The entrance to the museum and two of its courtyards are looking refreshed thanks to a gift from museum trustee Jay Shidler. In December the museum began a beautification project that included painting the façade and colonnades, relandscaping the Mediterranean Courtyard, and updating the general color scheme. Now the project culminates with the removal of two trees—a mango and a kamani—from Central Courtyard. While the trees are beautiful and offer shade, close inspection revealed that their size above and below ground were damaging the museum’s historic building and posed a safety threat to its almost 300,000 annual visitors.

After securing the blessing of the Outdoor Circle, the museum set the tree project for late March. But just days before Kendall Landscaping was scheduled to start sawing off branches, it was discovered that a white tern egg had recently hatched in the mango tree.

To everything: Tern, tern, tern

To everything: tern, tern, tern

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, prior to the 1960s the birds only passed through O‘ahu, 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 Resource’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish & 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 & 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 was rotting—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.

Freshly planed wood from the kamani tree

Freshly planed wood from the kamani tree

For the mango tree, the museum hatched a new plan. “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—there are some that just a few feet over where busses go by, or down in Waikiki 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, there is about a three-month wait. So we cut areas with no chicks to prevent other terns from laying eggs.”

Swindle directed the Kendall Landscaping 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.

A view of the mango tree with some branches removed

A view of the mango tree with some branches removed

“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 museum, the DLNR, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are continuing to monitor the tern’s progress. Walden estimates the museum will be able to remove the mango tree in a month, when the current eggs, nestlings and fledglings become branchers ready to leave their perches.

While Central Courtyard now looks like a scene out of Hell on Wheels, 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 tree, which brought up a positive point about the population. “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.”

Want to show some love for our feathered friends? Go to the Manu O Kū festival this Saturday, May 20 on the coronation lawn at ‘Iolani Palace.


Correction: This story previously listed Trees of the Tropics as the trimmers working in Central Courtyard. Trees of the Tropics trimmed trees in the museum in the past, but currently Kendall Landscaping is managing the trees in Central Courtyard.