Birds of a Feather

by Betty Fullard-Leo

Rob Pacheco of Hawaii Forest and trail leads a group of island visitors on a birding expedition into Pu'u O'o Ranch rainforest.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, 15ancestral species from 11 families of birds came to rest on newly formed lava islands thrusting from the sea more than 2,000 miles from any land. These first birds thrived in isolation from enemies and predators, evolving in their own leisurely fashion to some 78 bird species unique to Hawai‘i.

Eventually, man arrived, in time bringing such animals as pigs, dogs, cats, rats, cattle and mongoose, which changed the delicate ecosystems, wreaking havoc on the islands’ native bird populations. Most devastating of all was the destruction and loss of natural habitat when lands were converted to agriculture or development. Today, 26 of Hawai‘i’s known native birds are extinct (though from fossil remains, it is thought that as many as 56 birds species have become extinct in the past), 30 are considered endangered, and one is threatened.

Because of the way an abundance of unique species evolved in the islands, Hawai‘i now has more endangered species—birds and plants—than other places, but in recent years it has also become a leader in saving its rare fauna and flora. On the Big Island, Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, located between the 2,500 and 6,600-foot elevations on Mauna Kea, was the first refuge in the nation established to protect forest birds. Consisting of nearly 33,000 acres, Hakalau, a word that appropriately means “place of many perches,” was acquired in five land parcels by U.S. Fish and Wildlife with the help of The Nature Conservancy between 1977 and 1987. Every weekend, 7,240 acres of Hakalau’s Maulua Tract is open for birding, hiking, photography and other pursuits to those who call ahead to obtain directions and the combination to the gate, phone 808/933-6915. Because the Hawaiian Islands have the greatest concentration of rare birds on the planet, experienced bird watchers treasure a trek through Hawai‘i’s canopied koa and ohi‘a-lehua forests and through its isolated kipukas, little forested islands surrounded by barren lava flows. These green oasis spring up along the Big Island’s saddle, the remote area between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, as well as on other mountain slopes. On Kilauea, in Volcanoes National Park, Kipuka Puaulu, is bisected by a mile-long trail, so even amateurs can search for the ‘apapane or the ‘elepaio during a self-guided walk.

Among those birds most likely to be spotted are the more abundant honeycreepers (Drepanididae). Many honeycreepers have curved bills such as the brilliant orange-red i‘iwis with salmon-colored beaks, or the crimson ‘apapanes, or the common, smaller, olive-colored amakihis. In early Hawai‘i, the red feathers from the ‘apapane and ‘i‘iwi were often plucked to be used in feather capes, kahilis, and helmets. The birds were captured by an expert called a poe hahai manu, who mixed an adhesive paste made from the sap of the breadfruit tree, smeared it on tree limbs, then caught the stuck birds with fiber nets, nooses or bare hands. If only a feather or two was taken (from a bird like an ‘o‘o or mamo) and the bird was too small to eat, it was released so the feathers could grow again.

None-the-less, only a species of Kaua‘i ‘o‘o, which is smaller and has fewer yellow feathers than Big Island ‘o‘o once had, are thought to survive in small numbers on the edges of the Alaka‘i Swamp. The mamo, a black honeycreeper which had a few yellow feathers used in feather craft by has not been seen since 1907 on Moloka‘i. Mamo feathers can be viewed, however, at Bishop Museum on O‘ahu where 450,000 of them from an estimated 80,000 birds are sewn with ‘olona fiber into a golden feather cloak once worn by King Kamehameha I.

Endangered birds known to inhabit Hakalau include the ‘akiapola‘au, ‘akepa, ‘i‘o, ‘oma‘o, and ‘o‘u. The ‘akiapola‘au (or nuku pu‘u) is a yellowish-olive-green honeycreeper that prefers to peck wood, searching for insect larva, rather than sip nectar. The ‘akepa is a nimble little scarlet or yellow-green honeycreeper. The i‘o, or Hawaiian hawk, found only on the Big Island, is a brown diurnal bird of prey that soars on broad wings in search of mice, rats, spiders and insects. The gray ‘oma‘o, a solitary bird also found only on the Big Island, is easiest to identify by its haunting warble early in the morning.

Birders consider it a feather in their caps if they spot one especially rare bird—the ‘alala, or Hawaiian crow. Only four ‘alala are thought to remain in the wild, again only on the Big Island, while a mere 27 dozen are being raised at two Peregrine Fund facilities, one at Keauhou on the Big Island, the other at the Maui Bird Conservation Center at Olinda. This greenish-blue, raven-like bird lives above the 3,000-foot level on McCandless Ranch where carefully conducted tours allow a select few to search the koa and ‘ohi‘a-lehua tree tops for the elusive birds. Most birders consider themselves lucky if they hear the early morning vocalizations of the ‘alala, let alone see it.

Gratifyingly, at least one endangered bird species seems to have more than a flicker of hope for survival. Hawai‘i’s state bird, the nene, is the last surviving Hawaiian goose endemic to the Islands of at least eight goose species known to have become extinct. A bird with beautiful markings on head and neck, the nene is thought to be a descendant of some ancient Canadian goose that got off track, settled in Hawai‘i’s mountains and over the years, lost most of the webbing on its feet because it no longer needed to swim. In the late 1700s, 25,000 nene were thought to inhabit the Big Island, but by the 1950s the population had dropped to an estimated 30 birds. Captive breeding programs were at last put in place, until today it is estimated about 300 nene survive on the Big Island, 200 on Maui, and possibly 160 on Kaua‘i. The best place to spot a nene on the Big Island is at Volcanoes National Park at Kipuka Nene Campground, the summit caldera, Devastation Trail and at Volcanoes Golf Course at dawn and dusk when they are out feeding on grasses.

Birding tours are easy to arrange with some notice through Hawai‘i Forest & Trail. Naturalist Rob Pacheco and his guides take small groups into a kipuka in the Pu‘u O‘o Ranch Rainforest. Pacheko also has a permit to take groups into Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge twelve times a year. His tours are $130 per person. Hawai‘i Forest & Trail, Box 2975, Kailua-Kona, Hawai‘i 96745, phone 800/464-1993 or 808/322-8881, fax 808/322-8883.

For those yearning to spot a Hawaiian crow, as well as honeycreepers and other rare forest birds like the ‘elepaio (an inquisitive little Old World flycatcher), McCandless Ranch Ecotours can be arranged for a minimum fee of $400 for one or two people. The tour begins early in the morning in four-wheel-drive vehicles and includes a Continental breakfast and a picnic lunch. McCandless Ranch Ecotours, Box 500, Honaunau, Hawaii 96726, phone 808/328-9313 or fax 808/328-8671.

More Photos of Hawaii's Birds. photo credit: Jack Jeffrey


Crested Honeycreeper


Maui Creeper





Hawaii Elepaio

Maui Parrotbill

Alala (Hawaiian Crow)

Coffee Times magazine Cover, Spring/Summer 1999

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