Wait Your Tern: Native Birds Stall Honolulu Museum of Art Maintenance Project

White terns, known as manu-o-Kū in Hawaiian, are listed as a threatened species by the state.

Editors Note: Through our partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art, HONOLULU Magazine publishes a monthly blog written by Lesa Griffith, the museum’s communications director and a talented Hawai‘i writer on arts, culture and food. This piece is written by the museum’s digital media associate, Scott Whelden.


The next time you visit the Honolulu Museum of Art, you’ll see some changes. In December, the museum began a beautification project that included painting the façade and colonnades around its Central Courtyard, relandscaping the Mediterranean Courtyard (a top selfie spot) and updating the general color scheme. The facelift is thanks to a gift from investor and museum trustee Jay Shidler.


Mediterranean Courtyard
The Mediterranean Courtyard looks shiny and new thanks to paint, removal of a hedge and the addition of new flora.
Photos: Courtesy of the Honolulu Museum of Art


And there’s a lot more sunshine, too—the museum was forced to remove the two towering trees in the Central Courtyard—a mango and a kamani. Close inspection revealed the trees above and below ground were threatening the building and visitor safety, with branches damaging the roof, and the roots on the verge of busting through the basement walls.

After securing the blessing of The Outdoor Circle, the museum set the tree removal project for late March. But, just days before Trees of the Tropics was scheduled to start sawing off branches, it was discovered that a white tern egg had recently hatched in the mango tree. As with the $8 million improvement project for downtown’s No. 1 Capitol District Building, the museum had to  reschedule plans to accommodate its avian residents.

  White terns

White terns sitting pretty in the museum’s mango tree, which is scheduled to be removed next month.


White terns (known as manu-o-Kū in Hawaiian, and also known as fairy terns, angel terns or white noddies) are a Native Hawaiian seabird, and are listed as a threatened species by the state. According to whiteterns.org, prior to the 1960s the birds passed through O‘ahu on their way to other sites, until a single pair with an egg was discovered on Koko Head in 1961. Now experts estimate that thousands nest on the island.


The museum rescheduled the tree removal for May 7 to 9, and worked with the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure the terns’ safety. It was then discovered that the mango tree was home to two new eggs and four chicks at various stages of growth.


So, the museum, under the direction of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Keith Swindle, removed only the kamani tree. As it was cut up, the tree trimmers discovered the top two-thirds of the tree rotting from the inside—the trunk was hollow. “It came down just in time,” says director of operations Eric Walden, who orchestrated the project’s many moving parts. The wood was planed on site by Craig Swedberg of Craig’s Creative Style, and will be used to make benches for the museum, as well as go to woodworkers affiliated with the Art School.


For now the mango tree—a stripped-down version—remains standing. “What we’re doing is cutting branches off the tree away from the tern nests,” says Swindle. “These terns are really tolerant. They live in urban Honolulu—some live just a few feet over where busses go by, or down in Waikīkī just five or six feet over where thousands of people walk by every day, so the disturbance is not that big of a deal. But we’re trying to not dislodge an egg or a chick. The reason we’re doing any work at all now is that we don’t want the museum to get stuck. As soon as a bird lays an egg, that’s another three-month wait. So we cut areas with no chicks to prevent other terns from laying eggs.”


Swindle directed the Trees of the Tropics crew, pointing out which branches could be cut, the speed at which they should be cut and lowered, and how big the cuts should be—to minimize tern disturbance. Up to a dozen terns elegantly swirled around the courtyard as work progressed.


“When the chicks are really little, if they get dislodged from where they hatched it’s a big problem,” says Swindle. “When they’re older and moving around, their parents will follow them around. Most of the chicks are flying around pretty well, and will end up moving, and for them there should be no problem, as they’ll move to nearby trees.”


The Fish and Wildlife Service followed the same strategy when trees were removed from Thomas Square Park across the street—which is what led to a boost in the museum’s tern population.


The museum, the DLNR, and the U.S. Fish an Wildlife Service are continuing to monitor the terns’ progress. Walden estimates the museum will be able to remove the mango tree in mid-June, by which time the current eggs, nestlings and fledglings will have all become branchers ready to leave their perches.

  Wood from kamani tree

Wood from the kamani tree will be used to make benches for the museum.


While the Central Courtyard now looks like a logging camp in central Africa, the grass will be replaced by a healthy lawn, and new planters will sprinkle the perimeter. From there the museum will determine if it can plant two new trees that won’t grow into basement-threatening monsters.


In addition to the two eggs and four chicks, Swindle estimated that at least 12 adults lived in the mango tree.


“This kind of thing is happening more and more because the population of terns is growing,” says Swindle. “It’s a good problem to have.”



Lesa GriffithLesa Griffith is director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Born in Honolulu, one of her early seminal art experiences was at the Honolulu Museum of Art, when on a field trip her high school art history teacher pointed out that the ermine cape in Whistler’s Portrait of Lady Meux was not just a cape—it was visual signage leading viewers’ eyes through the painting.