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Hawaii’s unique geography has given rise to an incredible diversity of bird life over the centuries. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: the most common native Hawaiian birds include the nene (Hawaiian goose), ʻiʻiwi (scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper), ʻapapane (Hawaiian honeycreeper), kolea (Pacific golden plover), and pueo (Hawaiian short-eared owl).

In this comprehensive guide, we will cover over 30 species of birds native and endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. We’ll discuss their distinguishing features, habitats, diet, conservation status, and cultural significance to native Hawaiians.

Geography and Habitats

How Hawaii’s volcanic origin led to diverse ecosystems

The Hawaiian Islands were formed by volcanic activity over a hotspot in the Pacific Ocean, leading to an isolated island chain with a diversity of microclimates and ecosystems. As the islands were created by lava flowing from the sea floor, they began as barren and rocky landscapes.

Over millions of years, soil formed and plants and animals gradually colonized the islands. Each island has variations in rainfall, temperature, and geography that have resulted in the evolution of unique ecosystems ranging from tropical rainforests to arid deserts and alpine shrublands.

These diverse habitats are home to an amazing variety of native birds that have adapted to fill ecological niches.

Main habitat types across the islands

The main habitat types that can be found across the Hawaiian Islands include tropical rainforests, montane bogs, coastal strands, dry forests and shrublands, grasslands and savannas, and alpine deserts.

The islands have a wide range of climates, from wet windward mountainsides with over 300 inches of annual rainfall to leeward areas and summits with less than 20 inches per year. This variation allows for specialized habitats like the rainforests on Kauai and the Big Island which are home to unique forest birds like the Kauai Thrush.

Habitat Characteristics Example Native Birds
Tropical rainforests Wet, dense forests with a closed canopy Hawaiian Honeycreeper species
Montane bogs High elevation wetlands Hawaiian Goose (Nēnē)
Coastal strands Sandy shoreline areas Hawaiian Stilt

Understanding the geography and habitats of Hawaii is key to studying and conserving its unique assemblage of native birds that evolved in these isolated island ecosystems.


The islands of Hawaii are home to a remarkable diversity of seabirds perfectly adapted to life on the open ocean. Three species in particular stand out for their ubiquity and iconic status in Hawaiian waters: Bulwer’s petrel, wedge-tailed shearwater, and the great frigatebird.

Bulwer’s petrel

The Bulwer’s petrel (Bulweria bulwerii) is a medium-sized seabird found across the tropical Pacific. In Hawaii, it nests in small colonies on remote islets and sea cliffs. This mysterious bird spends most of its life far out at sea, coming to land only to breed.

At their nesting sites, the eerie cries of these nocturnal birds fill the night air.

Bulwer’s petrels feed on small fish, squid, and crustaceans picked from the ocean surface. Their long, narrow wings allow them to fly huge distances while expending little energy in search of patchily distributed prey.

Recent tracking studies have shown Hawaiian Bulwer’s petrels traveling over 2,500 miles on a single foraging trip.

Wedge-tailed shearwater

The wedge-tailed shearwater (Ardenna pacifica) breeds in large colonies across the Hawaiian Islands. Their cacophony of wailing calls is an iconic sound of summer nights on Hawaii. Wedge-tailed shearwaters nest in burrows dug into soil or sand, where they lay a single white egg.

The parents take turns incubating the egg and provisioning the chick after it hatches.

Shearwaters feed far out at sea on small fish, squid, and crustaceans. Their long, narrow wings allow them to fly huge distances with ease.Satellite tracking has shown Hawaiian wedge-tailed shearwaters traveling over 5,000 miles on a single foraging trip, before returning to their nest site to provision their chick.

Great frigatebird

The spectacular great frigatebird (Fregata minor) is the most widespread seabird in Hawaii. Its large, black body and distinctive hooked beak make it instantly recognizable. Males have a bright red throat pouch that they inflate to attract females during the breeding season.

Frigatebirds are masters of flight and spend months at a time on the wing. Their sharply hooked bills allow them to snatch flying fish and squid from the ocean surface. But they lack waterproof plumage and cannot land on the sea. Frigatebirds even sleep while flying!

They do return to land to breed, nesting in small colonies on remote offshore islets.

Species Wingspan Breeding islands
Bulwer’s petrel 2 ft Maui, Lanai, Kauai
Wedge-tailed shearwater 3 ft Main islands + Nihoa
Great frigatebird 7 ft Main islands + Nihoa

To learn more about Hawaii’s amazing seabirds, check out Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources wildlife site and Audubon’s Hawaiian bird guides.


Pacific golden plover

The Pacific golden plover is a medium-sized shorebird that breeds in Alaska and Siberia and migrates to spend the winter in Hawaii and other Pacific islands. With their black and white wings and golden speckled plumage, these birds are a beautiful sight as they forage along beaches and wetlands.

Pacific golden plovers are primarily found from August to April in Hawaii, when they stop to rest and refuel during their long migrations between Arctic breeding grounds and wintering territories in the Pacific.

These world travelers fly nonstop over endless stretches of open ocean, an awe-inspiring feat of endurance!

While visiting the islands, Pacific golden plovers probe the sand with their bills searching for crabs, worms, and insects to eat. They frequent coastal salt flats, sandy beaches, sewage ponds, and shoreline parks.

Listen for their sharp, whistling call as they fly in small flocks past palm trees swaying in the ocean breeze.

Fun fact: Pacific golden plovers are powerful fliers, with some individuals recorded traveling over 2,500 miles nonstop from Alaska to Hawaii!

Bristle-thighed curlew

With their down-curved bills perfectly adapted for probing into crab burrows, bristle-thighed curlews are a specialist shorebird dependent on the sandy beaches of Hawaii for their winter habitat. Migrating all the way from western Alaskan breeding grounds, these chunky brown birds seem to almost disappear as they forage amongst piles of seaweed and flotsam.

Starting in September, bristle-thighed curlews begin arriving on islands like Oahu and Kauai, where they jab their long bills deep into the sand in search of burrowing ghost crabs and mole crabs near the high tide line and along surf-exposed sandy beaches.

Their loud, whistling call rings out as they stand sentry, alert for predators.

Unfortunately, habitat loss threatens this species limited to wintering solely in small Pacific islands like the Hawaiian chain. But some beaches still host large numbers of foraging curlews, like Sand Island on Midway Atoll, where over 1,300 bristle-thighed curlews were observed in a single 2011 count!


Hawaiian goose (nene)

The nene, also known as the Hawaiian goose, is Hawaii’s state bird. It is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands and found nowhere else on Earth. According to surveys, there are currently around 2,500 nene living in the wild, making it one of the world’s rarest geese.

Nene are medium-sized geese with black heads, necks, and legs, and buff-colored plumage on the rest of their bodies. Their most distinguishing feature is the ridge on their upper bill. Adult males and females have similar plumage but males tend to be larger in size.

Nene feed on a variety of native and non-native vegetation like berries, seeds, leaves, grasses, and even ferns. They often graze in family groups or pairs. Nene mate for life and build nests on the slopes of volcanoes. The female typically lays 2-5 eggs in a clutch.

Both parents help incubate the eggs and raise the young, known as goslings.

Historically, nene lived across all the main Hawaiian islands. However, habitat loss, overhunting, and introduction of predators like dogs, cats, pigs, and rats led to a precipitous decline in their population by the 1950s.

Conservation efforts since then have helped their numbers recover to some extent. Nonetheless, nene are still an endangered species today.

Hawaiian duck (koloa)

The Hawaiian duck, locally known as the koloa, is another endemic waterfowl species found in Hawaii. Surveys estimate around 2,000 wild koloa remaining throughout the Hawaiian islands. There are two subspecies of koloa that have been recognized.

  • The koloa maoli is the nominate subspecies found on most islands.
  • The Laysan duck (Anas laysanensis) is found only on the island of Laysan in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

In terms of appearance, the koloa has mottled brown, black, and white plumage. The males tend to be slightly larger and more strikingly colored than the females. Koloa are not capable of long flights but they can disperse among islands and utilize both freshwater and marine wetlands.

The koloa breeds in the spring and summer months in Hawaii. Females build well-concealed nests on the ground lined with grass and down feathers. They usually lay anywhere between 3-5 cream-colored eggs.

After hatching, the ducklings are led by the female to wetland areas to forage for insects and aquatic vegetation.

Like the nene goose, koloa numbers also suffered huge declines due to habitat degradation and predation from introduced species. Conservation actions have helped stabilize populations to an extent but their future is still uncertain.

Both subspecies are classified as endangered under federal and state conservation legislation. Maintaining wetland reserves with predator control programs is crucial for the continued survival of this unique Hawaiian duck.


Hawaiian hawk (‘io)

The Hawaiian hawk, also known as the io, is the only extant bird of prey endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. A dark brown raptor with distinctive coloring under its wings, this intelligent hunter has a wingspan of about 4 feet (1.2 m).

Hawaiian hawks build nests in tall trees, where the female typically lays 1-2 eggs per breeding season. These graceful fliers hunt rodents, insects, and small birds by patiently watching for prey from a high perch before swooping down to grab their next meal.

While early Hawaiian culture linked the io to royalty and the gods, this species unfortunately became endangered due to loss of nesting habitat and predation by introduced species.

Conservation efforts have recently stabilized the Hawaiian hawk’s population at around 3,000 mature individuals (according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service). Still, the species remains protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Ecotourism allows visitors to responsibly spot this regal bird sailing across Hawaiian skies. Seeing an io reminds one of nature’s resilience despite humankind’s past impacts. With ongoing habitat management and public education, the Hawaiian hawk’s future looks brighter.

Hawaiian short-eared owl (pueo)

The Hawaiian short-eared owl, known locally as the pueo, is a subspecies of the widespread short-eared owl found across North America. Roughly 15 inches tall with subtle brown plumage and partially feathered legs, this distinctive island owl has luminous yellow eyes that seem to peer directly into one’s soul!

As a ground-nesting species, the pueo faces habitat pressures from invasive plants and predators. Hunter by nature but also a common roadkill victim, its population likely does not exceed a few thousand pairs. The ongoing loss of native forests risks further decline.

Yet the pueo still frequents open country across the Main Hawaiian Islands.

Captivating birdwatchers and biologists alike, Hawaiian traditions revere the pueo as an aumakua (family deity). Legends tell of its shape-shifting abilities. Regardless of one’s views, seeing this unique island raptor prompts respect and concern for the fragility of island ecosystems.

With luck and continued stewardship of Hawaii’s natural heritage, future generations may also glimpse a wild pueo.



The ʻiʻiwi (Drepanis coccinea) is a small, vibrant red honeycreeper found only in native forests of Hawaii. With its bright red and black plumage, distinctively curved salmon-colored bill, and loud, warbling whistle, the ʻiʻiwi is one of Hawaii’s most recognizable native birds.

ʻIʻiwi feed primarily on nectar from the flowers of native ʻōhiʻa trees, using their specialized bills to probe into the blossoms. Their survival depends on healthy ʻōhiʻa forests with plenty of flowers available year-round.

Unfortunately, ʻiʻiwi populations have declined dramatically in recent decades. Habitat loss, disease, and climate change all pose threats. From more than 1 million birds in the 1980s, recent estimates suggest there may be as few as 157,000 remaining.

Conservation efforts focused on forest restoration, controlling invasive species, and monitoring disease outbreaks offer hope of stabilizing populations.


The ʻapapane (Himatione sanguinea) is a small, active honeycreeper with striking crimson plumage and black wings and tail. The maleʻs curved bill is perfectly adapted for accessing nectar from native Hawaiian flowers. ʻApapane also supplement their diet with insects and spiders.

Their loud songs and calls ring through the canopy as they vigorously defend flowering territories.

Abundant and widespread historically, ʻapapane numbers crashed when mosquito-borne diseases ravaged populations in the early 1900s. Protecting native forests, controlling invasive species, and monitoring disease have allowed numbers to rebound significantly.

Still, habitat degradation and climate change pose long-term threats to Hawaii’s second most common native forest bird.


The green and white ʻamakihi (Chlorodrepanis virens) is one of the most common and adaptable of Hawaii’s honeycreepers. Its slightly curved bill allows it to probe flowers for nectar but also pick insects off leaves.

This dietary flexibility lets ʻamakihi utilize a wider range of native and non-native plants across diverse habitats.

While still threatened by habitat loss and invasive species, ʻamakihi remain fairly widespread and can thrive in disturbed areas many other natives cannot. Their ability to nest multiple times per year also gives them higher reproductive rates.

Estimates suggest there are over 500,000 ʻamakihi across the islands. Protecting habitat connectivity and controlling aggressive, non-native birds that compete for resources remain conservation priorities.


The tiny ʻanianiau (Magumma parva), also known as the lesser ʻamakihi, is one of Hawaii’s smallest forest birds. Males are resplendent in bright yellow and olive-green plumage, while females remain a more subdued light yellow-green overall.

The straight, needle-like bill of ʻanianiau is specialized for nectar-feeding from lobelioids and other native plants.

Restricted to higher elevation native forests on the Big Island, Maui, and Kauai, ʻanianiau were devastated by habitat destruction and non-native predators and disease. Careful management of protected areas seems to have stabilized populations at 10,000-20,000 birds.

Still, they remain an endangered species vulnerable to extinction. Continued forest restoration and invasive mammal control offer hope for the future.


The palila (Loxioides bailleui) is a critically endangered finch-billed honeycreeper found only on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea volcano on Hawaii Island. Highly specialized, the palila depends almost exclusively on seeds of native māmane trees.

This leaves it vulnerable when trees experience poor flowering and fruiting.

Once widespread and abundant, clearing of trees for cattle grazing reduced the dense forests it depends on. Most remaining birds are restricted to a small area in the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve and nearby managed lands.

With aggressive measures to protect habitat and remove browsing cattle and sheep in recent years, surveys suggest palila populations have stabilized at around 2,000 birds. But they remain one of Hawaii’s rarest birds and a conservation-reliant species requiring intensive management for survival.


The Hawaiian Islands are home to some of the world’s most spectacular and endangered birds. As this guide has shown, native Hawaiian birds occupy diverse habitats across the islands, from high mountain forests to sandy beaches.

It is our collective responsibility to ensure these unique species survive and thrive in Hawaii’s fragile island ecosystems. By protecting remaining native habitats and addressing key threats like invasive species, we can preserve Hawaii’s natural heritage for future generations.

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