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Vol.18, no.1
February/March 2015


Pueo of the Sun 
Story By: Sheila Sarhangi
Photos By: Jack Wolford

On a chilly November afternoon along Hawai‘i Island’s old Saddle Road, I’m about thirty seconds into a staring contest with a pueo. When I open the door of my car on the grass shoulder of the highway, it leaps from the fence post, pulses its wings and disappears behind a hill. Five minutes later it’s back, this time about thirty feet overhead, peering down at me. It glides, claps (yes, claps) its wings under its body and gives a low hoot. “Is all this for me?” I wonder, until I hear another clap in the distance and a second pueo appears. The hoots and claps continue for another minute until I lose them in the late afternoon fog. Later, I learn this is typical courting behavior—definitely not for me. 

Pueo, or Hawaiian short-eared owls, are found on all of the main Hawaiian Islands, from sea level to eight thousand feet. They’re stunning, with piercing yellow eyes, brown- and gold-streaked feathers, a beige breast and a circular face trimmed with a white, mask-like ring. They’re medium size as owls go, and unlike most of their counterparts they’re diurnal, or active during the day, when they hunt for rodents, lizards, insects and other birds in open areas: grasslands, shrublands, parklands and near roadsides. People often mistake pueo for the only other owl found in the Islands, the barn owl—introduced in the late 1950s to control rodents in cane fields. But barn owls are larger, with a white, heart-shaped face and black eyes, and they’re mostly nocturnal.

Despite the fact that they’re frequently seen and well loved in the Islands, not much is known about pueo. Research is thin. Their numbers haven’t been determined. No distribution map exists. Some scientists even call them “the mystery bird,” which seems ironic because they’re highly visible, they hold a significant place in Hawaiian culture and they are Hawai‘i’s only extant native owl.

Why is this the case? For one, the pueo’s commonness works against it, at least in terms of scientific study. “Though we know pueo are declining, they are still more numerous than many of Hawai‘i’s single-island, single-mountain or even statewide birds,” says Fern Duvall, wildlife biologist for the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. “So they fall short of being able to easily get research dollars, as charismatic as they are.” Sheila Conant, former chair of the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa Zoology Department, who has studied Hawai‘i’s native and endangered species for nearly fifty years, agrees with Duvall and adds another reason for the lack of attention: “To really learn about an animal or why it’s declining, it’s ideal to use technology to track individuals”—devices such as satellite tags and radio collars. The challenge there, she says, is catching them. Pueo nest on the ground, not in holes or in structures, which makes it tough to find their nests. And if someone does find a nest, Conant says, it’s difficult to capture pueo without scaring them away. “Sure, you can drive the Saddle Road and see them flying around, perched on fence posts and hunting. But that’s a long ways away from catching a bird and putting a device on it,” she says. 

The known threats to pueo are similar to those facing Hawai‘i’s other native birds: loss of habitat, disease and introduced predators. Pueo eggs and chicks are vulnerable to cats, mongooses, rats, dogs and ungulates, like pigs. In the 1960s many dead or moribund pueo and barn owls were mysteriously turning up, mostly along Hawai‘i roadsides. The malady was coined “sick owl syndrome” for lack of a better term, and it’s still occurring. Some say trauma from car collisions is the cause, because pueo hunt mice scurrying across roads. Others posit that natural fluctuations in mice and rat populations could be leading to stress and starvation. Another possible culprit is secondary poisoning from rodenticides applied by farmers, hotels and homeowners. No one knows for sure, and no one’s currently studying it—one more mystery around Hawai‘i’s mystery bird.

Pueo (Asio flammeus sandwichensis) are an endemic subspecies of the short-eared owl (Asio flammeus), which is widespread across North America, South America and Eurasia. They’re great colonizers, with ten subspecies in all, including endemic short-eared owls in Puerto Rico, on the Galápagos Islands and on Pohnpei. Re-searchers aren’t sure how long they’ve been in Hawai‘i, but Helen James hopes to find out. Since 1977 James, paleo-ornithologist and curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution, has been on a quest to document the fossils of every bird species that lived in Hawai‘i, including owls. James notes that a long-legged owl lived in Hawai‘i from at least 250,000 years ago to as recently as only a couple thousand years ago. The question of when pueo arrived in the Islands has been on her mind “for a very long time,” she says.

In 1982 James and her research partner Storrs Olson published a study that suggested pueo colonized the Hawaiian Islands only after the first Polynesian voyagers introduced the Pacific rat—a nice food source for the birds. To reach this hypothesis, they compared pueo morphology with that of their continental counterparts. They looked for differences in size, plumage or beak shapes, and they did a visual comparison of their bones. The conclusion: “We didn’t see any significant differences,” she says, at least not the kind of differences one would expect to see if pueo evolved independently from other short-eared owls over a very long time. “The fact that pueo and the short-eared owl were similar is consistent with the idea that pueo haven’t been in the Islands that long,” she says.

But that study hasn’t put the question entirely to rest. James is now radiocarbon-dating the bones of pueo found across Hawai‘i—in lava caves on Maui and Hawai‘i Island, in karstic sinkholes on O‘ahu and in a limestone cave on Kaua‘i—to better determine when they arrived in the Islands. “Once I’ve accumulated all of the dates,” she says, “I think we will finally know when pueo got here.”