It’s no wonder owls are a favorite bird for many. Their mysterious nocturnal behavior, large, wise eyes, and majestic flight have earned them a place in countless stories and folktales. In Hawaii, the owls are common characters in legends and are symbols of protection and guidance. In this article, we’re going to talk all about the species of owls in Hawaii, where to look for them, and the best time of day to find them – so you have the upper hand next time you’re out bird watching.
Catching sight of an owl mid-glide or perched up in a tree hole is always a special treat. However, it can be quite rare to spot one in Hawaii because of a decline in population due to habitat loss, disease, and collisions with cars.
Luckily, owls are found year-round on all six of the major Hawaiian Islands; Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, and Hawaii (The Big Island). Despite the wide variety of habitats and climates throughout the islands, the owls here have adapted to life in plenty of places including grasslands, forests, and urban areas.
The Species of Owls in Hawaii
Though there are many varieties of owls found all over the world, there are only two species of owls in Hawaii. There’s the native Hawaiian Short-eared Owl, or the Pueo, and the non-native Barn Owl. Both types of owls share characteristics and behaviors, making it easy to confuse them, but with this helpful info you should be able to tell them apart in no time.
1. Pueo Owl
Length: 13.4- 16.9 in
Weight: 7.3 -16.8 oz
Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 in
The Pueo, or Hawaiian Short-eared Owl, is a subspecies of the Short-eared Owl. While Short-eared owls are commonly found around the world, Pueos are endemic, and are only found on the Hawaiian islands.
Pueos have round faces with white markings and bright yellow eyes. The plumage around the head, wings, and back is a dark mottled brown.
Though they live in Hawaii year-round, a steep decline in their population makes catching sight of these birds a pretty rare occurrence — even though at the end of the 19th century Pueos were once in great abundance. The best time to look for them is dawn and dusk, when they’re likely to be hunting. Unlike most owls, Pueos are diurnal and are frequently active during the day.
Pueos occupy a diverse range of habitats, such as open fields, grasslands, shrublands, wet and dry forests, and even some urban areas and parks.
Pueos were thought to have arrived in Hawaii shortly after the arrival of Polynesians. It’s possible that the rats that traveled with the Polynesians helped the owls establish their population by providing them with a food source. Mice and rats still comprise the majority of a Pueo’s diet today, along with insects.
Male Pueos put on an aerial show to impress females during mating season — a behavior referred to as sky dancing. Females construct their nests on ground level, which are mostly just scratches lined with grasses and feathery down. Unfortunately, because their nests are at ground-level, Pueos are often victims to attacks from mongoose, cats, and other predators. Once the eggs are laid, mom incubates them while dad supplies the food. Chicks sometimes fledge the nest before they can even fly by just walking out. However, they usually remain dependent on their parents for about two months.
Pueos have also found their way into Hawaiian history and culture. They’re considered to be manifestations of ‘aumakua, or ancestral spirits. It’s believed that they have the ability to guide people to safety and protect them from harm. Pueos are featured heavily in Hawaiin legends of war and battle.
2. Barn Owl
Length: 12.6 – 15.8 in
Weight: 14.1 – 24.7 oz
Wingspan: 39.4 – 49.2 in
Unlike Pueos, Barn Owls are not native to Hawaii, and were introduced to the islands by the Hawaii Board of Agriculture and Forestry between 1958 and 1963 in an attempt to control rodent populations. They’ve adapted quite well since then, and are now even more common than Pueos. They’re found year round throughout all the Hawaiian islands.
Barn Owls are often found in large open areas, fields, meadows and marshes where they like to hunt. The best time to look for them is in the evening around dusk where you may catch a glimpse of one sweeping across the land looking for prey.
It’s easy to confuse a Barn Owl for a Pueo and vice versa, but there are a few key differences that set them apart. Barn Owls are lighter in coloration, with creamy faces and undersides and light tan wings and backs. They’re also bigger than Pueos, and more lanky.
There are also differences in behavior. Barn Owls are nocturnal and are primarily active at dusk and night when they hunt under the cover of darkness. Their calls sound like sharp, high-pitched screeches compared to the softer hoot of Pueos. They also like to roost and build their nests higher up in tree cavities or man-made crevices and buildings. In fact, their preference for abandoned barns is what earned them their name.
Because Barn Owls aren’t native, they pose unique threats to the local ecosystems. Their night time hunting allows them to sneak up and ambush prey such as small birds that aren’t used to nocturnal birds of prey. Some of the native birds that have become victims to Barn Owl attacks include the endangered Hawaiian petrel, Newell’s shearwaters, Hawaiian stilts, Bulwer’s petrels, and Hawaiian ducks among others.