If you see a chick on the ground, please call the Manu-o-Kū hotline: (410) 972-1818.

Nesting native birds: Manu o Kū

Photo: K. Bridges
Manu o Kū • Fairy Tern • White Tern

Gygis alba
Most adults are resident from February to September (some stay year around).  Soars in pairs or more, very agile and fast fliers.
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  • Manu o Kū or Fairy tern

    (Text adapted from Heidi Bornhorst's Campus Landscape blog entry.)

    Did you know that we have a native bird living on campus, which is the official city and island bird for Honolulu and O‘ahu?

    The rare Manu o Kū, or fairy tern, also called the white tern, nests in the big trees at UH Mānoa, and in other large, old, carefully pruned trees mainly in urban Honolulu. In the last 45 years Manu o Kū have been raising their young here on O‘ahu. We are the only main Hawaiian island that this rare bird nests on in recent history.

    Education, regulations and laws guiding how we can prune and perpetuate large historic valuable trees have also benefited this rare Hawaiian bird. They are a precious gift that we can learn about and appreciate here at UH Mānoa.

    Watching Terns

    At a glance you might think you are seeing a very clean white pigeon (an alien import) but look closely and you will see that this is no pigeon.

    If you see two birds flying gracefully high overhead that is the mated pair. If you see three, flying together, that is the parents and their chick who they are teaching to fly and catch fish. If you see a bunch of them, it’s a mating dance as the new chicks find a mate.

    Fairy terns mate for life. They have a high acrobatic flight and soar and swoop far overhead. They are slender bodied and pure white. They have a bright black beak and shiny black eyes. They look very slender, white and clean.

    They lay a single egg on a bare branch, or convenient crotch of large trees like our Bo tree, Kiawe, and Kukui trees. Both parents sit on the egg and take turns feeding and catching small fish out at sea. When the chick hatches it is a bright white bundle of fluff with bright black eyes and the sharp beak, ready to catch its own fish one day.

    The chicks have webbed feet like a sea bird, with claws on the tips that can cling to the high tree branches. Even in the strongest winds they don’t seem to blow out of the tree.

    Other native birds, that laid their single egg on the ground, have gone extinct because alien predators, including pigs and dogs, could easily get to the nests. The terns’ habit of laying their single precious egg on a safe, high crotch of a big tree allowed them to survive to the present day.

    The Fairy Diet

    There was a mystery downtown at Washington Place: small fish, including flying fish, were appearing at the base of big Tamarind and Pili-nut trees. It seemed like the Twilight Zone or something. How were fish from the ocean flying all the way up to the former home of Queen Lili‘uokalani? Turns out Manu o Kū favor those big trees for raising their keiki, and sometimes a fish or two would drop down from the heights above.

    These birds will never beg for food like pigeons. They catch their own tiny fish far out at sea. Sometimes they will stack several small fish in their beak, especially if they are feeding their one precious chick, back safe in a big tree on land.

    And FYI, everyone, it is illegal to feed pigeons and other birds all over Hawaii, and UH security will be stepping up to remind people not to feed birds. We can all remind each other not to feed alien messy birds like pigeons. This will be a benefit to native Hawaiian birds like Manu o Kū and Kōlea, who catch their own food (fish and insects in the case of Kōlea, the golden plover, a migratory native Hawaiian bird who also does well at UH Mānoa).

    Mālama o nā Manu

    The Federal Fish and Wildlife service (FWS) quietly monitors the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa for how we care for this rare bird. If the birds get hurt or try to fly too soon, we try to rescue them and put them back up in the tree so ground predators wont mess with the keiki Hawaiian bird.

    In response to numerous community requests and from advocacy groups like the Polynesian Voyaging Society (Laura Thompson, mother of Nainoa, is a very strong advocate), the Audubon society and FWS, in 2007 the Mayor declared this Hawaiian bird to be our city symbol (there is one nesting right in the giant Brassaia tree outside of City Hall). In 2016, a group of dedicated conservationists and citizens formed Hui Manu o Kū to observe, protect and raise awareness about these birds.

    In 2017, the Campus Arboretum is working with the Hui to identify and map campus trees used by terns, and will host birdwalks each semester, beginning on the 2017 autumnal equinox (September 21, 5:00-6:00 pm).

    Manu o Kū are becoming more abundant at UH Mānoa.  Please be on the lookout for them and report any nesting that you might see to UHM Landscaping or to the Manu-o-Kū hotline at (410) 972-1818.  We all need to kōkua and mālama our native Hawaiian flora and fauna.

    Read more:

    E ola manu o Kū

    Live long be strong white bird of Kū.

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