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Biologist dedicates career to studying palila

June 29, 2014 - 12:05am

As a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Paul Banko has dedicated his career to studying palila.

A Hawaiian honeycreeper known for its distinctive yellow head, the palila is one of Hawaii’s most embattled native species. Because of a loss of habitat caused by human settlement, the bird has been federally recognized as an endangered species since 1966.

Banko, whose father was also a wildlife biologist, moved to Hawaii as a teenager and spent his time working odd jobs at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

After eventually deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps, Banko obtained his Ph.D. in wildlife science from the University of Washington in Seattle and returned to Hawaii to study the native bird.

In 1988, he joined the Palila Restoration Project and, in time, went on to head the project.

In the nearly 30 years since, Banko and his team have made it their mission to know everything there is to know about the palila, from its reproductive behaviors to its diet and habitat.

The project’s research and amount of new information published about the endangered species recently won Banko a Distinguished Service Award from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Despite being the only one recognized, Banko sees the citation as a recognition of the project as a whole, not something that is his alone.

“It’s an acknowledgement of a huge number of people’s work coming together on this species,” he said. “I get a lot of satisfaction thinking that there are people in Switzerland who worked on the project. They’re in Switzerland telling their Swiss friends about palila.”

Julie Leialoha, one of Banko’s former co-workers, said it’s in his nature to be modest, but his leadership is deserving of the recognition.

“He doesn’t like to take credit,” she said, “but he was the mortal instrument that put it all together. He deserves a lot of the credit.”

Eventually, the project’s funding began to shrink, forcing the team to shrink with it.

One by one, Banko’s colleagues moved on to other projects.

“Most of the group wrapped up their projects and moved on. That pretty much just left me,” Banko said. “And because I’m kind of slow, I said, ‘Well, I’m not done yet.’ There were still some things I wanted to look into with palila that I hadn’t been able to do.”

Banko now works alone in an office that used to hold five. The rest of the office is filled with decades’ worth of notes and equipment.

Though he’s invested many years into studying the palila, Banko knows it’s time to work on other projects.

“My chances to do anything more with palila are quite limited. There’s a huge long list of other problems we need to tackle,” he said.

Banko said the end of the palila project is bittersweet. He’s more than happy to move on and study other birds and insects. His job satisfaction comes from observing nature and studying all of Hawaii’s native species.

“I have no other ambitions,” he said. “I’m most happy being here, doing what I’m doing. That to me is complete satisfaction.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s completely finished with the palila. The bird he’s spent so many years studying will always be special.

“Looking back, it’s a rare opportunity where you get to follow a species and watch it changing over a long period of time,” he said. “I’m officially done with palila. Unofficially, not really. … There is always more to learn.”

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