflected on a presentation on invertebrates at last week’s Hawaii Conservation Conference by Dr. Daniel Rubinoff. You know, invertebrates. As in, insects. Bugs.
“Everyone gets all fired up about the birds around here,” he said. “It’s always birds, birds, birds. Why aren’t we talking about re-introducing one of the 27 native species of moths still around to go with the Nihoa millerbird in Laysan? Why only do partial restorations? Typically we only discover a distinct moth when we discover a near extinct plant.”
Today, my eyeball feels tender but, thankfully, my eyesight is fine. And I’m using my eyes to do some research, thanks to the voice of Dr. Rubinoff still echoing about my head.
What I discovered is that the millerbird was, most likely, named after the miller moth, its favorite food source, which, in turn, was named for its powdery wings, much like a miller, who grinds grain into flour and goes home at the end of the day with a dusting on his (or her) clothing.
Hence, millerbirds and miller moths are intricately connected.
As far as scientists know, there are only two known species—and populations—of millerbirds in the world--one on the island of Nihoa and another on Laysan, two of the many islands and atolls that make up the Papahānaumokuakea Marine National Monument – extending 800 miles northwest from the island of Kaua'i. In the early 20th century, the Laysan species went extinct when non-native rabbits and cattle took over the island.
Nihoa, a small, barren island only 156 acres in size, remains the only remaining home for millerbirds in the world, with a population of the tiny passerine that fluctuates widely, from 30 to 800. It was listed as endangered in 1967, even before the passage of the Endangered Species Act.
Earlier this year, I read about the translocation of Nihoa millerbirds to Laysan, in an effort to boost the species’ population and distribution and stave off extinction. But the details of the work didn’t stick in my brain. I couldn’t remember if the millerbirds were moved from Nihoa to Laysan or Laysan to Nihoa. And I really didn’t know what the heck a millerbird was. I confess to more of an attachment to larger, more charismatic birds—seabirds, especially Laysan and Black-footed albatrosses.
By contrast, the Nihoa millerbird reaches adult size of five inches. That’s about the length of the bill of an albatross. Further, it weights less than an ounce and forages for insects on the ground among low shrubs and bunch grass, moving much the way a mouse does.
Now, intrigued by Dr. Rubinoff’s impassioned message and the moth right before my eyes, I am paying attention.
My research reveals that scientists estimate 38 fledglings on Laysan as a result of the translocation of some 50 individual birds in 2011 and 2012.
But what about the miller moths?
Well “miller” is the name for a family of moths that is primarily nocturnal. They range in size from ¾” to 6”, and they can be quite striking. Miller moths can be found all across the main Hawaiian Islands, some are introduced species, some are endemic. Perhaps the most attractive is the endemic `Aumakua `Oma`oma`o, which is relatively rare across the islands of Kauai, Maui and Molokai.
Of course, I want to know more, so look out, Dr. Rubinoff, I will be calling.
I have no idea whether the moth that attacked me last night was a miller, because I didn’t get a good luck at it. Or, rather, I got too good a look. But I know this: Tonight, when I head out to walk the dogs before bedtime, I’ll wear my snorkel mask for protection.
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