It wasn’t unusual for hiking clients to be interested in whether we would see birds on our adventures, and it was always a bit sad to tell them the fate of many of our native birds. Douglas Pratt, in his informative book, “Enjoying Birds in Hawaii,” comments that the 45 species of native forest birds known to have existed in Hawai`i are thought to have evolved from only eight or nine ancestral species. Of those recorded 45 species, at least 15 are extinct, and over half of the remainder are endangered or threatened. Mosquito-borne diseases (avian malaria and avian pox) and habitat loss are important factors leading to the loss of our native birds. Charles Stone, in a volume entitled, “Conservation Biology in Hawai`i,” also specifies predation by introduced rats, cats and mongoose as important contributors to the disappearance of many numbers and kinds of native birds. Native forest birds are seldom found at elevations less than 4,000 feet, mainly because that’s about the cut-off point, above which mosquitoes do not reproduce. Thus, in the accessible remaining forests of Hamakua, the only native birds we have much chance of seeing are the larger birds, the raptors – pueo, the owl, and `io, the hawk — that are apparently immune to the pox and malaria so deadly to Hawaiian forest birds. Stone lists three known species of native hawks and four of native owls, but only one of each are now to be found; the ‘io is officially classified as an endangered bird. Its range, notably, is limited to our Island: nowhere else on planet Earth can our wild native hawk be found.
The inspiration for an article about birds of Hamakua came one summer when at dusk my wife and I were enjoying the orchard we’ve planted down below our house, on the edge of Ka`apahu Gulch. As we sat on the grass and talked, a shape approaching in the sky above the pasture makai of our place caught my eye. I silently pointed to the pueo – our native owl — flying toward us. As it drew near, I whistled sharply. Though the steady stroking of its wings didn’t seem to change, the pueo veered sharply to its right and passed directly over our heads. It was so obviously visible that our Labrador retriever, Kela, leaped up as if to intercept it, though even his powerful jump was about 15 feet too low. I continued repeatedly to whistle, and the bird banked to cross above us again, then a third time. We could see it turning its head on each pass to examine us. Our last glimpse of it ended as it blurred into the darkening trees around our house up the slope: we thought it might have landed on a branch, but we never saw it again.
As always is the case, we felt privileged to have been visited by this native raptor, and especially honored by the repeated attention. We reminisced about other such contacts, recalling a number of experiences with both pueo and the introduced barn owl, and some notable encounters with our native hawk, the `io, as well. I wrote in an earlier article about kukui an account of a pueo seeming to bless my mission of collecting kukui leaves to make a graduation lei for one of our youngsters. There was also the unforgettable time when one of my sons and I were working our way through a lava tube from one collapse to the next opening and a beautiful, mostly white barn owl flew down the length of the tube toward us, passing by about six feet away, in amazing silence. My wife, Kaulana, had frequent sightings of owls as she returned from hula classes over the years. Several times birds sat alongside the road and allowed her to stroke them, without seeming alarmed by her approach or contact.
My long-time friend Dr. P. Q.Tomich has recounted his review of naturalists’ reports and some of his interesting personal and professional observations of the `io. His photograph of one of these hawks in quest of a rat in a brush pile reminded me of a time last year when my wife and I saw an `io while driving through Kalopa Gulch. We had just made the sharp turn off the bridge and begun to climb up out of the gulch when an `io streaked directly over our car and seemed to crash into the brush above us. We drove on up to a place where we could leave our car off the road and walked back to see what the bird’s fate might be. It was on the ground, in the grass and shrubs above the road, looking both occupied and fierce. This demeanor was explained when it suddenly took flight with a sumo-weight rat hanging limply in its talons, flying up the gulch toward the sound of a hungry juvenile somewhere above. Its sharp eyes had evidently spotted a “roof rat” on a limb, and the strike had dislodged the heavy rodent so that both `io and prey fell to the ground. During the time we were parking and returning to the scene of the battle, the death of the rat was accomplished. The `io must make a noticeable dent in the rodent population, for another time, we stood in silent wonder with a group of hikers from the cruise ship Statendam while a large `io dispatched a rat it had carried to a tree limb in clear view of our trail in a forest on Hualalai. It worked steadily but without haste to devour its meal, wiped both sides of its beak on the bark of the limb, then launched itself down the slope and glided away.
The royal palace on O`ahu, ‘Iolani, symbolizes the singular view with which the traditional culture of Hawai`i sees the hawk, for the name of the building translates as “heavenly ‘io.” Just as the ali`i, the monarchs of Hawai`i mediated between the realms of humans and gods, so does the ‘io soar to the heavens and rest upon the earth. The pueo is held in special regard, too, particularly by members of families who regard this bird as an `aumakua, or family god. A Hawaiian friend on the Island of Moloka`i whose family has this kind of relationship to pueo drove us to the airport for an early morning flight: the birds seemed to be everywhere on and alongside the road, an extraordinary set of circumstances that seemed a matter of course to her.
Hamakua is not a unique area so far as its birds are concerned: the same adverse impacts have impoverished the native populations here as they have elsewhere on this Island and the rest of Hawai`i. We are, nonetheless, fortunate to have visible populations of the two remaining raptors here. As is the case with much else in Hawai`i’s natural environments, encounters with these creatures often carry an unusual impact, imparting a feeling of portent and significance that transcends the mere facts of the experience.