Little Bird, Big City: The Manu o Ku of Honolulu

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Hawaii Aloha Travel > Blog > Little Bird, Big City: The Manu o Ku of Honolulu

When one thinks of a cityscape, what comes to mind? Busy streets, skyscrapers, commuting businessers and… threatened native bird species? Honolulu has all of the above with its native seabird city dweller, the Manu o Ku! Also known as the White Fairy Tern, the Manu o Ku (pronounced mah-NOO oh KOO) is the only native seabird species to live and proliferate in downtown Honolulu.

The Manu o Ku is a striking bird. The chicks start out as gray little puffballs, before maturing into an all white plumage with a thick black ring around the eyes. At five years old, the Manu o Ku begins to breed, but instead of making a nest, this little seabird lays one egg directly on a tree branch.

Manu o Ku are important birds in traditional Hawaiian navigation. Their feeding habits bring them out to sea in the early morning – sometimes as far as 120 miles, according to Polynesian voyager Nainoa Thompson – before returning to land at night to rest. Hawaiian navigators used – and still use –the Manu o Ku as a land indicator when they are spotted at sea, using their daily course as fairly specific directions in sailing to land. What a joy it must be to see a Manu o Ku after months on the open sea! This is just one of the many ingenious skills Hawaiians have been using for millennia that make them outstanding oceanic navigators.

The Manu o Ku are strictly protected by federal and state law and were listed as a threatened species by the State of Hawaii in 1986. Some of their threats include predation by rats, overfishing (Manu o Ku rely on predatory fish to drive their small baitfish to the surface) and even human interaction such as tree trimmers. In 2007, the Manu o Ku became the official bird of the City and County of Honolulu.

There is an estimated 15,000 breeding pairs of Manu o Ku in Hawaii. The majority dwelling in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, while over 250 breeding pairs live solely in the heart of Honolulu. From Kapi’olani Park to Iolani Palace you can spot the thin, white “V” shape of Manu o Ku soaring high above the traffic and buildings. I’ve often seen them above the freeway near the UH campus while stuck in traffic, giving me a little peace of mind that nature still exists and thrives in even the most urban of areas. When they’re not flying, they’re nesting in large trees like banyans, monkeypods, mahogany and kukui.

So the next time you’re out and about taking in the sights of our beautiful city, don’t forget to look up! You may be fortunate enough to see our city-dwelling seabird playfully flying in the heavens, impervious to the modern human hustle below.

Places to spot the Manu o Ku in Honolulu:
Kapi’olani Park • between Kalakaua and Monsarrat Ave.

Honolulu Zoo • 151 Kapahulu Ave.

University of Hawaii Manoa Campus • 2500 Campus Rd.

‘Iolani Palace • 364 S. King St.

Honolulu Hale • 530 S. King St.

All photos except for the Manu o Ku chick are by Ilana Nimz. Check out her photography exhibit of Manu o Ku and other Northwestern Hawaiian Island dwellers at Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens Visitor Center Lecture Room. Exhibit running until Wednesday.

HOOMALUHIA BOTANICAL GARDEN • 45-680 Luluku Rd. Kane’ohe, HI 96744 • 808-233-7323 •

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