Owls In Hawaii: 2 Species Are Better Than One

Sharing is caring!

When thinking about Hawaii, the clear blue water, beautiful beaches, and captivating scenery all come to mind. Yet the best thing about this remarkable state is its wide variety of wildlife, especially birds, to capture your interests.

At some point, there were more than 100 endemic bird species in Hawaii alone, from sea and forest birds to powerful raptors. And speaking of raptors…have you ever wondered if there are any owls in Hawaii? 

While there aren’t many species of owls in Hawaii in comparison to the rest of the United States, you still might get the chance to see one of them. So, are you ready to learn more about the two types of owls you’ll find in Paradise? Let’s dive in! 

Hawaiian Short-Eared Owl

Hawaiian Short-eared Owl

  • Scientific Name: Asio flammeus sandwichensis
  • Length: 13.4-16.9 inches
  • Weight: 7.3-16.8 ounces
  • Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 inches

The Hawaiian short-eared owl, also known as the pueo, is native to Hawaii and a subspecies of the short-eared owl, which can be found anywhere in the United States. Unlike its short-eared relative, you can only see the pueo in Hawaii, making it yet another unique aspect of this vibrant state. 

Even though the pueo is a year-round resident of the Aloha State, it can be a bit hard to see because of a population decline. Still, if you know where and when to look for it, you might just be lucky enough to watch it hunt for food. 

Interestingly, the pueo has found its way into the Hawaiian culture having been featured in legends and stories of war and battle. It’s also believed to have the ability to guide people to safety and keep them away from harm. To this day, some Hawaiian people believe the bird is a manifestation of an Aumakua or one of the ancestral spirits. 

You’ll find that the pueo has almost all of the physical characteristics of a short-eared owl, including a medium-sized body that’s mostly brown with white markings and dark brown feathers around the head, wings, and back. Plus, the pueo has a round face with white rings and big, yellow eyes that are hard to mistake. 

That being said, what makes this owl easy to identify is its characteristically short ears. And since the only other type of owl in Hawaii is the barn owl, it’s pretty simple to tell the two apart anyway. 

You can see the Hawaiian short-eared owl in the eight main islands of the state at varying elevations, usually from sea level to 8,000 feet. But which type of habitat does it prefer? 

You may find this beautiful bird in parks, grasslands, and shrublands, and in addition to that, the pueo tends to make a home in open fields and wet or dry forests

Just like the majority of the world’s owl species, the pueo’s diet mainly consists of mice and rats, and it’s believed that the arrival of these small mammals to Hawaii through the Polynesians allowed the pueo to settle in this state. Besides these rodents, the Hawaiian short-eared owl sometimes feeds on insects. 

When it comes to hunting, this owl doesn’t have the same reputation as other owl species. In other words, the pueo is active during the day, which gives you a bigger chance to witness the bird of prey in action. 

The best time of day to watch for the owl is at dawn and dusk because it prefers to hunt in low light. With its strong, feather-covered talons, this unique owl glides swiftly to capture its prey in a show of agility and might. 

The pueo has remarkable mating habits during which males perform an aerial show to attract the females; experts call that performance sky dancing. After the males and females mate, the responsibility of building a nest usually falls on the female. The female pueo constructs its nest on the ground instead of in trees and uses soft grasses and other fragile materials to make it. 

As a result, the Hawaiian short-eared owl’s nest is always at risk of an attack by predators. Most times, cats, mongoose, and other animals will have easy access to the nest because it’s at ground level. 

Typically, the male’s job is to provide food and protection for the female while she incubates the eggs after laying them. The eggs hatch one at a time to minimize competition over food, then the chicks tend to leave the nest at two months old. Sometimes, the chicks will fledge the nest even before they know how to fly. They’ll just walk out on their tiny little feet. 

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

  • Scientific Name: Tyto alba
  • Length: 12.6-15.8 inches
  • Weight: 14.1-24.7 ounces
  • Wingspan: 39.4-49.2 inches

The barn owl is found all over the world, so you might come across it in the state of Hawaii at any time of the year. But because this beautiful owl doesn’t favor being around humans, it can be a bit tricky to witness it. 

Unlike the Hawaiian short-eared owl, barn owls aren’t native birds of Hawaii. Instead, the Board of Agriculture and Forestry brought this species to the islands in 1958 to control the growing rodent population. The good news is that it worked, and barn owls have taken a permanent residence in Hawaii. In fact, these strong birds of prey have outnumbered the Hawaiian short-eared species!

No one can possibly mistake a barn owl for any other species of owl. With its unique heart-shaped face, all-black eyes, and slender body, recognizing this raptor is a breeze. Its coloring is usually light-brown or grey with yellow markings, and the bird is also famous for its cream-colored underside and legs that are often dotted with black feathers. 

While in flight, you might confuse a barn owl for a pueo. Still, a few key physical features can allow you to tell them apart, including their coloring, size, and face shape. Plus, unlike the pueo, a barn owl’s feathers don’t extend all the way to its talons. 

Another key difference between the native pueo and the barn owl is that barn owls are nocturnal birds of prey, just like the majority of owls. So, the right time to look for one is during the evening. 

Barn owls live in open areas, like fields, grasslands, marshes, and meadows where they can hunt more easily. You might find them anywhere on the Hawaiian Islands, and sometimes, a barn owl will stay in barns or other man-made structures, hence its name. 

These powerful beasts like to feed on small mammals, sometimes swallowing their prey whole. Wood mice, field voles, bats, shrews, and rabbits are all favorites of barn owls, and they’ll also sometimes feed on birds such as starlings and meadowlarks. 

And fortunately for chipmunks and squirrels, barn owls aren’t a threat because they’re only active at night when these tiny creatures are asleep. 

As for their hunting skills, we can only say they’re unique. Barn owls will fly over open fields in the dead of the night aided by their enhanced hearing and sharp eyes to locate a mouse or rat. Once they do, they’ll swoop down in an impressive show of strength to catch it with their talons. 

Usually, barn owls will mate for life, although there have been some reports of males taking more than one mate. 

To attract a female, a male owl will put on several performances of how skillful his flight is; one of these displays includes hovering in the air in front of the female with dangling feet. Other times, a male attempts to wow his future mate by showcasing potential nesting sites. During this display, the male barn owl will fly to the nest, call out, then come out of it. 

Once the two have become a pair, the male starts to shower his mate with prey to consume. Usually, he begins to act this way a month before the female lays her eggs. 

Barn owls like to nest in various locations, both natural and man-made. For instance, these beautiful birds will build their nests on cliff ledges or in tree holes, caves, and riverbank burrows. They also may construct their nests in barns, nest boxes, or haystacks. 

What sets barn owls apart from most birds is that they tend to use their nests for roosting, too. Plus, their nests can be reused by different owls year after year. 

Final Thoughts

Most of us would like to visit the charming state of Hawaii for many reasons. Yet for those who are enthusiastic about witnessing wild birds in their natural environment, a trip to this state can seem extra special. 

Because there are only two species of owls in Hawaii, the native Hawaiian short-eared owl, and the non-native barn owl, seeing them is a rather rare occurrence. So, you should consider yourself lucky if you find one! And if you’ve become captivated by the flying wildlife on this island, you may want to watch for hawks in Hawaii, too!

Sharing is caring!