Species Spotlight: Hawaiian Moorhen

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Species Spotlight: Hawaiian Moorhen

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai , Oahu
Jan 16, 2013

We wove our way down the curvacious road that descends from Princeville into Hanalei and, already, from this side of the river, I could see the bird. A moorhen. Also known as a mudhen and gallinule and, in Hawaiian, 'ale 'ula.

The road into the town of Hanalei on Kauai’s north shore bends to the right after crossing the historic, one-lane Hanalei Bridge, and an anecdotal 99 percent who cross the bridge in polite groups of six or eight vehicles at a time head this way. But for taro farmers, hikers, select homeowners and a few early morning photographers, the slip of a road that drops to the left dips into the valley of Hanalei. And here, in the Hanalei Valley National Wildlife Refuge, at the base of waterfall-laced mountains and among ponds of leafy taro, are birds that possess the secret of fire.

Myth: When the Hawaiian demi-god known as Maui was a young man, he and his brothers would go fishing. From far off-shore one day, they noticed smoke from a fire billowing into the air. They knew the benefits of fire. They knew they could use a fire to cook food. They knew that food would taste good. But they didn't know how to make a fire. They didn’t know to rub two sticks together to create a spark that would ignite dry leaves and the spongy matter from the insides of tree bark. So, Maui and his brothers paddled like mad to return to land and investigate, but they discovered the fire had been smothered out with dirt. 

This series of events--the spotting, the rushing, the discovery of a cold fire--happened again and again, until one day, the wily Maui got an idea. He sent his brothers out in their fishing canoe, but he stayed behind. In his place, he crafted a dummy of sticks and kapa, cloth. Soon enough, he saw a fire going and, at its source, some birds. After some debate with the birds that involved the threat of death, the bird told him to rub two stalks of kalo, taro, together, but the wet kalo wouldn’t ignite. Neither would the other living plants that the bird instructed Maui to rub together like you or I might take the edges off a pair of fresh chop sticks. Finally, after more threats and surely a scuffle that sent feathers flying into the air, the bird gave up the secret. In return, Maui knighted the bird with a hot coal to the top of its head.

And that’s how Maui discovered fire for his fellow Hawaiians and how the ‘alae ‘ula got the red shield on its noggin.

Science: The Hawaiian moorhen (Gallinula chloropus sandvicensis) is not only endemic to Hawaii, it is also endangered. Endemic means the species is found in Hawaii and nowhere else in the world. Hawaii’s moorhen descended from the Common moorhen of North America and today is only found on Kauai and Oahu. That’s the endangered part. The Hawaiian moorhen is known for its secretive ways (just ask Maui) and as such population counts are estimates at best. Between 1993 and 2003, water bird counts put the population at 300 individuals.

Adults are black above and dark slate blue below, with a white stripe on their flanks, and grow to approximately 13 inches. A red frontal shield extends from between their eyes to nearly the tip of their bill, which is yellow. Their large, greenish feet are not webbed, even though they are good swimmers and are found in freshwater marshes, taro patches, irrigation ditches, reservoirs and wet pastures. Once common on all the main Hawaiian Islands, their numbers have dwindled due for a variety of reasons, including the loss and degradation of wetland habitat, introduced predators (rats, dogs, cats, mongoose, bull frogs) and invasive plants.

As mentioned, the moorhen’s behavior is quite secretive. They tend to stick to the ground, opting to walk and swim, rather than fly, taking cover in vegetation. Before human arrival in Hawaii, numerous flightless birds existed here. As I like to say, nature is the greatest conserver of energy there is. If a bird didn’t need to fly to find food or evade predators, it quit putting energy into flying and, hence, making wings that flew. If it weren’t for the introduced predators that today encourage the moorhen to take to the air, it makes one wonder whether this bird was well on its way to flightlessness.

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