Kauaʻi School Children Give Young ʻAʻo a Second Chance to Fly

Kids seeing a Newell’s Shearwater up close for the first time

LIHUʻE —  More than 45 fourth-grade school children from Wilcox Elementary School gathered at Lydgate Park this morning to help release young ‘A‘o, or Newell’s Shearwater, back into the wild as part of the annual E Hoopomaika‘i ‘ia na Manu ‘A‘(A Cultural Release of the Native Newell’s Shearwater) event.

“We are thankful for the participation of the keiki of Kaua‘i and the partnership between our Division of Forestry and Wildlife’s Kaua‘i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project (KESRP), Save Our Shearwaters (SOS) and the Kaua‘i Humane Society in this fifth annual event,” said William J. Aila, Jr., Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairperson.

“This is a very special opportunity for Kaua‘i students to personally experience the difference they can make in the lives of these endangered seabirds,” said Aila.

Approximately 90% of the world’s population of the ‘A‘o is found on Kaua‘i.  The species is “endemic” to the Hawaiian Islands, meaning that it is found nowhere else in the world.  While the birds spend much of their time at sea, they come to the island to lay their eggs and look after their chicks during the breeding season which runs from April to November.  They nest in deep burrows located in the interior of Kaua‘i, predominantly in native forest.

“Kaua‘i has a unique role to play in the conservation of this species, which has been a part of the island’s culture throughout history,” said Dr André Raine, newly hired co-ordinator of KESRP. “We can be proud that the island is home to almost all of the world’s ‘A‘o but we also have a responsibility to look after them as the island is the last main refuge of this enigmatic seabird.”

The species is listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act and has undergone a dramatic population decline of approximately 75% in recent years.  The precipitous decline of the ‘A‘o is due to a number of reasons, including predation by introduced species such as rats and cats, loss of breeding habitat from introduced plants and animals, and the effects of light pollution, while threats at sea remain to be fully understood.

“The birds that are being released today are newly fledged ‘A‘o that have fallen victim to a phenomenon known as ‘fall-out’,” explained Dr. Marie Morin, SOS coordinator.  “Fall-out” is when young ‘A‘o on their first flight from the nest to the sea become disoriented by bright lights, especially on nights with little moonlight.  They end up circling the lights until they are exhausted and fall to the ground.  Then they become easy prey for cats and dogs, or can die from hunger and thirst, as they cannot easily take-off from flat ground.  Luckily for these birds, they were rescued by caring Kaua‘i residents and passed on to SOS, which rehabilitates young ‘A‘o until they are ready to be released back into the wild.”

Several weeks ago, staff from KESRP gave a presentation to the Wilcox students, and the Kaua‘i Humane Society engaged the children in on-site educational games and fun facts today before the actual release of the birds.  The students then accompanied staff from KERSP and SOS to the release stand, where they watched the birds flying out to sea.

‘This event is a great way for the school children to give something back to our native wildlife,” said Alicia Miyashiro, a Wilcox Elementary School teacher.  “Awareness-raising events such as these are vital for our students to understand what a key role Kaua‘i plays in the conservation of this very rare seabird.  Thanks to the support of our community, we can watch the birds flying back out to sea and feel hope that there will still be ‘A‘o gracing our island well into the future.”

More birds are due to be released tomorrow by fourth-grade students from Island School, who will be accompanied by their kupuna and teacher of Hawaiian studies, Sabra Kauka.

Special thanks to the Kauaʻi Island Utility Cooperative and the County of Kauaʻi for their financial support of the Save Our Shearwaters Program.