Pueo owl

Two scientists in the department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa have launched a new citizen science initiative, the Pueo Project. With the help of interested members of the community, post-doctoral researcher Javier Cotin and assistant professor Melissa Price are investigating the population size, distribution and habitat use of the pueo, also known as the Hawaiian short-eared owl (Asio flammeus sandwichensis), on Oʻahu. Cotin and Price are both in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR). The project was formed with support from the State of Hawaiʻi Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

An endangered native bird

pueo owl flying

Pueo are found on all the main Hawaiian Islands from sea level to 8,000 feet in a variety of habitats, including wet and dry forests, but are most common in open habitats such as grasslands, marshlands, shrublands and montane parklands, including urban areas. Unlike most owls, they are active during the day, especially in the early morning and evening, and are commonly seen hovering or soaring over open areas.

Even though the pueo’s ability to live in lowland, non-native and rangeland habitats suggests that they may be less vulnerable to extinction than other native birds, they are state-listed as endangered on Oʻahu and are likely susceptible to many of the same factors that threaten other native Hawaiian birds, including loss and degradation of habitat, predation by introduced mammals and disease. They are also at risk of car collisions, owing to their hunting behavior, and something called “sick owl syndrome,” which is killing off owls on Kauaʻi. Little is known about the syndrome, but it may be related to pesticide poisoning or food shortages.

Become involved: Citizen scientists can help

The Pueo Project aims to add to the scanty knowledge about this native bird. Interested members of the public can access the project’s website, which provides information about the project and the species, a pueo distribution map, sound files of the pueo’s various calls, and a gallery of pictures of pueo and the more common introduced barn owl, with which it can be confused.

Citizen scientists can report sightings through a web app or downloadable form, participate in organized surveys, and use photography to document behaviors, including when and where the pueo breed and the animals they prey on, and more. The website also offers contact information for the two researchers.

“It’s wonderful to work on a project where the community is so interested and supportive of conservation efforts,” said Price. “The behavior of this owl is truly fascinating! I hope to unravel the mysteries of the seldom-seen pueo and look forward to collaborating with the local community to protect this unique species,” said Cotin.

—By Frederkia Bain