When I was working for the city back in 2007, I got a call from Keith Swindle of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He wanted to know if we would consider designating the white tern, or manu-o-Ku (pronounced mah-NOO oh KOO) as the official city bird.

At the time, I had assumed all the official city “this or thats” had been pinned down decades before, but I was wrong — no bird. After a few minutes of being inundated with the mau-o-Ku’s stellar qualities, I was sold.

I’d always admired the graceful high-flyers since I first spotted them in the 1960s. I suggested that a simple mayoral proclamation would be the easiest way to do the job, and avoid a protracted discussion on the merits of various bird species with the City Council.

I pitched it to Mayor Mufi Hannemann as a perfect symbolic fit for our sustainability program, and a couple of days later we were fully engaged in the manu-o-Ku deal. The mayor called Nainoa Thompson to vet my assertion that Polynesian voyagers used manu-o-Ku for navigation.

The birds can roam a hundred miles out to sea in search of their favorite meal, but in the late afternoon they make a beeline back to land. Navigators looked for them to find landfall.

The manu-o-Ku is Honolulu’s official bird.

Keith Rollman

It was Thompson’s mother, Laura, who closed the deal, convincing Hannemann to crown the manu-o-Ku as our official feathered ambassador.

The manu-o-Ku is the only white bird in the skies above Honolulu that actually appears to like to fly.

Cattle egrets fold themselves up and fly in a straight line, as if they would like to get it over with as soon as possible. White pigeons flap and struggle with only a tad more aerodynamic efficiency than a chicken; that’s why they opt to walk most of the time.

Stunningly Aerobatic

Manu-o-Ku fly for fun, and are stunningly aerobatic. I have seen them fly so high you can hardly make them out against a blue sky.

They can find updrafts and glide effortlessly, dive between high rises, or hover like a hummingbird in one place. They play in pairs or small groups.

They only stop flying when it’s their turn to incubate their egg, which is laid on a knothole, or fork, in the branches (they don’t construct nests).

The vast majority of Hawaii’s manu-o-Ku population lives on Midway Atoll and the other scattered atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but a growing number have adopted downtown Honolulu. It is extraordinarily unique case where an endangered wild bird has gone out of its way to co-habitat with humans in a man-made urban environment.

At a festival for manu-o-Ku at Iolani Palace.

Keith Rollman

This is the only documented case involving Gygis alba anywhere. There are now well-established colonies of nesting pairs in Waikiki and Manoa, as well as main group in historic downtown. I take this as an encouraging sign that Hawaii, known as the endangered species capital of the world, can find a way to get along with its indigenous creatures.

The relationship between the humans and manu-o-Ku continues to blossom. There is now an annual manu-o-Ku festival on the grounds of Iolani Palace.

The large trees around the palace offer perfect nesting opportunities and attract growing numbers of the birds. The beady-eyed, gray fluff balls seen standing around on the higher branches are the chicks awaiting their next meal to be flown in.

The popularity of Honolulu’s official bird continues to grow.

Unlike most sea birds, who unceremoniously regurgitate chunks of whatever they ate, manu-o-Ku carry a neat row of little bait fish or squid in their beaks for their chicks to feast on.  How they can catch and line up the fish like this without dropping their earlier victims remains a mystery.

I attended one of the first manu-o-Ku festivals, which served as a reunion of sorts with Mayor Hannemann, Laura Thompson, Keith Swindle and other early manu-o-Ku co-conspirators. It was fun to see kids dressed up like the birds, making chicks out of cotton balls, tossing plastic squids at a large, gaping mouthed manu-o-Ku target, and even performing skits as to how best to protect their official bird (the bad guys were presented as costumed cats, mynah birds and rats — invasive species all).

There were also more scholarly presentations from the Audubon Society and University of Hawaii, and a telescope set up to view an aforementioned beady-eyed fluff ball up close.

The popularity of Honolulu’s official bird continues to grow.

There are now several dedicated websites, where you can participate in counting and mapping our growing manu-o-Ku population and even online streaming chick cams.

My personal manu-o-Ku moment came while I was cleaning my pool in Wailupe Circle. I noticed three birds flying around the area, but was surprised when they dropped down and flew several circles around me — close, within a few feet. I could have taken that as a highly spiritual and symbolic experience; but, I’m pretty sure they were just messing with me. I’m afraid my aumakua (personal god), if I’m assigned one, will be an invasive species like a mongoose or mynah bird.

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