Due to the lack of native mammals and reptiles in pre-contact Hawaii, native birds flourished, becoming widespread and highly specialized. Not to mention, they were able to feast on over 10,000 species of native insects. However, one of the great tragedies of natural history is the continuing demise of Hawaiian birdlife. Perhaps only 15 original species of birds remain of the more than 70 native families that thrived before the coming of humans.
Since the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778, 23 species have become extinct, with 31 more in danger. And what’s not known is how many species were wiped out before white explorers arrived. Experts believe that the Hawaiians annihilated about 40 species, including seven species of geese, a rare long-legged owl, ibis, lovebirds, sea eagles, and honeycreepers—all gone before Captain Cook showed up. Hawaii’s endangered birds account for 40 percent of the birds officially listed as endangered or threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of the remaining indigenous Hawaiian birds can be found on any island below the 3,000-foot level.
Hawaii shoreline cliffs, dunes and islets are home to thriving colonies of marine birds. Look for several birds from the tern family, including the white, gray, and sooty tern. Along with the terns are shearwaters and the enormous Laysan albatross, with its seven-foot wingspan. Tropicbirds, with their lovely streamer-like tails, are often seen along the windward coasts.
If you’re lucky, you can also catch a glimpse of the pueo (Hawaiian owl) in mountainous areas. Deep in the forests you can sometimes see elusive birds like the ‘elepaio, ‘amakihi, and the fiery red ‘i‘iwi. The ‘amakihi and ‘i‘iwi are endemic birds not endangered at the moment. The ‘amakihi is one of the most common native birds; yellowish-green, it frequents the high branches of the ‘ohi‘a, koa, and sandalwood trees looking for insects, nectar, or fruit. It is less specialized than most other Hawaiian birds, the main reason for its continued existence. The ‘i‘iwi, a bright red bird with a salmon-colored, hooked bill, is found in the forests above 2,000 feet. The most common native bird, the ‘apapane is abundant and easiest to see. It’s a chubby, red-bodied bird about five inches long with a black bill, legs, wingtips, and tail feathers.
Exotic, introduced birds are the most common in the beach parks and in urban areas. Black myna birds with their sassy yellow eyes are common mimics around town. Sparrows, introduced to Hawaii through O‘ahu in the 1870s, are everywhere. Munia, first introduced as caged birds from Southeast Asia, have escaped and can be found almost anywhere around the island of O‘ahu.