Hawaiian Short-Eared Owl
Scientific Name: Asio flammeus sandwichensis
Not all owls construct lofty nests! Like continental short-eared owls, the Hawaiian short-eared owl prefers to nest on the ground. If predators venture too close to the nest and young, both the male and female will scream, hiss, and bark at the intruder while often faking a broken wing as a diversion.
A subspecies of the continental short-eared owl, the Hawaiian short-eared owl is a native to Hawaii and is thought to have populated the islands around the time of the ancient Polynesians. The pueo, as they are called in Hawaii, are relatively quiet birds because of diurnal nature (active during the day) and rely more on visual displays to communicate rather than auditory ones. Males perform acrobatic aerial displays called sky dancing to attract mates.
STATUS: Common continental short-eared owls are listed as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but the Hawaiian subspecies is considered a species of concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While they were once prevalent, the numbers of Hawaiian short-eared owls have been declining, especially on the island of Oahu. Because they nest on the ground, eggs and young are more susceptible to predators (especially introduced mammal species like rats, cats, and mongooses), and habitat loss due to human expansion threatens the owls’ preferred hunting and nesting areas. In addition, a condition known as “sick owl syndrome,” which is thought to be related to pesticide poisoning or food shortages, has slowly chipped away at the struggling population. This syndrome leaves the birds walking lethargically on roads, leading to death by collision with oncoming cars.
HABITAT: Hawaiian short-eared owls can be found on each of the eight main Hawaiian islands from sea level to 8,000 feet. They can occupy a range of habitats, including the wet and dry forests on the islands, but they prefer the more open habitats like grasslands and shrub-lands.
DIET: Hunting for small mammals occurs during the early morning and late afternoon hours. It is thought that the owls’ fairly recent establishment on Hawaii might be tied to the rats that came with the ancient Polynesians to the islands; regardless, these owls prefer to dine on rodents like mice, rats, mongooses, and shrews. The Hawaiian short-eared owl is known to fly over open areas, a several feet above ground, and pounce when prey is located.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: This owl is a medium-sized bird of prey, weighing between one half and one and a half pounds. As their name states, Hawaiian short-eared owls have small ear tufts that look like two small ridges along the top of their heads. These birds have distinct, dark facial disks that surround large, yellow eyes, and their feathered bodies are streaked with shades of brown and yellow-white. As with most all birds of prey, the females are slightly larger than the males.
Pueo the Protector
The Hawaiian short-eared owl is an important ancestral spirit in Hawaiian culture and is seen as a family protector. Because they are believed to be especially skilled in battle and a bringer of good luck, many Hawaiian legends and myths focus on these birds. In one such tale, entitled “The Battle of the Owls,” a man robbed an owl’s nest of her eggs; after being haunted by the pueo, the man returned the owl’s eggs to the nest, and as an apology, he built a shrine to the bird. The ruling human chieftain saw the shrine as an act of defiance and sentenced the man to death. As he was about to die, the pueo gathered her fellow owls and flew to the human village; there were so many owls that the skies were darkened by their wings, and the chief revoked his decision and spared the man’s life.