Pueo: Soaring over the lowlands of Hawaii

There was a time when the slopes of Puowaina, now called Punchbowl, were covered in native pili grasslands. Hidden in the grass were the nests of the pueo, the Hawaiian owl. Stories are told of the reverence that Hawaiians had for these nests and eggs, encountered, but not molested, while pili grass was being collected for thatching. If eggs were taken to eat, it was sure to be followed by dire consequences.

The story of Kapo'i comes to mind: He lived in Honolulu, and came upon the nest of a pueo, and took all seven of the eggs he found home to broil for dinner. But while he was building his fire, an owl landed at the entrance of his house and called out to him "O Kapo'i, give me my eggs!" Kapo'i obeyed, and the supernatural owl became his 'aumakua (ancestral guardian). Kapo'i built a shrine to the owl, but the chief Kakuhihewa had decreed that no man may build a shrine but the chief, and when word came to the chief that Kapo'i had built a shrine to his owl god, Kapo'i was captured and sentenced to be sacrificed at the heiau of Kupalaha, in Waikiki.

That day, the owls from throughout the islands gathered at Kala-pueo (Owl-talon or Owl-proclamation) at Makapu'u, and at Ka-noni-a-ka-pueo (The-hoot-of-the-owl) in Nu'uanu, and at Pueo-hulu-nui (Great-feathered-owl) near Moanalua. At dawn the sun came up, but when the owls took flight, the sun's light was blotted from the sky. They attacked the chief's armies, scratching at the faces of the men, and befouling them with showers of owl droppings. The owls were victorious, and Kapo'i was released. The chief told him: "Yours is an 'aumakua of great mana," and from then on, that owl was elevated as a god of warriors, Ku-kaua-kahi.

Even in 1825, Andrew Bloxam, naturalist of the HMS Blonde, wrote from Oahu that Hawaiian owls were "very numerous here and are constantly flying about all day, and not like those in England, which come out only at dusk." Today, pueo are still the only endemic birds that is found regularly in the dry lowlands of the islands, regions with almost no native vegetation. They are day-flying, medium-sized owls, with a brown back and beige breast, streaked flame-like in darker feathers, and a dark mask around yellow eyes. The introduced barn owl is larger, pale, hunts at night, and has a pure white heart-shaped face. Pueo feed on birds and rodents, and are considered an endemic Hawaiian subspecies (Asio flammeus sandwichensis), of the short-eared owl, Asio flammeus, a widespread species found on all continents except Australia and Antarctica, and even in the Galapagos, where, as in Hawai'i, it is recognized as an endemic subspecies, Asio flammeus galapagoensis.

The great cultural significance of pueo extends to the present, with many Hawaiian families pointing to pueo as an 'aumakua. They tell of warrior ancestors who were saved by the pueo; people prevented from falling on cliff trails by a pueo, or guided to safety when lost by a pueo. In more modern times, it is said that the flight of a pueo in the path of a car may signify danger ahead.

Image above by Kekona. http://www.kekonaart.com

In my training as a chanter, my teacher, Kumu John Keolamaka'ainana Lake told stories of his pueo 'aumakua, so an experience I had on Kaho'olawe was particularly significant. I was participating in multi-day meetings on the island, planning its restoration, and one morning before dawn, I was moved to awake early, walk up a trail in the predawn light to the top of a nearby hill, to present a chant to the silent morning. The chant begins:

E ala, ua ao, ua malamalama,
ua hele kanaka aia i luna

Awaken, day has come, the sky is brightening,
people are stirring above

But as I uttered those words there was stirring, as in the air around me came soft whistling of feathers, and the dark silhouettes of pueo circling. Four had flown from the nearby pili grasslands toward the sound of chant breaking the silence of the dawn. It was all I could do to maintain my composure and finish the chant, then stand in awe as the four owls continued to circle for a time, then head off into the surrounding landscape.

When I told this to Kumu Lake, he explained further that the pueo, as a kinolau (physical manifestation) of the major god Kane, is associated with the day, so as my chant was dedicated to the breaking day, they were there to contribute to the mana of that event. It is still clear to me that Kaho'olawe, as one the islands where predators may be controlled island-wide, can become a true haven for ground-nesting birds such as the pueo. As one of the few endemic birds that can still be seen in our lowlands, the pueo is a reminder to us that we need to work to ensure the presence of native species that provide so much enrichment to our lives.

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