The Bird that Soars in the Heavenly Space

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Photo: ʻIo
Elegant and regal, the Hawaiian hawk, or ʻio, is an endemic native species that lives and breeds exclusively on Hawaiʻi Island. ʻIo are agile and expert hunters and considered ʻaumakua by many Native Hawaiian families. Increasingly, ʻio are being shot from the sky by people who view them as a threat to their chickens and other small livestock. In this incredible image, Hawaiʻi Island photographer Bret Nainoa Mossman captures this vision of an ʻio seconds before it pounces on its prey. – Photo: Bret Nainoa Mossman

“He ʻio au, ʻaʻohe lālā kau ʻole.
I am a hawk, there is no branch on which I cannot perch.”

In Hawaiian tradition, the Hawaiian hawk, or ʻio, is symbolic of royalty – as in this ʻōlelo noʻeau where the ʻio is a metaphor for an aliʻi.

In moʻolelo, ʻio are often portrayed as teachers or judges and compared to the highest chiefs and are considered by some to be a kinolau (body form) of the deity, Uli. The ʻio is also an ʻaumakua (family guardian, kupuna) to some Hawaiian families – including the Kamehamehas – so harming or killing them was strictly forbidden.

ʻIo as an ʻAumakua

Keani Kaleimamahu, an ʻōlohe lua practitioner and teacher from Puna, said that his ʻohana claims lineage from the ʻio, “My family goes to an ʻio, a certain hawk, a certain name.” He recalled an incident that occurred during the interment ceremony for a deceased relative.

“A red light came down from the sky, a flash of light, and a fireball came down exploding in front of us and we blew backwards,” Kaleimamahu said. “I immediately knew that our kūpuna had come and taken that person back to the ancestors because in Hawaiian beliefs we’re able to kākūʻai (transfigure) our beloved into the family lineage of our kūpuna.”

He said that the next morning, a young ʻio appeared in a tree next to the window of the family home. It rested there for several days and has remained in the area, growing bigger and bigger. “I believe that that person had been kākūʻai into this spiritual form of an ʻio,” Kaleimamahu said.

Kohala native and Grammy Award-winning kī hōʻalu (slack-key) guitarist and composer John Keawe also shares a spiritual connection with the ʻio.

“Growing up I never knew about ʻaumakua. My grandfather was pure Hawaiian but I never met him,” said Keawe. “I was on my knees in our vegetable garden one day here at Halaʻula and I see [a] shadow next to me. I looked up and saw this ʻio with a huge wingspan about 30 feet above me. We made eye contact for about 20 seconds and I got chicken skin. From that time, Iʻve felt connected to the ʻio.

“I donʻt know if I adopted him as my ʻaumakua or he adopted me. But ever since, I always see him and I feel a sense of peace. This bird is royalty. They are so powerful. This ʻio survives by itself and you can see the strength. So it gives me strength.”

Kalena Blakemore is a legacy land agent for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). She is from Puna and her family’s ʻaumakua is the ʻio. “ʻKiaʻi ka ʻio i kāna mau pua’ is a metaphor I conceived regarding my relationship to the ʻio,” said Blakemore. “It means the ʻhawk guards and protects their children.’

“The ʻio is my ʻaumakua and often appears when I’m at a crossroad and needing direction, guidance or simple confirmation that I’m on the right track. The presence of ʻio represents my ancestors watching over me. Wao Kele o Puna is home to our ʻio, and my ancestors. I am blessed to care for that ʻāina.”

Retired state judge William “Yama” Chillingworth, moved to Kohala in 2005 to research the Hawaiian side of his family and found himself spending lot of his time at Pololū Valley and engaging more and more with ʻio who live in the valley.

Before beginning his quest he did not think about the ʻio as an ʻaumakua. “I was just looking for a connection with my mother’s family. The ʻio came to me and gave me instructions about what I was supposed to be doing,” said Chillingworth. “Of course I feel the ʻio is an ʻaumakua.”

He eventually learned his ʻohana were from the Hāmākua coast, southeast of Laupāhoehoe, and that they were feather workers. This made sense, as one of the ancestral names he knew of was Manuhoa (friend of the birds). The other name he knew was Kanehoalani, a chiefly name.

This led him to publish a book of photography called ʻIo Lani the Hawaiian Hawk. Most days, Chillingworth is at Pololū Valley with his camera. “They [ʻio] like that habitat, lots of tall trees and drinking water. I see them every day. And occasionally I call to them. And occasionally they call back to me.”

An Endemic Native Hawaiian Bird

The elegant and majestic ʻio are endemic to Hawaiʻi – meaning they are found nowhere else in the world – and they were here long before our ancestors arrived. Although fossil records suggest that, in the past, ʻio were present elsewhere in the pae ʻāina, and from time to time they are spotted on other islands, Hawaiʻi Island is their home and the only place that they breed.

In 1967, the ʻio was placed on the federal endangered and threatened species list. However, their population has since stabilized with an estimated population of about 2,500-3,000 birds so in 2020 they were removed from the federal endangered species list. The State of Hawaiʻi still considers them a threatened species.

In ideal conditions, ʻio can live to be up to 30 years old, although their average life expectancy is about 17 years. They are territorial and will fiercely protect their nesting and hunting areas.

ʻIo mate for life and begin breeding at 3 or 4 years old. Their nesting season begins in the spring and by July all ʻio chicks have hatched. ʻIo are excellent and dedicated parents. Females lay one or two eggs per season and both parents share in the kuleana of building the nests and incubating the eggs (which takes about 38 days). Once they hatch, the fathers hunt to feed the babies while the mothers remain in the nests to protect them. Youngsters live with their parents for about a year.

ʻIo mate for life and begin breeding when they are 3 or 4 years old. Nesting season is in the spring and females lay one or two eggs per season. ʻIo are excellent parents who share in the kuleana of building their nests and incubating their eggs. Once their babies hatch, the fathers hunt to feed the nestlings and the mothers protect them. Young ʻio remain with their parents for about a year. – Photos: Bret Nainoa Mossman

During their lifetimes, ʻio go through several color phases that are not tied to age or gender. Their color ranges from a very light, almost blonde color to a very dark color. Our kūpuna described these phases as ʻio mea, ʻio ʻehu and ʻio uli. ʻIo uli (dark hawk) was likely the most venerated – which is consistent with the highly preferred Hawaiian ceremonial offerings of puaʻa hiwa (black pig), niu hiwa (dark coconut) and ʻawa hiwa (dark-skinned ʻawa). However, respected Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukuʻi referred to ʻio mea as the “sacred one.”

Throughout their lifetimes, ʻio go through color phases unrelated to their age or gender. Their color can range from a very light, almost blonde hue, to a very dark brownish-black color. In Hawaiian, the color phases of the ʻio were called ʻio mea, ʻio ʻehu and ʻio uli. Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukuʻi referred to ʻio mea as the “sacred one.” – Photos: William “Yama” Chillingworth

ʻIo are raptors (birds of prey). The only other type of raptor in Hawaiʻi is the pueo (owl). Prior to the arrival of our Polynesian ancestors, ʻio preyed exclusively on other bird species and insects. However, a characteristic of the ʻio is its adaptability as a hunter – one reason it has been able to survive despite the encroachment of human beings on its habitat – and so its prey has expanded to include rats, mice, mongoose and non-native bird species.

They are found from sea level to elevations of up to 8,900 feet and thus ʻio hunt and nest in a wide variety of habitats, although they prefer native ʻōhiʻa lehua forests. This is likely due to the ʻōhiʻa’s strong branches, dense foliage and height as they prefer to perch and nest in tall trees. They will also nest in non-native trees like eucalyptus but have higher reproductive success when they nest in ʻōhiʻa lehua trees.

Fortunately, ʻio seem to be relatively resistant to the diseases (e.g., avian malaria and avian pox virus) that have devastated other native bird species here in Hawaiʻi. Indeed, the greatest threat to the adaptable and resilient ʻio are human beings.

With just a few protected habitats on Hawaiʻi Island such as the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, the Nature Conservancy’s Kona Hema Preserve, and OHA’s Wao Kele o Puna Forest Reserve – and the steady encroachment of human development on its natural habitat – ʻio are increasingly victims of their proximity to human beings.

ʻIo have been hit by cars, injured by powerlines, attacked by cats and dogs, and inadvertently poisoned when people use rodenticides to control rats and mice on their property – but the most prevalent, and preventable, is the malicious shooting of these native birds to stop them from preying on domestic chickens.

Rescuing and Rehabilitating ʻIo Harmed by Humans

“ʻIo are coming to our hospital mainly for human impact reasons, and those, unfortunately, include being shot,” said Hawaiʻi Wildlife Center President and Director Linda Elliott.

“We have a patient in care now who has a wing fracture from a gunshot. Those are really painful and not always successfully treated. We transferred two of our patients, also victims of gunshots, to the Honolulu Zoo because they are not going to be able to live in the wild with their injuries.”

Elliott has a degree in wildlife biology, more than 15 years of experience as a wildlife rehabilitator, and more than 20 years as an educator, supervisor and emergency response manager. She founded the Hawaiʻi Wildlife Center in 2012 with a mission to protect, conserve and aid in the recovery of Hawaiʻi’s native winged wildlife. Over the past decade, the center has treated more than 2,000 sick and injured native Hawaiian birds and bats at their main facility in Kapaʻau and at their satellite operations on Oʻahu and Lānaʻi.

Photo: Makaʻio the Hawaiian hawk
Makaʻio the Hawaiian hawk is the most famous resident of the Hawaiʻi Wildlife Center in Kapaʻau. An impact injury left him blind in one eye so he can no longer live in the wild. Instead, he has become an ambassador for his species. – Photo: Joshua Koh

The most famous resident of the center is an ʻio named Makaʻio who was brought there when he was just one or two years old. “He had an impact injury to the right side of his body that affected his wing and his eyesight. He recovered fairly well from the wing injury but lost his sight on that side,” Elliott said.

Makaʻio’s injuries no longer cause him discomfort. However, because he is blind in one eye he cannot hunt or survive in the wild. So he has been cleared by state and federal wildlife agencies to be an ambassador for his species, representing ʻio with the center’s students and visitors. “He’s being trained to ride on a glove to allow him to be seen up close, comfortably and respectfully,” said Elliott. “We’re excited that he’s going to be able to help us teach people how wonderful ʻio are.”

Elliott herself has raised several orphaned ʻio brought to the center as nestlings and over the years she has learned a lot about the species.

“ʻIo are interesting,” she said. “Hikers have reported resting under trees only to look up and see an ʻio perched above them quietly watching and observing. They can be very still and patient about hunting. They sit, watch and wait for the opportune time to pounce on their prey – they donʻt like to waste a lot of energy, so they’re wise in that respect.”

She also noted that while they are skillful hunters they are also kolohe (mischievous) and have individual and distinctive personalities. “They can be very goofy when they’re learning [to hunt]. You’ll see them try and catch grasshoppers, ʻaʻama crabs – just anything that moves – to practice their skills.”

As adults, ʻio are graceful and elegant in flight. “They have quite a breeding dance; very acrobatic, very beautiful,” said Elliott. “There is nothing in Hawaiʻi that fills that area of the sky. Watching them surf on the winds on windy days is just incredibly beautiful.”

A Kāhea to the Community to Mālama the ʻIo

The sad truth is that, despite its venerated status as an ʻaumakua and symbol of our aliʻi, and despite its important role in our native ecosystem, ʻio are often shot – especially by people trying to protect their chickens.

“It’s a problem,” said Chillingworth who sees the need to educate people – native and non-native – to understand the significance of what they’re doing. “I know they’re protecting their own interests, but they need to be educated to the fact that they’re damaging a larger portion of the wildlife here by doing what they’re doing. They need to consider other ways to protect their chickens instead of shooting our native hawks.”

“People who see the ʻio as a threat to their animals or domestic birds need to understand the ʻio was here in Hawaiʻi 700,000 years before humans. They are beautiful native birds of prey. Hunting is their normal behavior. Education and awareness is critical to protect the ʻio from extinction,” said Blakemore. “We can live together by keeping our pets and chickens safe within their own roofed enclosures.”

“The natural thing for the ʻio to do is to hunt,” said Kaleimamahu. “Killing ʻio is very wrong. It steps on traditions – it’s almost like destroying our ancestral lineage. It’s very disrespectful to our people.”

“People don’t know enough about the ʻio so they don’t respect it,” added Keawe. “I hear about [ʻio being killed] and I feel terrible. It probably killed a chicken or something, but that is what they do. I feel connected to the ʻio and so I feel very sad. It’s such a royal bird. We need to educate people about its importance.”

“Because ʻio are only found on this island they are precious to the world’s biodiversity,” said Elliott. “They’re very important to the food chain and in keeping populations under control, helping to keep them healthy.”

When ʻio and other native birds arrive hurt at the Hawaiʻi Wildlife Center it’s stressful and painful for the animals and also for the staff. “Our whole purpose is to make sure sick and injured native wildlife are returned back home healthy and able to continue their lives and raise their young,” said Elliott.

“And when [they’re hurt] because of humans we have to make that right.

“Our happiest moments are on release day when they fly away, and they don’t look back. They’re just gone and doing what they should be doing naturally, normally, in their own way without our presence. That’s when we feel grateful. When we’ve been able to return them home.”

He ʻio au, he manu i ka lewa lani. I am an ʻio, the bird that soars in the heavenly space.


Mahalo to Kalani Akana, Ph.D., for his research on the cultural significance of the ʻio.

Makaʻio the Hawaiian hawk

Photo: ʻIo

For more information about the Hawaiʻi Wildlife Center or to donate to help build an aviary for Makaʻio go to: www.hawaiiwildlifecenter.org

For more information about the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge or the Nature Conservancy’s Kona Hema Preserve, and to donate to their work go to: www.friendsofhakalauforest.org or www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/kona-hema/