Friday, October 31, 2014

Bird of the Day: Pueo, the Short-eared Owl of Hawai'i

My serious interest in birds started with my travels in Hawai'i a bit more than a decade ago. The Hawaiian Islands are a marvelous laboratory for understanding the process of evolution. Few places in the world are more isolated. Bird species that make their way to the island find themselves truly isolated, with new and different food sources, different (or no) predators, and a different climate than their place of origin. Those that survive the changes in their environment gradually adapt, both in habit and in morphology. There are dozens of native species on the islands, although most of them are under siege, and many have gone extinct. The problems began with the arrival on the islands of humans along with rats. Later on, more humans came, with cats, mongooses, and mosquitoes. Avian malaria, transmitted by the mosquitoes, has done in many. People have also introduced many other bird species, as escaped pets, and as purposeful releases. The natives have been driven into marginal environments, especially the high altitude rainforests that are too cool for the mosquitoes to thrive. Few of the natives are ever seen in the cities.

On a 2009 field trip with my students in Kauai, we were driving down the hill from Waimea Canyon (the Grand Canyon of the Pacific). I had been on the lookout for native birds all day, and had little success. As we drove by the lower end of the canyon, I was shocked to see an owl on a tree top just a short way off the highway. It was a Hawaiian Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus sandwichensis), a subspecies of Short-eared Owls found on all continents except Antarctic and Australia. Called Pueo by the native Hawaiians, the bird is revered as one of their ancestral spirits.

The owls are having a hard time of it. They nest on the ground and thus are subject to predation by the hated mongooses, rats, and cats. Mongooses were never introduced on the island of Kauai, so the owls are doing somewhat better there.

It was a thrill to see one relatively close, and willing to have a few photos taken. I hope to get back to the islands soon. I truly miss them (it's been four years...).

1 comment:

  1. I saw one today. It flew across the road we were on which was also on the south west side of the island by Barking Sands