Pueo, The Protector

by Veronica S. Schweitzer

Pueo - Hawaiian Owl.

The cry of the owl has followed me from country to country, continent to continent. The silent scream that once penetrated the snow-burdened hills and frozen glens in Northern Scotland now wakes me up to the eerie surf breaking against the steep cliffs below our house in the tropics of Kohala.

I've watched the noiseless flight of an owl sailing toward its prey on the ground. Occasionally we meet eye to eye. Gauging each other's strength leaves me humble.

What is it about owls? They have played an important role in myth, legend, and folklore since ancient times. Paleolithic rock carvings in French caves show a pair of snowy owls with their chicks. Why? A food source? Or something more mysterious that binds us to this creature? It seems that in all cultures the owl invokes a mixture of intense feelings: Awe; fear; inspiration; safety. The owl is both considered a messenger of doom, and a good ol' wise bird, like Wol in Winnie the Pooh.

Truth is, the owl certainly has what it takes to be a fearsome bird. And it has chosen a most mysterious setting for its life to unfold. Like the eagle and the hawk, owls are master killers, with ferocious talons, and beaks you wouldn't want to feel hooked too deeply underneath your skin. As creatures of the night, they represent the darker mysteries, their clear call alluding to the worst that darkness can hold. Looking for rodents in open, grassy land, they love to hunt ghostly cemeteries, church yards and abandoned ruins. They truly fly without as much as a whisper of sound.

But on the other hand, the owl's lethal talons and beak are hidden in a cloak of soft, attractive thick feathers. The facial disks resemble the cutest, puffed up cheeks. Their eyes, big and round, seem human. And those ear tufts, well, grandfather too had hairs like that. Add to this their vertical body posture and a little anthropomorphic projection, and you have your wise, learned owl.

In Hawaii, from before the arrival of the first Polynesians, flies the short-eared brown owl, also named Hawaiian owl, or pueo. Like everywhere else, Hawaii gave the owl a special place in its mythology.

Pueo is sacred. The Hawaiian dictionary lists several meanings and connotations for the word itself: When a certain object or concept is considered important, more layers of meaning are contributed, each level unraveling deeper and deeper symbolic significance. Pueo doesn't signify only an owl, but also denotes a taro variety, the staff of life. In addition it indicates, among other meanings, shortness, the shroud of a canoe, and the rocking of a child. Then there are the many expressions that use the word pueo, such as keiki a ka pueo, "child of an owl, whose father is not known", or, ka pueo kani kaua, "the owl who sings of war, the owl as a protector in battle". A no lani, a no honua, another saying states, "the guardian owl belongs to heaven and earth". Throughout Hawaii, streets, areas, and valleys bear the owl's name, with many such places having an intriguing legend attached to them. Pueo's legacy reaches far beyond brown feathers into the realm of the spirit world.

As for the facts about pueo, its Latin classification spells asio flammeus sandwicensis, but specialists are not in agreement whether this owl, endemic to the islands, is truly a subspecies of the North American Short-Eared Owl or indistinguishable from its continental friends. Either way, it measures 13 to 17 inches, with the females being slightly larger than the males. A dark mask surrounds large, yellow eyes, and its feathered body is streaked with shades of brown and white. The pueo, unlike most owls, is often active during the day and loves to fly at high altitude above open, grassy areas. The pueo feels at home at sea level as well as in the higher mountains. On the Big Island, its favorite cruising grounds seem to be the Waikii pastures above the Waimea-Kona mountain road, Mamalahoa Highway 190.

There are no statistics on the pueo's population numbers. They are present on all the islands, but they are definitely in decline on Oahu, where urban development makes it impossible for the shy, brown bird to find the green, solitude it craves. Considered endangered on Oahu, pueo has become a candidate for threatened status throughout the island chain The pueo's modern diet consists of introduced rodents, rats, mice, and small mongooses: This alone is reason for all of us to adore this bird! In earlier days, before those rodents arrived, pueo is thought to have feasted on the small Hawaiian rail, a flightless bird that is now extinct.

Pueo loves to nest in grassy areas, making its survival a precarious affair. It lays three to six white eggs over a span of up to several months. As a result, the eggs don't hatch all at the same time. In one nest different ages grow up together. Right on ground level, the little nestlings are vulnerable to feral cats and mongooses. Once up and flying, the birds are often killed by guns or through stress caused by construction and development.

On a more esoteric level, the pueo, with all its mysterious wisdom, a bird that flew over the islands well before the first Hawaiians sailed in, is among the oldest physical manifestations of the Hawaiian family protectors, the ancestral guardians, the aumakua. It was believed that after the death of an ancestor, the spirit could still protect and influence the remaining family acting through a body such as that of the owl, the shark, the turtle, or even the centipede. Each species channeling the ancestor held unique strengths. The owl as aumakua was specifically skilled in battle.

The most famous legend, "The Battle of the Owls" underscores the aumakua's force. It relates the story of an Oahu man who robbed an owl's nest: After he slung the coveted bounty in his knapsack, the owl-parent shrieked with grief and complaint. The man felt sorry and quickly returned the eggs unharmed to the nest. Not only that, he took the owl as his god and built a temple in its honor. Naturally, the ruling chief thought this an act of rebellion against the prevalent gods, and ordered the man's execution. The weapon was poised, the man feared his last breath, andŠ the owls gathered, darkening the skies with their wings. Any further action of the king's soldiers became impossible. The man walked free. Pueo-hulu-nui near Moanalua on Oahu is one of the alleged places where the awesome battle took place.

Much further back in time, it is said that Hina, the mother of the god Maui, gave birth to a second child, in the form of the pueo. Later, when the brave Maui was taken as prisoner by enemies and held for sacrifice, brother owl rescued him and led him to safety.

Another old story of rescue tells of a warrior who fought under King Kamehameha the First. Cornered by the enemy, he was about to plunge over a dangerous cliff. Right at that moment an owl flew up in his face, so that he was able to thrust out his spear into the earth, saving himself from the suicidal leap.

Many years later, under the rule of Kamehameha IV, certain festivities took place in Honolulu and many people from the country arrived to celebrate or sell their wares. A young girl, excited and unaccustomed to city-ways, galloped her horse through the downtown streets. She was arrested and thrown in prison with the worst of offenders. She cried herself to sleep. Shortly after midnight she awoke to a flapping sound near the door, which stood wide open. She quietly stepped out and closed the door behind her. Not far from her she saw an owl, perched on a wooden fence, awaiting her escape. The owl flew in front of her, guiding her past guards and police men, through dark streets, till they came to a saddled horse and a bundle of fresh clothes. The girl mounted, the owl pulled the head of the horse in the direction of the country where the girl came from, guided her all the way home, and then left.

Are these stories legend, truth, symbols, mere imagination or perhaps all simultaneous? It's hard to deny that even today, the owl guides people on conscious and subconscious levels. The owl, for better or worse, remains a symbol of guidance, believe in the aumakua or not. People have driven the highways here, even recently, when an owl would fly right across the wind shield. Taking it as a "sign", they decided to return home and to forget about reaching their destination. They discovered that, more often than not, they could have been killed by the blow of a fallen rock or tree if they hadn't heeded the owl's subtle message.

Even so, my favorite story combines all the elements of the wise Hawaiian owl in the most beautiful, tragic-romantic tale. This is the legend of Ka-hala-o-Puna, princess of Manoa. A legend which also explains the beauty of Manoa valley on Oahu, blessed by rainbows, rains, and reassuring winds.

Daughter of Manoa Wind, and Manoa Rain, Kahalaopuna grew up as the most beautiful girl in Hawaii at the time. She was given as bride, in infancy, to chief Kauhi of Kailua.

The fame of her beauty spread, and ill-meaning, envious men sowed rumors of shame. Despite his fiancée's innocence, Kauhi became enraged with jealousy, and he killed her with a cone of hala nuts, then buried her body hastily.

An owl unearthed the girl with his claws, rubbed his head against her bruised temple, and restored her to life. She followed Kauhi, trying to reconcile. He killed her three more times! The owl brought her back to life each time.

The fifth time Kauhi buried her far away and deep under the roots of a large koa tree. Now the owl worked so hard yet was unable to scratch the earth away and finally had no other choice but to abandon the girl.

However, there had been a witness to this last murder and failed rescue attempt! A little green bird named elepaio flew to Kahalaopuna's parents and informed them. They prepared to visit the koa tree and find her remains.

Meanwhile, the girl's apparition appeared for chief Mahana, who, as directed by his vision, also went to the koa tree and found her body still warm. With the help of his spirit sisters he brought her back to life and gradually she healed from the ordeal. Mahana loved her and cared for her. Kauhi, this time, didn't know that she had returned to life. Yet when Mahana asked for her hand, Kahalaopuna still felt under the obligation to marry Kauhi! In secret, with his brother and her parents, Mahana planned to kill the murderous fiancé. The two rivals met in a trial, and Mahana, who knew the truth, won. Kauhi, as well as the two chiefs who had spread the disastrous rumors, were baked in ground ovens and Mahana received Kahalaopuna as his wife. They were happy for two years, till Kauhi, in the form of a shark, devoured her. This time for ever.

Such are the stories of the Hawaiian owl, a bird of power. When you hear the scream of silence, the rustle of soundless wings, an effortless shadow gliding by, look up in the high blue skies, follow the owl's smooth dive. Pueo's presence might be there for you.

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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.