Fascinating Blackbirds in Hawaii: A Long Way From Home

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Blackbirds are a common sight throughout North America, but one very special state that lies far away in the tropical surrounds of the Pacific Ocean has very different birdlife.

More than 350 species of bird have been recorded in the Hawaiian islands, including 59 species endemic only to Hawaii. Among those is a single species of established blackbird.

There are other black birds that may be mistaken for blackbirds. One example is the Hawaiian Crow, or ‘Alalā. This crow is black with a silver-gray sheen on its feathers and red eyes. It’s now found only in captivity but used to range across all the main Hawaiian Islands.

Blackbirds vs. Birds That Are Black

While both blackbirds and any black bird share the common trait of feather coloration, there are several key distinctions between the two groups.

Perhaps most notably, blackbirds belong to the family Icteridae, while birds that are simply black belong to a variety of families. In addition, blackbirds are generally smaller than other black-feathered birds, with shorter tails and beaks.

Finally, the plumage of blackbirds is usually lustrous and shiny, while the feathers of other blackbirds tend to be duller in appearance.

While both groups of birds are visually striking, understanding the key differences between them is essential for correctly identifying them in the wild.

Larger black passerines, such as crows and ravens, are often miscategorized as blackbirds when they actually belong to a different family but in the same order (Passeriformes).

Blackbird Species in Hawaii

Western Meadowlark: The Only Established Blackbird Species

Western Meadowlark

The Western meadowlark is the only member of the Icteridae family with established populations and is commonly seen in Hawaii.

In North America, this medium-sized songbird is one of the most recognizable blackbird species, with a black back, head, and yellow breast.

The Western meadowlark was introduced to Hawaii in the late 1800s to control insect populations. The birds were released to various islands but only established on Kaua’i. It’s speculated this is because Kaua’i is the only island without a predatory mongoose population.

This introduced species cohabitates with native species peacefully. Unlike many other stories of introduced species, they do not appear to present much of a risk to native populations.

Great-tailed Grackle: A Few Rare Sightings

Great-Tailed Grackle

The Great-tailed grackle is a large blackbird found throughout Central and South America. It is not an established species in Hawaii, but there have been a handful of sightings between 1980 and 2016.

The birds observed in Hawaii had physical attributes that were closest to the subspecies of Southern California and surrounding areas. Given how far this area is from Hawaii, researchers concluded that they arrived in Hawaii with ship assistance. They also speculated that the birds may have escaped from the Honolulu Zoo, but they had no records of any escaped grackles.

It is a noisy bird known for its raucous calls and aggressive behavior. The Great-tailed grackle is an opportunistic feeder, eating a wide variety of food items, including insects, fruit, and garbage.

While it is not currently considered a threat to Hawaii’s native ecosystem, the Great-tailed grackle has the potential to cause harm if it becomes established in the state. If you see a Great-tailed grackle in Hawaii, please report it to the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Black Birds in Hawaii

Despite the lack of blackbirds in Hawaii, the state is home to an incredible array of birds who fill all sorts of niches in the tropical ecosystem of the state. 

From the nectar-feeding honeycreepers to the fish-eating ‘alae kea, Hawaii’s birds are as varied as they are beautiful. While you may not be able to find a blackbird in Hawaii, there are plenty of other birds to enjoy.

Many of these birds display incredible colors and patterns, but some are simply black or have large black patterns. These black birds can easily be confused with blackbirds simply by being black.

Get to know some of the black birds in Hawaii so you can identify species with confidence on your birdwatching expeditions.

Native

  • Hawaiian Crow (‘Alalā)
  • Crested Honeyeater (‘Ākohekohe)
  • Hawaiian moorhen (‘Alae ‘ula)
  • Hawaiian coot (‘Alae ke’oke’o)
  • Hawaiian stilt (Ae’o)
  • Black noddy (Noio)
  • Lesser Scaup (migratory)
  • Many petrel species: Bulwer’s, Hawaiian, Storm, Tristram’s Storm
  • Shearwaters: Christmas, Newell’s

Introduced

  • Common Mynah
  • Blacked-headed Munia
  • White-rumped Shama
  • Red-whiskered Bulbul

The Impact of Invasive Birds in Hawaii

The fact that the introduced Western meadowlark poses no real risk to the Hawaiian ecosystem is a rare story. Island ecosystems have a heightened vulnerability to the effects of invasive species due to their isolated nature and unique line of evolution.

Since the 1800s, Hawaii has been struggling with an influx of invasive bird species. These birds have been brought over by humans, either on purpose or by accident, and have wreaked havoc on the native ecosystems.

Some of the most damaging invasive bird species in Hawaii are:

  • Common Mynah
  • Great-tailed Mynah
  • Black-headed Munia
  • White-rumped Shama
  • Red-whiskered Bulbul
  • Red-vented Bulbul
  • Rose-ringed Parakeet

These birds are all seed predators, which means they eat the native plants’ seeds, preventing them from reproducing. They also act as seed dispersers for invasive plants that have evolved to spread seeds via birds’ digestive tracts.

This has a devastating effect on the native ecosystem, as the native plants cannot compete with the invasive plants.

In addition to being seed predators, these birds also spread disease. Avian malaria is a significant problem in Hawaii, and these invasive bird species are vectors for the disease. They contract the disease from mosquitoes and then spread it to the native birds, who have no immunity.

Avian malaria has caused the extinction of several native bird species in Hawaii and is a major threat to the remaining native bird populations.

Final Thoughts

With so many different types of black birds in Hawaii, it can be tough to tell them apart. Keep these tips in mind the next time you’re out birdwatching, and you’ll be able to identify the black birds you see.

Blackbirds aren’t the only famous group of birds missing from Hawaii; the state also does not have any fan-favorite Hummingbirds. Still, Hawaii’s birdlife is rich in many other ways. Honey-eaters, flycatchers, and parrots adorn the forests while seabirds like skuas, sandpipers, and petrels patrol the coast. Hawaii also has both native and introduced species of hawks and owls.

If you think you’ve seen a true blackbird species in Hawaii (that isn’t the Western meadowlark), please report it to the Department of Land and Natural Resources so that they can investigate. With careful monitoring, we can make sure that these introduced species don’t cause harm to Hawaii’s native ecosystem.

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Sophie Herlihy

After an early start in the veterinary industry and as a conservation educator at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida, Sophie has since been a successful Zookeeper and Conservationist, specializing in native New Zealand species. When she isn't bird watching in native forests or crawling through the underbrush at midnight searching for rare frog species, she can be found with her husband on their sheep and beef station, far from civilization.