Meet the ʻAʻo

A Newell’s shearwater rests on a grassy field in Kauai. Photo by Brenda Zaun/USFWS

By Ivan Vicente, Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The low whimpering call of the majestic Newell’s shearwater led to its Hawaiian name, ʻaʻo, and is a named species in the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian origin chant

Thought to be extinct at the beginning of the 20th century, the Newell’s shearwater was rediscovered in 1967. Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, this seabird breeds on the forested mountain slopes in the Hawaiian islands. These slow-reproducing birds only breed once per year, with both parents incubating a single egg inside burrows. About 90% of ʻaʻo nest on Kauaʻi, while some breed on Lehua, Lānaʻi, Maui, and the island of Hawaiʻi. Calls were recently detected in Oʻahu, where it was once common.

ʻAʻo feed primarily on squid and fish — they dive into the water to catch their prey, swimming down to a depth of up to 10 meters using their wings to move forward. They are attracted to schools of tuna and gather in flocks with other seabird species to catch prey driven to the surface by the tuna.

Newell’s shearwaters are endemic to the Hawaiian islands. They are mostly found in Kauai between April and October. Photo by Brenda Zaun/USFWS

ʻAʻo face many threats — including invasive predators like cats, rats, and mongoose. One of the biggest challenges these birds face come from man-made lights. Young seabirds heading to sea use the light of the moon to navigate. They can be strongly attracted to bright, man-made lights and become confused. The birds can become trapped in the light’s glare, until they fall to the ground from exhaustion, where they can become easy prey for invasive predators or if they fall onto a roadway, even cars. Organizations like Save Our Shearwaters help downed seabirds recover and return to the wild.

Recovering the ʻaʻo takes a lot of people working together. The Nihoku Ecosystem Restoration Project at Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge provides a predator free nesting site for ground-nesting seabirds like the ʻaʻo. Conservation partners hope that the protected restoration site will one day be home to a new, thriving colony of seabirds — safe from invasive predators.

For information on what to do if you find a downed seabird: http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/wildlife/seabird-fallout-season/

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