There are very few birds in Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac. I got a little bit excited when, on the first page of Chapter 1 the narrator and main character says, “I hoped I would see an eagle, for that would be a good sign.” However, no eagle appeared, either at that point or at any other in the story.
There were certainly some great nature-related similes and other images throughout the book, though.
Our teachers … watched us the way coyotes watch a prairie dog hole.
A lizard ran up to my feet, stopped, bobbed up and down, and then ran off again.
The hours and days, the weeks and months and even the years, grew legs and began to run like an antelope.
And there were hints of birds in some of the code words used: Gíní, “chicken hawk,” was dive bomber. Even one of the ceremonial songs the Code Talkers performed before leaving Camp Elliot was named the Bluebird Song.
But mostly, there’s just not much in the way of birds in this book. Except for one very brief mention that grew into something a bit more. While stationed at Pearl Harbor in Oahu, Hawaii, Ned sees a bird that he describes for the reader (or the listeners, as the book is told as if Ned were telling the story to young Navajos on the Big Rez).
A little bird with a curved beak was flying around our heads. It was as blue as the sheen of water and it just kept buzzing back and forth among the bloodred flowers of a tall bush that arched over me.
It’s a lovely description. And it’s vague enough that my first thought was, “Well, I’ll never figure that out.” I was right, but not because the description is too vague. I’ve visited the Big Island of Hawaii twice, so I knew a little bit about the plight of the native Hawaiian birds, and I realized I might not find a bird seen on Oahu in 1943 because the bird mentioned might very well be extinct.
The birding app I use on my iPhone is iBird, but they also have a fantastic search tool that I sometimes use for bird descriptions like this one–where I (or whoever is describing the bird) have no real idea what family it might fall into. It’s perfect for beginning birders who can’t say yet, “Oh, that looks like a warbler,” to know where to start looking in a bird book.
The tool does cover Hawaii, but when I put in main color blue, location Hawaii, I got nothing. I tried rare and Hawaii–nothing. I unchecked Hawaii, and re-entered main color blue, curved or needle bill, small or tiny, and came up with about 5 species of hummingbirds. But there are no hummingbirds in Hawaii.
Hawaii is isolated enough that many endemic species developed there and no place else on earth, including several “niche” groups of honeycreepers–birds that have developed to fill a particular niche in the environment, the way hummingbirds have in North and South America. However, a huge percentage of those species have become extinct due to first Polynesian and then European explorers and colonizers of the islands.
The colonizers brought (some purposely, some inadvertently) new and invasive species of birds, some of which had the same food sources as endemic species. More importantly, however, some of the birds they brought were carriers of avian malaria, and the explorers also brought mosquitoes. Just as so many native peoples were killed by new diseases brought by explorers and colonizers, so were many birds.
The honeycreepers–Hawaii’s homegrown answer to hummingbirds (and grosbeaks, but this description is more hummingbird-like)–were hit especially hard. Scientists estimate that less than half of Hawaii’s endemic species of honeycreepers still exist.
Wikipedia has a page dedicated to Hawaiian honeycreeper conservation, which includes a list of extinct species, many of which have their own pages as well. However, as I looked at the information available there, I realized–none of the honeycreepers, extinct, endangered, or not, are blue. Most of them are yellow, or have yellow markings. A few are red or have red markings. One or two are black and white. But none of them are blue. (Or iridescent. “As blue as the sheen of water.” He could mean it was iridescent.)
So… we have a true mystery bird. Is this simply an author’s research mistake?
Joseph Bruchac was born in 1942 and lives in upstate New York. According to his author’s webpage, he feels connected to his own Native American heritage and seems to write primarily from that background, but mainly related to tribes of the northeastern United States. According to his Author’s Note in the Code Talker book, he’s done extensive research over the course of many years into the Navajo Code Talkers, World War II in the Pacific, the Navajo Long Walk, and other aspects of the book. However, (and this is not to denigrate Bruchac in any way) he may not be terribly familiar with the native birds of Oahu, Hawaii. He may very well have assumed, as many do, that hummingbirds would find the islands an ideal habitat.
Or it’s possible that he had access to research materials not available to me or other casual researchers–either materials regarding extinct species of honeycreepers, or personal records, diaries and such of military personnel stationed at Pearl Harbor during World War II, which might have included such a description.
If he found the description in personal diaries, it’s possible that this was a real bird which is now, sadly, extinct–it’s not too much of a stretch to think that there might have been species of birds that existed on the Hawaiian islands that were not cataloged before they became extinct.
In any case, I must, sadly, admit defeat in my search for an identification of the mysterious blue bird with the curved bill!