Garden friends not always furry or feathered


It is easy to love feathered friends in our garden such as mynahs, finches, cardinals and doves. If we are fortunate we may even have some native birds such as apapane, iiwi or amakihi. They add life, motion and entertainment, and many are insect eaters.

When it comes to furry animals, Hawaii has a few. Endemic bats feed on evening bugs. Even the maligned mongoose does a good job on roaches and other large insects, centipedes and scorpions. Contrary to popular belief, a substantial part of the mongoose diet is rats and mice. Unfortunately, they will also eat almost anything and have raised havoc on ground-nesting birds over the past century. Domestic and feral cats also do a job on mice and rats and unfortunately birds.

When a lifeform reaches a new environment, it may not survive, but if it does too well, it can become an invasive species. Often, these plants or animals impact the environmental status quo positively or negatively, depending on your point of view.

The plants that become invasive are often pioneer species that are attempting to heal the wounds we create by improper management of the land. There really are no bad plants. The “bad” is our bad management. A forested area that has been cleared for agriculture then abandoned is where many pioneer species pop up. The albizia forests in Puna pop up where lands have been cleared. Although this legume is a soil builder and planted on purpose in many countries for reforestation, here in Hawaii, it is maligned because it grows very fast. If left to its own devices, the trees will grow 15 feet per year.

Reptiles and amphibians are two animal groups that are often overlooked. “Reptiles and Amphibians in The Hawaiian Islands” by Sean McKeown helps make us aware of the contribution these creatures make in our environment. McKeown paints an interesting and informative picture of each species found here and dispels many common myths.

You may not realize it, but we have at least two species of snakes in Hawaii. One is indigenous and very poisonous. Thankfully, the yellow bellied sea snake is also extremely rare and found only in the ocean and feeds mostly on fish. It has never been known to bite a person in Hawaii.

The other snake is found commonly in the garden and is harmless. The island blind snake is likely an accidental introduction from the Philippines. This cute creature looks like a black shiny earthworm and grows to almost 12 inches. It feeds on insects such as termites and grubs. This snake reproduces through parthenogenesis — it is female and does not require a male to produce young.

The most popular reptiles in Hawaii are geckos, and we have lots of them. None of them are truly native. At least nine species live here, and all are good insect eaters. The common house geckos are familiar, but we also have an unusual one, the tokay gecko, that may grow as large as 12 inches. Some of the most spectacular geckos in the world are the day geckos from islands of the Indian Ocean. Many are bright green or blue with splashes of red, orange and yellow. The gold dust day geckos are common in West Hawaii and may be found from sea level to at least 3,000 feet elevation. The Madagascar day gecko is also found here, but they are rare.

Several species of skinks dwell in our forests and gardens, but most folks are not aware of them because they are shy and usually hide under leaf litter eating little insects.

The green anole is commonly misidentified as a chameleon. It varies in color from green to brown depending on its surroundings. This lizard has three close relatives in Hawaii: the brown anole that also grows to about 8 inches, the Cuban anole that may reach a foot or more in length and the green iguana that may grow to 5 feet or more. Iguanas are extremely shy and seldom seen although they have been established in Hawaii for 40 or more years. They nibble on flowers and leaves like tortoise but according to McKeown, they have never caused recorded damage to Hawaii plants or agriculture.

The three-horned Jackson’s chameleon, originally from Africa, is quite popular with children and often kept as a pet. Unfortunately, they frequently die in captivity because of improper care. The larger veiled chameleon from Yemen has also been recorded on Maui.

Hawaii has at least two species of tree frogs. One additional species has been reported in the Mountain View area but has not yet been identified. Also, the Cuban tree frog has been noted on Oahu. We have several species of frogs and toads, three species of freshwater turtles and five species of native marine turtles. All in all, we have more than 33 species of reptiles and amphibians found in Hawaii.

Generally speaking, these creatures are harmless and even beneficial. They add to the wonder of life. We have had occasional scares about pythons and boa constrictors found in Hawaii. As far as we know, these were pets illegally brought here and released. New animals introduced into our environment can become serious problems. That is why it is important to have adequate quarantine inspections at entry points such as airports and harbors. It is better to pay for agricultural inspection on entry rather than to try to eradicate something once it gets established.

Let’s be sure to keep additional creatures that can affect the balance of nature at bay, but let us not judge all reptiles and amphibians by the bad reputations of a few. The ones that are here have become part of the web of island life.