It may come as a surprise to many Hawaii visitors that the islands are home to a native species of owl. Owls in Hawaii are rare to see.
The native pueo is unusual among owl species in that it is a diurnal, or daytime, hunter. Known commonly as the Hawaiian Short-Eared Owl, its scientific name is Asio flammeus sandwichensis. The pueo is listed as endangered. This is due in large part to the loss of its habitat. It can most often be found in open, grassy plains.
They nest in the nature reserve of Kaena Point on Oahu, one of the few undeveloped parts of the island. On Hawaii island, they can be seen on the grassy slopes of Waimea/Kamuela, between the towering twin peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Upcountry Maui and Waimea Canyon on Kauai are also home to small populations of the fascinating bird.
In addition to loss of habitat, declining numbers are also attributed to “sick owl syndrome”, which may be related to pesticide use. As an apex predator, the Hawaiian Short-eared owl preys on small mammals like mice and rats, who eat the insects that pesticides are used to kill.
Collisions with vehicles concern for those who monitor the species. The pueo prefers to hunt during peak traffic hours. Because they are a ground-nesting species, the pueo’s eggs are vulnerable to rats and mongoose.
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The pueo hold a revered place in native Hawaiian history and lore. Many ancient legends surround the pueo, most of which portray the avian predator as a protector and guide. It figures prominently in tales of war and battle. For many Hawaiian families, the pueo is considered aumakua, or an ancestral spirit.
Places throughout the islands of Hawaii are named for battles that were characterized by the influence and intervention of the pueo. Heiau, or sacred temples, were built in honor of the native bird. A no lani, a no honua, a phrase connected to pueo which means “of the heavens, of the earth.” An owl god of Maui is said to have brought back to life the lost souls wandering the plains there.
Hawaii is also home to a population of the common barn owl. It was introduced in the 1800s to combat a growing rodent problem. These non-native owls are often mistaken for the native pueo.
Sightings of the pueo are relatively rare. But for savvy bird watchers, the best time to spot them is in the hours around dawn and dusk. And if you do happen to spot the rare pueo, remember not to point at it. Legend holds that pointing at a pueo in flight brings bad luck.