Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Native Species of the Week: Pueo

Hawaiian Short-eared Owl
Asio flammeus sandwichensis

Pueo, Kanaha Beach, Maui. 
The pueo, or Hawaiian short-eared owl, is an endemic subspecies of the nearly pandemic short-eared owl (Asio flammeus; Family: Strigidae). The species is thought to have colonized the Hawaiian Islands sometime after the arrival of Polynesians. The pueo is State listed as endangered on O‘ahu.

Unlike most owls, pueo are active during the day (i.e., diurnal), and are commonly seen hovering or soaring over open areas. Like short-eared owls in continental environments, those in Hawai‘i primarily consume small mammals. 

Pueo on fence, Waimea, Hawai'i.

Little is known about the breeding biology of pueo, but nests have been found throughout the year. Males perform aerial displays known as a "sky dancing display" to prospective females. Nests are constructed by females and are comprised of simple scrapes in the ground lined with grasses and feather down. Females also perform all incubating and brooding. Males feed females and defend nests. Young may fledge from nest on foot before they are able to fly and depend on their parents for approximately two months.


Found on all the Main Hawaiian Islands from sea level to 2,450 meters (8,000 feet).


Specifics unknown. See comment below for additional information provided by a DOFAW blog reader.


Pueo occupy a variety of habitats, including wet and dry forests, but are most common in open habitats such as grasslands, shrublands, and montane parklands, including urban areas and those actively managed for conservation. Because of a lack of historical population data and the species’ current, broad habitat use, key habitat variables are difficult to determine. Pueo occur in many areas that are managed by the Sate of Hawai‘i or Federal agencies.

Pueo in flight.
Pueo are likely susceptible to the same factors that threaten other native Hawaiian birds, including: loss and degradation of habitat, predation by introduced mammals, and disease. However, their persistence in lowland, non-native and rangeland habitats suggests that they may be less vulnerable to extinction than other native birds, especially because they may be resistant to avian malaria (Plasmodium relictum) and avian pox (Poxvirus avium).

Despite this, for pueo populations, the following are of particular concern:

  • “Sick owl syndrome.” Mortality on Kaua‘i has been attributed to this syndrome, which may be related to pesticide poisoning or food shortages.
  • Predation. Because pueo nest on the ground, their eggs and young are vulnerable to predation by rats (Rattus spp.), cats (Felis silvestris), and the small Indian mongoose (Herpestes auropunctatus).
  • Habitat loss may be particularly important to O‘ahu pueo populations.
  • Contaminants or toxins. Because pueo are top predators, fat-soluble contaminants may accumulate in prey species; may be related to “sick owl syndrome” (see above).
  • Human interaction. Hunting behavior and habitat use predispose pueo to vehicular collisions, which have been documented on Lāna‘i and the island of Hawai‘i.

Pueo, Kahana Beach, Maui


Pueo likely have benefited from management activities designed to conserve other endangered birds. They also may benefit from game bird management; high densities of pueo occur on lands where game birds also are common. In addition to these efforts, future management specific to the pueo may include the following:
  • Determine population trends, especially on islands where “sick owl syndrome” has been documented.
  • Public outreach and education.
  • Continued protection and management of wildlife sanctuaries and refuges.

For more info about the Hawaiian short-eared owl and other native species, visit the Hawaii Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy pueo fact sheet.

Also visit the Hawaii Ecosystems At Risk (HEAR) webpage for more info and photos.

For information about the role of pueo in Hawaiian culture, visit the Kamehameha Schools Distance Learning pueo info page. While you're there, check out the informative Hawaiian Culture Audio PowerPoint Presentations.


  1. Re: "Pueo were widespread at the end of the 19th century, but are thought to be declining"

    Pueo were actually in serious decline before the end of the 19th century.

    Henshaw in 1902 from his earlier Bishop Museum treatise wrote " The pueo was formerly very numerous in the lowlands of all the islands, but the extension of the canefields has materially diminished its numbers by depriving the bird of suitable nesting sites. Moreover the owl has ruthlessly been killed of late years, for no other reason than it is an owl. As a result the pueo is nowadays getting comparatively rare." This was written just at the end of the 19th century. The 1800's were a period of rapid decline for many of Hawai'i's larger birds (including nene, koloa, plovers) not just due to loss of habitat and rats, but because they were hunted for pleasure by the haoles that came to Hawai'i from the mainland and Europe. These men brought with them a tradition of hunting game birds for sport and Henshaw describes this impact in his writings. In the case of the owl, men also brought their assumptions about larger owl species being marauders of chicken houses on the farm; an unfortunate attitude even on the mainland. The role of hunting for pleasure is a part of the story that often doesn't get told in the demise of Hawai'i's native bird species.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to respond to this post, I appreciate the additional information that you've provided.