This long-awaited book is the definitive study of the extraordinary family of endemic Hawaiian birds known as honeycreepers, all evolved from a single species of finch and providing textbook examples of adaptive radiation, evolution and extinction.
The book consists of two parts: chapters on general issues such as habitats, classification and behavior are followed by detailed features on each species (including historically known extinct species and even those known only from subfossils). Illustrations are mostly black and white photographs but the birds are also depicted in fine colour plates drawn by the author, allowing him to bring to life extinct species such as the black mamo and scarlet kakawahie of Moloka'i.
Pratt's career, as revealed in occasional autobiographical comments, renders him uniquely equipped for the task. As a child, he discovered the exotic honeycreepers by chance through a bird book. His 1979 PhD thesis focused on Hawaiian birds, and brilliant insights from it permeate the book: for example, based on the song of the tui of New Zealand, he hypothesises that the songs of the i'iwi and apapane still mimic those of long-extinct Hawaiian honeyeaters such as the o'o. Puzzling features such as the strange odour of some species and the tendency of young apanane to jump out of the nest when disturbed are interpreted as adaptive defenses against extinct predators (notably a harrier and a stilt owl).
Pratt was privileged to be among the last to see, for example, the once ubiquitous o'u (a grainy photograph from 1975 appears in black and white here, and in colour in some of his other books) and record its song. Having lived through a crucial period of decline, he has already witnessed the extinction of numerous species, largely through habitat loss and mosquito-borne disease which leave the remaining honeycreepers confined to high-elevation forests. Despite glimmers of hope such as emerging resistance to malaria in the amakihi and apapane, the author wonders how many of the honeycreepers will outlive him. As a postscript, the po'uli, first discovered on Maui in 1973, became extinct following attempts to introduce the last three individuals to each other, and eventually to capture them for captive breeding. Perhaps the crimson apapane, featured on the cover along with the sacred 'ohi'a lehua tree, will live on as testament to the honeycreepers that once were.