Riding the Wings of the Pueo


By the late Michael Kumukauoha Lee

This act by government to remove the pueo from our skies takes away the ability of the sacred pueo to present itself as the spiritual priest of the land that ministers to others.

On Oʻahu, where it is endangered, government officials fear the pueo (Hawaiian owl). No land development project or environmental watch dog has ever acknowledged that the pueo exists where development is planned.

The pueo migrates and can establish itself anywhere, creating problems for landowners who want to build by delaying their projects. The power this one bird seems to possess compared to most other protected endangered species is fascinating.

The monk seal, the sphinx moth, our precious rare plants – they have, for the most part, established territories. Not so, the pueo. Pueo follow the movement and migration patterns of insects and other foodstuffs in concert with the changing seasons. They do not put up a “mailbox” as do other birds saying, “You can always find me here.” And that’s what developers fear – the potential discovery of pueo breeding grounds on land intended for development.

On Oʻahu’s ʻEwa Plain, where the pueo is most prevalent, not one final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for any recent development in the area reported the presence of pueo on the land.

The Environmental Council (a body of 15 people appointed by the governor) failed to include in their recent revision and codification of the EIS process, criteria to ensure that the biological inventory protocol not miss or overlook instances of pueo inhabitation.

Suggested criteria included a requirement that a raptor (birds of prey) expert be involved in conducting the inventory; that the property in question should be surveyed at sunset and sunrise when the pueo is most active; and that the property should actually be walked as part of data gathering, with “drive-through” surveys disallowed.

It was further recommended that the EIS process should include a provision that the inventory exercise be repeated during both the wet and dry seasons since pueo move from place to place to survive. As a ground nester, the pueo’s nests are rarely visible; and because they are more active during the evening and morning hours, sightings are infrequent.

Currently, the government-approved practice to look for signs of pueo habitation only requires observation during a few daylight hours, regardless of the acreage of the property, and does not specify observation during dawn or dusk.

One could surmise that the Environmental Council wanted to make it unlikely that pueo would be found in any environmental impact surveys undertaken, giving developers the green light to transform pueo habitat into parking lots.

In my heart, to see the pueo purged from the landscape with such reckless behavior, to remove its song, to squelch its voice and very being – to silence it – is simply not pono.

With thousands of acres soon to be dedicated for wind and solar farms on land the pueo uses to survive, the pueo speaks for all of God’s grand creations in the wild. Wildlife in need of habitat and unable to co-exist with encroaching development are riding on the wings of the pueo; their own fates intertwined.

The State of Hawaiʻi must fulfill its legal obligation to mālama the endangered species laws written to protect the voiceless. On the ʻEwa Plain, where land is being swallowed faster than the time it takes for concrete to harden, we must advocate for the pueo’s habitat to be protected.

Michael Kumukauoha Lee was a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and retired Hawaiian religious studies teacher at Damien Memorial School who resided in ʻEwa Beach. For more about the pueo and its plight within the Honouliuli Ahupuaʻa, watch the video, “Pueo Chant” performed by Kumu Lee.

Photo: Kumukauoha Lee

Michael Kumukauoha Lee passed in August 2019. A few months prior to his death, he offered this article for publication in Ka Wai Ola. It was recently rediscovered, and Ka Wai Ola reached out to Tom Berg, a friend of Lee’s, to update the article on Lee’s behalf for publication posthumously. Berg and Lee often journeyed into the wilderness tracking the sacred pueo and discovered the presence of a pueo ecology on state-owned land in West Oʻahu. Lee petitioned the Hawaiʻi State Legislature to establish protection measures to preserve the pueo habitat, as there is an urgent need to set aside land to maintain biological diversity. Without adequate habitat, the pueo will soon be gone.

The background to Kumu Lee’s article covers a journey to expose the plight of the Hawaiian owl on the ʻEwa Plains of Oʻahu and can be viewed on YouTube in a two-part series: