We have a Pueo, a Hawaiian owl, who seems to have settled in the neighborhood. I’ve seen it almost every day for the last couple of weeks. The Pueo is one of two native raptors, the other being the ‘Io, a hawk. Both birds are much revered in Hawaiian culture and are often featured as strong protective ‘aumakua’ or family ancestral spirits, not unlike the totem animals among Native Americans.
The Pueo is an endangered species, as are many of the native birds, in part because it is a ground nester, like the Nene, and is subject to predation by introduced species such as domestic cats and mongoose, as well as to nest destruction by cattle and human development. While resistant to the avian malaria that has been so destructive of other native bird species, the Pueo is susceptible to poisoning by pesticides and secondary poisoning through the rodents that form the bulk of their diet.
Unlike most of the owl species, the Pueo is often active during the day, flying above open grassy areas. The Lain classification is asio flammeus sandwicensis, although not all ornithologists believe that the Pueo is a true subspecies of the North American Short-eared Owl. The Pueo is beween 13 and 17 inches tall, with the females being somewhat larger than the males. The eyes are large and yellow, surrounded by a dark mask and the body is feathered in streaks of brown and white.
In Hawaii as elsewhere, the owl has a special place in the mythology. The Pueo is a sacred animal and the word itself has many layers of meanings and connotations. Pueo can mean a particular variety of that staff of Polynesian life, taro; the name connotes ‘shortness’, is used to mean the shrouds of a sailing canoe, and the rocking of a child. There are numerous expressions in Hawaiian that contain the word pueo, such as ‘keiki a ka pueo’ – the child of the owl whose father is not known; ‘ka pueo kani kaua’ – the owl who sings of war, meaning the owl who is a a protector in battle; ‘a no lani, a no honua’ – a saying meaning that the guardian owl belongs to both the heaven and the earth.
The Pueo flew over the island well before the first Polynesians arrived and is among the oldest manifestations of the ancestral guardian spirits, the ‘aumakua.’ It was believed that after the death of an ancestor, their spirit could still protect and influence the remaining family members through taking the body of an animal. Common aumakua were the Honu, or turtle, Mano, or shark, Mo’o, or lizard, and the raptors, the Pueo and the ‘Io. Each species had unique attributes and strengths. The Pueo aumakua was specifically skilled in battle and was a powerful guardian and guide as well.
A famous legend is ‘The Battle of the Owls’ and it underscores the strength of the aumakua.
An Oahu man robbed an owl’s nest: After he slung the coveted bounty in his knapsack, the owl-parent shrieked with grief and complaint. The man felt sorry and quickly returned the eggs unharmed to the nest. Not only that, he took the owl as his god and built a temple in its honor. Naturally, the ruling chief thought this an act of rebellion against the prevalent gods, and ordered the man’s execution. The weapon was poised, the man feared his last breath, and the owls gathered, darkening the skies with their wings. Any further action of the king’s soldiers became impossible. The man walked free. Pueo-hulu-nui near Moanalua on Oahu is one of the alleged places where the awesome battle took place.
Another legend recounts the story of Hina, the mother of the demi-god Maui. She was said to have given birth to a second child who took the form of a Pueo. When Maui was taken prisoner by his enemies and held to be a sacrifice, his brother owl rescued him and led him to safety.
Another well known tale recounts the legend of Ka-hala-o-Puna, princess of Manoa:
Daughter of Manoa Wind, and Manoa Rain, Kahalaopuna grew up as the most beautiful girl in Hawaii at the time. She was given as bride, in infancy, to chief Kauhi of Kailua.
The fame of her beauty spread, and ill-meaning, envious men sowed rumors of shame. Despite his fiancée’s innocence, Kauhi became enraged with jealousy, and he killed her with a cone of hala nuts, then buried her body hastily. An owl unearthed the girl with his claws, rubbed his head against her bruised temple, and restored her to life. She followed Kauhi, trying to reconcile. He killed her three more times! The owl brought her back to life each time. The fifth time Kauhi buried her far away and deep under the roots of a large koa tree. Now the owl worked so hard yet was unable to scratch the earth away and finally had no other choice but to abandon the girl. However, there had been a witness to this last murder and failed rescue attempt! A little green bird named elepaio flew to Kahalaopuna’s parents and informed them. They prepared to visit the koa tree and find her remains.
Meanwhile, the girl’s apparition appeared for chief Mahana, who, as directed by his vision, also went to the koa tree and found her body still warm. With the help of his spirit sisters he brought her back to life and gradually she healed from the ordeal. Mahana loved her and cared for her. Kauhi, this time, didn’t know that she had returned to life. Yet when Mahana asked for her hand, Kahalaopuna still felt under the obligation to marry Kauhi! In secret, with his brother and her parents, Mahana planned to kill the murderous fiancé. The two rivals met in a trial, and Mahana, who knew the truth, won. Kauhi, as well as the two chiefs who had spread the disastrous rumors, were baked in ground ovens and Mahana received Kahalaopuna as his wife. They were happy for two years, till Kauhi, in the form of a shark, devoured her.
Such are the stories of the Hawaiian owl, a bird of power. When you hear the scream of silence, the rustle of soundless wings, an effortless shadow gliding by, look up in the high blue skies, follow the owl’s smooth dive. Pueo’s presence might be there for you.