Nesting native bird delays multimillion-dollar project in downtown Honolulu

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A nesting bird in the middle of downtown Honolulu is doing more than just attracting birdwatchers.

It’s delaying a major project planned for the Capitol District Building, which is home to the Hawaii State Art Museum and other state department offices.

At first glance, it looks like just another white bird sitting on a railing, but it has caught the eye of many area workers walking by.

That’s because the bird is a white tern, and it’s protecting an egg that was laid on lanai’s railing.

White terns are Native Hawaiian sea birds, which are considered threatened, so they are protected under state law. That means they can’t be disturbed when they are nesting.

So what can be done now that one has nested outside the building?

It’s a waiting game at this point, and it will take several months. The bird is perched on the third-floor balcony.

A group called Hui Manu O Ku keeps track of these birds. It says while white terns are found in many tropical areas, the ones you see on Oahu are different.

“This population is the only one in the world known to lay eggs and raise their young in an urban environment and they chose Honolulu,” explained Rich Downs, Hui Manu O Ku.

Not only that, Downs says this white tern is the only one on Oahu that has laid its egg on a man-made structure, and it’s not the first time.

Cathy Young, who works in the office just inside the lanai, shared her pictures of previous times when the bird laid its speckled egg on that same railing. Incubating is apparently a responsibility shared by both parents. One adult moves away, making room for the spouse to then take a turn at sitting on the egg.

When it hatches, the chick is a gray color. When it’s feeding time, the adult flies in fish plucked out of the ocean.

“That’s probably another reason why they really like Honolulu, because the ocean is not far away,” Downs said. “There must be good fishing grounds, because the commute to fish and back is not so long.”

The state had planned to do a multimillion-dollar renovation to the building starting next month, but because of this wonder of nature, it will have to wait for at least a few months.

The building was scheduled for termite fumigation, painting and tile work — about $8 million of improvements. That will all have to wait until the egg hatches and the chick learns how to fly, which will take about four to five months.

“Unfortunately, the bird is threatened, so we are not allowed to handle the bird or disturb it in any way. There’s hefty fines,” said Scott Young, Hawaii State Art Museum.

The fines are actually $1,500, not that hefty considering it’s holding up an $8 million project.

Young says the state is willing to wait it out: “It’s pretty crazy, but we’ve got to do what we have to do to be all one with the environment, right?”

According to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, the white tern is the official bird of Honolulu and is doing well in the urban Honolulu area.

Officials encourage people to keep a safe distance to avoid disturbing the birds, and do not attempt to approach or feed them.

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