Pueo, The Protector
by Veronica S.
Pueo - Hawaiian Owl.
The cry of the owl has followed me from country to
country, continent to continent. The silent scream that
once penetrated the snow-burdened hills and frozen glens
in Northern Scotland now wakes me up to the eerie surf
breaking against the steep cliffs below our house in
the tropics of Kohala.
I've watched the noiseless flight of an owl sailing
toward its prey on the ground. Occasionally we meet
eye to eye. Gauging each other's strength leaves me
What is it about owls? They have played an important
role in myth, legend, and folklore since ancient times.
Paleolithic rock carvings in French caves show a pair
of snowy owls with their chicks. Why? A food source?
Or something more mysterious that binds us to this creature?
It seems that in all cultures the owl invokes a mixture
of intense feelings: Awe; fear; inspiration; safety.
The owl is both considered a messenger of doom, and
a good ol' wise bird, like Wol in Winnie the Pooh.
Truth is, the owl certainly has what it takes to be
a fearsome bird. And it has chosen a most mysterious
setting for its life to unfold. Like the eagle and the
hawk, owls are master killers, with ferocious talons,
and beaks you wouldn't want to feel hooked too deeply
underneath your skin. As creatures of the night, they
represent the darker mysteries, their clear call alluding
to the worst that darkness can hold. Looking for rodents
in open, grassy land, they love to hunt ghostly cemeteries,
church yards and abandoned ruins. They truly fly without
as much as a whisper of sound.
But on the other hand, the owl's lethal talons and
beak are hidden in a cloak of soft, attractive thick
feathers. The facial disks resemble the cutest, puffed
up cheeks. Their eyes, big and round, seem human. And
those ear tufts, well, grandfather too had hairs like
that. Add to this their vertical body posture and a
little anthropomorphic projection, and you have your
wise, learned owl.
In Hawaii, from before the arrival of the first Polynesians,
flies the short-eared brown owl, also named Hawaiian
owl, or pueo. Like everywhere else, Hawaii gave the
owl a special place in its mythology.
Pueo is sacred. The Hawaiian dictionary lists several
meanings and connotations for the word itself: When
a certain object or concept is considered important,
more layers of meaning are contributed, each level unraveling
deeper and deeper symbolic significance. Pueo doesn't
signify only an owl, but also denotes a taro variety,
the staff of life. In addition it indicates, among other
meanings, shortness, the shroud of a canoe, and the
rocking of a child. Then there are the many expressions
that use the word pueo, such as keiki a ka pueo, "child
of an owl, whose father is not known", or, ka pueo
kani kaua, "the owl who sings of war, the owl as
a protector in battle". A no lani, a no honua,
another saying states, "the guardian owl belongs
to heaven and earth". Throughout Hawaii, streets,
areas, and valleys bear the owl's name, with many such
places having an intriguing legend attached to them.
Pueo's legacy reaches far beyond brown feathers into
the realm of the spirit world.
As for the facts about pueo, its Latin classification
spells asio flammeus sandwicensis, but specialists are
not in agreement whether this owl, endemic to the islands,
is truly a subspecies of the North American Short-Eared
Owl or indistinguishable from its continental friends.
Either way, it measures 13 to 17 inches, with the females
being slightly larger than the males. A dark mask surrounds
large, yellow eyes, and its feathered body is streaked
with shades of brown and white. The pueo, unlike most
owls, is often active during the day and loves to fly
at high altitude above open, grassy areas. The pueo
feels at home at sea level as well as in the higher
mountains. On the Big Island, its favorite cruising
grounds seem to be the Waikii pastures above the Waimea-Kona
mountain road, Mamalahoa Highway 190.
There are no statistics on the pueo's population numbers.
They are present on all the islands, but they are definitely
in decline on Oahu, where urban development makes it
impossible for the shy, brown bird to find the green,
solitude it craves. Considered endangered on Oahu, pueo
has become a candidate for threatened status throughout
the island chain The pueo's modern diet consists of
introduced rodents, rats, mice, and small mongooses:
This alone is reason for all of us to adore this bird!
In earlier days, before those rodents arrived, pueo
is thought to have feasted on the small Hawaiian rail,
a flightless bird that is now extinct.
Pueo loves to nest in grassy areas, making its survival
a precarious affair. It lays three to six white eggs
over a span of up to several months. As a result, the
eggs don't hatch all at the same time. In one nest different
ages grow up together. Right on ground level, the little
nestlings are vulnerable to feral cats and mongooses.
Once up and flying, the birds are often killed by guns
or through stress caused by construction and development.
On a more esoteric level, the pueo, with all its mysterious
wisdom, a bird that flew over the islands well before
the first Hawaiians sailed in, is among the oldest physical
manifestations of the Hawaiian family protectors, the
ancestral guardians, the aumakua. It was believed that
after the death of an ancestor, the spirit could still
protect and influence the remaining family acting through
a body such as that of the owl, the shark, the turtle,
or even the centipede. Each species channeling the ancestor
held unique strengths. The owl as aumakua was specifically
skilled in battle.
The most famous legend, "The Battle of the Owls"
underscores the aumakua's force. It relates the story
of an Oahu man who 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.
Much further back in time, it is said that Hina, the
mother of the god Maui, gave birth to a second child,
in the form of the pueo. Later, when the brave Maui
was taken as prisoner by enemies and held for sacrifice,
brother owl rescued him and led him to safety.
Another old story of rescue tells of a warrior who
fought under King Kamehameha the First. Cornered by
the enemy, he was about to plunge over a dangerous cliff.
Right at that moment an owl flew up in his face, so
that he was able to thrust out his spear into the earth,
saving himself from the suicidal leap.
Many years later, under the rule of Kamehameha IV,
certain festivities took place in Honolulu and many
people from the country arrived to celebrate or sell
their wares. A young girl, excited and unaccustomed
to city-ways, galloped her horse through the downtown
streets. She was arrested and thrown in prison with
the worst of offenders. She cried herself to sleep.
Shortly after midnight she awoke to a flapping sound
near the door, which stood wide open. She quietly stepped
out and closed the door behind her. Not far from her
she saw an owl, perched on a wooden fence, awaiting
her escape. The owl flew in front of her, guiding her
past guards and police men, through dark streets, till
they came to a saddled horse and a bundle of fresh clothes.
The girl mounted, the owl pulled the head of the horse
in the direction of the country where the girl came
from, guided her all the way home, and then left.
Are these stories legend, truth, symbols, mere imagination
or perhaps all simultaneous? It's hard to deny that
even today, the owl guides people on conscious and subconscious
levels. The owl, for better or worse, remains a symbol
of guidance, believe in the aumakua or not. People have
driven the highways here, even recently, when an owl
would fly right across the wind shield. Taking it as
a "sign", they decided to return home and
to forget about reaching their destination. They discovered
that, more often than not, they could have been killed
by the blow of a fallen rock or tree if they hadn't
heeded the owl's subtle message.
Even so, my favorite story combines all the elements
of the wise Hawaiian owl in the most beautiful, tragic-romantic
tale. This is the legend of Ka-hala-o-Puna, princess
of Manoa. A legend which also explains the beauty of
Manoa valley on Oahu, blessed by rainbows, rains, and
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
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
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
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. This time for ever.
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.
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appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and
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