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Flora and Fauna in Kauai and Hawaii

So dire has the plight of endemic species on the Hawaiian Islands become, that conservationists have bestowed the islands with the unhappy distinction of being the endangered species capital of the country.  Already, Hawaii has lost hundreds of original life forms, while hundreds more teeter on the brink of extinction.  The U.S. has 526 plant and 88 bird species on the endangered and threatened species list; more than a third are found in Hawaii.  Three-quarters of the United States’ extinct plants and birds once lived only in Hawaii even though its islands represent just two-tenths of one percent of the nation’s total land area.

Creatures and plants have been vanishing ever since Polynesian voyagers–and later European explorers–first set foot on the islands about 1,500 years ago.  Having evolved on the most remote group of islands on earth, native species were not equipped to survive the onslaught of predators and competitors that accompanied human arrival.  Twenty species of flightless birds—easy prey for the hunter–were among the first decimated.  

The original Hawaiian’s presence was not as benign as was once thought.  The settlers brought with them breadfruit, bananas, sugarcane and taro, clearing lowland forests to cultivate them.  They brought small pigs that escaped to become feral.  The first humans on Hawaii caused the extinction of 35 species of birds.  Later, in the several decades following the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778, outsiders introduced cattle, goats, sheep and large European pigs.  Many of these animals escaped and flourished.  Settlers introduced guavas, Java plum, lantana, bamboo and ginger, which pushed aside and destroyed numerous indigenous species and native flora in the wild.

Most of the threatened and endangered species in Hawaii find refuge among uplands too steep for development.  More than a quarter of Hawaii’s land remains unspoiled, giving conservationists cause for hope.  By restoring and maintaining healthy ecosystems, conservationists hope to give native species the respite and protection they need to survive.  Work crews kill feral animals, erect fences to keep ungulates away from fragile plants, breed birds in captivity, pollinate flowers by hand, and destroy non-indigenous plants.

Plants and Trees

There are more than 2,500 species of plants that occur only in the Hawaiian Islands.  Native plants are common today only in such remote places as the headwalls of deep valleys, on steep cliffs, and on mountain ridges and peaks.  The coconuts, orchids, sugarcane and pineapples that visitors associate with Hawaii are neither native nor unique.  Native plants have evolved from about 275 species of successful natural immigrants, which arrived in Hawaii on the average of once every 100,000 years since the time when the islands emerged from the sea.

Bird of Paradise

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This African native has become a trademark of Hawaii.  Their orange and blue flowers nestle in green bracts, looking somewhat like birds in flight.  Birds of Paradise are abundant in the gardens of vacation resorts and in cut-flower arrangements in hotel lobbies.


Some of Hawaii’s most fragrant flowers are white and yellow gingers.  They are usually found growing four to seven feet high in areas blessed with frequent rain.  Their flowers are three inches wide and composed of three dainty, petal-like stamen and three long, thin petals.  White and yellow gingers were introduced in the 19th century from Malaysia.  More exotic-looking is the torch ginger.  The red flower stalks are about six inches long and resemble the fire of a lighted torch.

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The yellow hibiscus is Hawaii’s official state flower.  Hibiscus’ grow on hedges up to 15 feet high.  The four- to six-inch flowers, which resemble crepe paper, bloom in colors from white to deep red, with stamens and pistils protruding from the center.  Because it shrivels quickly, it is unsuitable for use in a lei but it is a favored flower to tuck behind the ear.  Tradition says that a flower behind the left ear means a lady’s heart is committed and behind the right ear means that she is available.


Originally from Sri Lanka, taro is a food crop planted in flooded patches and found growing wild around pools and streams. Taro resembles the ornamental plant, elephant ears, with heart-shaped leaves arising from its base.  The Polynesian staple, poi, is made from the starchy corm of the taro plant.

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African Tulip Tree

The flaming red flowers on these large trees provide a welcome contrast to the multi-hued greens of the rainforests they live in.  The trees produce globes of frilly, tulip-shaped flowers on branch tips.

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Koa Tree

The beautifully grained wood of the koa is prized for the making of canoes, paddles, bowls, furniture and even surfboards.  It beauty and diverse uses has resulted in the harvest of nearly all of the large trees.  A native tree, the koa is frequently mentioned in Hawaiian legends and songs.

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Kukui Tree

Early Polynesians imported the kukui because of its many uses.  Kukui nuts are rich in oil and were used as candles or made into leis.  When baked, the kernels are edible.  The roots and shell of the fruit yield a black dye.  Kukui oil was used to soften skin as part of pre-wedding rituals.

‘Ōhi‘a Lehua Tree

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The Ohi‘a is the most abundant of the native Hawaiian trees and is usually the first life to appear on new lava flows.  Ohi‘a can grow as a miniature tree in wet bogs or as an 80-foot giant on cool slopes at high elevations.  Its petal-less flowers, the lehua blossom, are composed of a large mass of brightly colored stamens, usually red but sometimes orange, yellow, or white.  The flowers are an important source of nectar for rare endemic birds.



Because of Hawaii’s isolated location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the first birds to arrive were probably blown off course during migration or floated in clutching to driftwood.  Here, with abundant food and no predators they were free to evolve into 67 species highly adapted to their environment.  Human settlement of Hawaii caused the demise of 40 percent of native bird species and endangered another 40 percent.  Early Polynesians cleared lowland vegetation and replaced it with introduced plants that were used for food and fiber.  As a result, when foreigners from many lands made Hawaii their new home during the 19th century, there were no songbirds in the lowlands.  It was natural for them to want to import familiar birds from their homelands.  When sugarcane, pineapple and cattle became economically important, settlers introduced foreign birds that would feed upon the insect pests of the crops and cattle.  Since 1796 when the first pigeons or rock doves were released, 170 different species of exotic birds have gained their freedom in Hawaii.

Just as the Hawaiian people had never developed resistance to measles, Hawaiian birds had no resistance to avian malaria. Common among mainland birds, avian malaria is caused by a microscopic parasite in the blood.  Caged pet birds and foreign birds introduced by the early colonists likely carried this parasite.  An incident that occurred in the port of Lahaina, Maui in 1826 led to the spread of this disease to the native bird population.  In that year the ship Wellington put in at Lahaina to fill its water casks, having last filled them on the west coast of Mexico.  Released from those casks, into a clear Maui stream were the larvae of a particular mosquito, Culex pipiens fatigans, which inhabits tropical and subtropical regions.  It is now found on all the main Hawaiian islands from sea level to an elevation of 3,000 feet.  These mosquitoes were the vector that transmitted blood parasites and viruses from migratory birds and domestic poultry to Hawaii’s endemic birds.  Birds that lived above the level of the mosquito infestation but migrated to lower levels during winter storms were also bitten and mortally infected.  Today it is only in the highlands that Hawaii’s rare endemic birds are found.

Cattle Egret

Cattle egrets are tall, white birds with slender bodies and long necks.  They were introduced to Hawaii in the mid-20th century to reduce pest insects near cattle.  Egrets are commonly seen on Kauai following cattle as they graze, waiting for them to stir up insects and small vertebrates.


The ‘i‘iwi is one of over fifty species of honeycreepers that evolved from a single ancestral species that colonized the islands millions of years ago.  It is easily distinguished from other Hawaiian forest birds by its bright red feathers, pink curved bill and black wings and tail.  In the mountains where it lives, its presence can be detected by the sound its wings make as it flutters from tree to tree.  The movements of the ‘i‘iwi are also unique as it spends much of its time hanging upside down poking its long, curved bill into flowers.  The lehua blossom is one if its favorites.  Hawaiians prized the ‘i‘iwi’s bright red feathers for adorning capes, helmets and other ornaments for the ali‘i.  Some large cloaks required the sacrifice of 8,000 birds to make them.


The ‘Io, or Hawaiian hawk, lives in the forests of Hawaii where it preys on rats and spiders.  Adults grow to 18 inches in length and have a light brown color.  Regally circling the Hawaiian skies, the endangered bird is esteemed by some as an ancestor spirit.  Its names honors ‘Iolani Palace in Honolulu.

Java Sparrow

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A member of the finch family, the Java sparrow was introduced to Kauai in 1865.  A population did not take hold until it was re-introduced in the 1960s.  Male and female Java sparrows have white bodies, gray wings and black tail feathers.  Their black and white heads sport large round beaks that they use to strip seeds from stalks of grass.  In their native Indonesia, Java sparrows have experienced a significant drop in population.  The birds are trapped intensively for the pet trade.  


Polynesians brought the moa or Red Junglefowl with them when they settled the Hawaiian Islands.  Moas are found mostly in the upland forests and are not to be confused with the many domestic chickens that roam the lowlands, although interbreeding does occur.  Chickens and moas prosper in the wild on Kauai because it doesn't have a resident population of mongooses to devour their eggs as they do on the other Hawaiian Islands.  Visitors to the meadow and parking lot of the Koke‘e Museum will be visited by numerous moas looking for handouts of food.

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The endangered nene is Hawaii’s state bird.  It is believed to be a descendant of the Canada goose, which it still resembles.  The large, colorful bird grows to weigh five pounds and measure 28 inches in length.  Nene can only be found in and near the crater of Haleakala on Maui, on the slopes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island and Koke‘e, Kilauea Point and near Lihu‘e on Kauai.  Predation of their nests by mongooses, rats and feral cats, coupled with overhunting, nearly drove the nene to extinction.  By 1951 only 33 individuals were known; half of which were in captivity.

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Survival of the nene can be primarily credited to the work of the late Sir Peter Scott who founded the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in England.  Shortly after the trust’s formation in 1946, its officers suggested to the territorial government of Hawaii that steps be taken to save the nene.  At the time only 50 of the birds remained.  The International Union for the Protection of Nature, a United Nations-sponsored organization, placed the nene on a list of 13 most threatened bird species in the world.  In 1949, a rancher on the Big Island who was keeping many of the surviving nene, shipped a breeding pair to England.  Nine goslings were hatched from them in the following year.  That same year the Hawaiian government started its own breeding project on the Big Island with the help of the Trust’s curator.  Slowly, the population of nene in England grew, and in 1962, 30 were returned to the islands and released; five at Haleakala crater.  Over the years, breeding projects have returned more than 2,000 birds to the wild.


The Hawaiian short-eared owl, or pueo, has brown and white markings and heavily feathered legs.  It grows to 13 to 17 inches long.  Unlike most owls, the pueo is often active at mid-day. As it soars at high altitudes, watchful for its prey of mice and rats, some observers mistake it for the ‘io or Hawaiian hawk.  Pueo build their nests on the ground, usually in grass, which leaves their eggs vulnerable to rapacious feral cats and mongooses.  The pueo can be found from sea level to 8,000 feet in elevation on all the main Hawaiian islands, in areas dominated by both native and alien vegetation and from pastures and grasslands to dry and wet forest.  Many Hawaiians consider the pueo to be an ancestor spirit and spotting one a good omen.

Western Meadowlark

Kauai is the only Hawaiian island where the western meadowlark, which was introduced in 1931, has become permanently established.  Both male and female meadowlarks are mid-sized birds with yellow, black and brown markings and long, conical bills.  Meadowlarks punctuate the evening air of the grasslands with their long, distinctive call.


Because of its geographic isolation, only two land mammals arrived on the Hawaiian Islands through natural dispersal and became established.  They are the hoary bat and the Hawaiian monk seal.  Marine mammals such as whales and dolphins, widely distributed throughout the world and of ancient origin, likely have been in Hawaiian waters since very early times.  Seafaring Polynesians brought with them dogs and pigs (both for eating) and stowaway rats.  Most of the land mammals found in Hawaii today were introduced after Captain Cook’s landing in 1778.  These aggressive, implanted species have profoundly affected Hawaiian wildlife.

Hawaiian Monk Seal

It may be their monk-like preference for solitude, or the loose skin around their necks that resembles the hood of a monk’s robe, that gave these seals their name.  Monk seals are sometimes referred to as “living fossils” because as the oldest living members of the pinniped order they have remained virtually unchanged for 15 million years.

There have been three known species of monk seals: Hawaiian, Caribbean and Mediterranean.  Last sighted in 1952; Caribbean monk seals are thought to be extinct.  Mediterranean monk seals survive in small numbers in isolated caves and beaches rarely visited by humans in the Mediterranean.  The Hawaiian monk seal is considered an endangered species with its population currently estimated to be between 1,200 and 1,500 individuals.

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Hawaiian monks seals breed in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which stretch 1,200 miles northwest from Kauai.  A few seals live in the sea and on the beaches of the main islands.  Kauai's monk seal population is between 15 and 20 individuals.

Adults measure about seven feet in length and weigh between 400 and 600 pounds.  Because Hawaiian monk seals have evolved free of terrestrial enemies they did not develop the need or the instinct to flee from predators.  Being easily approached by humans has proven to be one of the major factors leading to the population decline of the species.  In the early 19th century, sealers took Hawaiian monk seals for their oil and pelts.  Within a few years, the population had been drastically culled to a point where hunting the seals commercially was no longer worthwhile.

Hawaiian monk seals are extremely sensitive to human activity.  Mothers will abandon preferred pupping areas and even their pups, when disturbed by human visitors.   It is illegal in Hawaii to approach the seals.

Hoary Bat

Their’s is a remarkable example of wayward migration.  The hoary bats of North and South America are strongly migratory and regularly reach the Farallon Islands off California, The Galápagos and Bermuda.  Flights that brought bats to Hawaii may have been rare.  The local bats have formed their own sub-species after likely being isolated from their progenitors for tens of thousands of years.  Even now, the reddish-brown Hawaiian bat accumulates a reserve of body fat late in summer in preparation for a migration it no longer takes.  Their principal breeding ground is on the island of Hawaii but bats can be spotted on all the islands.  It is not known if they reside there or move regularly between the islands.

Humpback Whale

Warm Hawaiian waters provide the winter habitat for humpback whales migrating from Alaska and the Bering Sea.  Fifth largest of the great whales, humpbacks feed all summer in the plankton-rich northern waters to develop the layer of blubber they will need to sustain them through the winter.  Humpbacks screen small schooling fish such as herring, mackerel, pollock and haddock and crustaceans such as krill through baleens in their mouths.  From their summer feeding grounds the whales migrate more than 3,500 miles to the warm tropical waters of Hawaii to mate and give birth.  They fast for the six months that they are migrating and living in Hawaiian waters.  Humpbacks can be seen near all the Hawaiian Islands but the favorite area for their winter habitat is the shallow water surrounded by Maui, Moloka‘i, Lana‘i and Kaho‘olawe.  Migrating humpback whales don’t arrive at or depart Hawaii en masse but begin filtering in each year around November and start returning north around May.  The North Pacific population of humpbacks is estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000 with approximately two-thirds of them migrating to Hawaii and the rest traveling to Mexico.

On average, adults grow to 45 feet in length and 45 tons in weight.  They have long flippers, reaching one third of body length.  A newborn calf weighs 1.5 tons and can range in size from 10 to 16 feet.  In five to nine years the humpback will reach sexual maturity and can expect to live for 30 to 40 years.  Their gestation period is 10 to 12 months.  Females calve every second or third year, although some have been known to calve every year for several successive years.  Births usually occur between January and April.  A third whale called an escort whale often accompanies mothers and calves.  The escort whale, assumed to be a sexually active male, only remains with the pair for less than a day.   

Generally, humpback whales have dark blue or gray backs with white marking on their fins, sides and ventral surfaces.  Individuals can be identified by the unique markings on the underside of their tails, or flukes.  Researchers catalog photographs of humpback whale flukes to study the movements and social interactions of individuals.

There is little evidence indicating when the humpbacks first began wintering in waters around the Hawaiian Islands.  The whale doesn’t seem to figure prominently in Hawaiian folklore.  Whales appear in native Hawaiian chants but they have only one generic word for whale, kohola, which translates to mean hump dorsal.  The kohala was kapu to common people.  Ali‘i valued the ivory teeth and bones.  A whale carcass was called pala‘oa.  A pala‘oa that drifted ashore became the property of a chief.  Native Hawaiians believed that a whale breaching and blowing foreshadowed a storm.

Hawaii was a major port-of-call for the Pacific whaling fleet during the early and mid-19th century.  Initially, whalers hunted the larger sperm, blue and right whales.  Humpback whales were faster swimmers and had less whale oil than the other great whales, giving a smaller return for the greater effort it took to kill and process them.  Whalers eventually depleted the other whale populations, subjecting the humpbacks to intense whaling in the first half of the twentieth century.  Between 1905 and 1965 whalers reduced the North Pacific humpback whale numbers from 15,000 to about 1,000.  Since 1965, when commercial whale hunting was substantially curtailed globally, the humpback whale has slowly made a comeback, however it remains on the Endangered Species list.

Humpback whales are noted for their long and highly complex vocalizations, called songs.  Singers are usually lone males or males escorting cow-calf pairs.  A song generally lasts between 6 and 18 minutes and may be repeated many times.  Singing only occurs during the breeding/birthing season.  Small changes in the song may occur as the season progresses.  Humpbacks breeding off the coast of Mexico sing virtually the same songs as Hawaii’s humpbacks.


Without hesitation, conservation biologists would indict the feral pig as the most significant threat to native Hawaiian rain forest species today.  Pigs uproot shrubs and till the soil with their snouts in search of grubs and worms.  They sow the seeds of alien plants in their droppings.  Those seeds grow into tangles of vines like the South American banana poka and small trees like the Brazilian strawberry guava, which form dense thickets that crowd out native trees.  More than 100,000 pigs roam the islands.

he pig that the Polynesians brought with them was much smaller than the tusked troublemakers roaming the forests now.  When Captain Cook bartered with the Hawaiians for larder for his ships he complained that the largest of their pigs weighed only 50 to 60 pounds.  After many generations, the Polynesian pigs have bred with imported domestic breeds and the resulting feral pig is large; resembling the European wild boar.

Reptiles and Amphibians

None of Hawaii's terrestrial reptiles and amphibians are thought to be native to the islands.  Reptiles such as geckos were introduced unintentionally, either as stowaways in cargo shipments or as escaped pets.  Farmers and sugar growers released toads into agricultural and settled areas in efforts to control insects.  The Hawaiian Islands are now home to five species of amphibians, 20 species of land reptiles plus five types of sea turtles and one sea snake.  Hawaii is essentially snake-free and authorities are ever vigilant to keep it that way.  In Guam, the brown tree snake is blamed for virtually wiping out the native bird population after it arrived.  Snake-sniffing dogs aid inspectors in Hawaiian ports and airports in finding stowaway snakes in cargo.


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Of their own volition, geckos have become Hawaii's "house lizards."  Geckos invade houses and buildings and become ubiquitous wall ornaments.  It is their ravenous appetite for insects, especially cockroaches, which make them welcomed nighttime visitors.  The small lizards, usually gray or brown with bulging eyes, scurry about walls, windows and ceilings, seemingly oblivious to gravity.  They accomplish such feats with the aid of miniscule hair-like structures on the bottom of their toes that provide attachments to walls and ceilings by something akin to surface tension¯the same property that allows some insects to walk on water.  Adult geckos are about two inches long in the body with its tail doubling its length.  Their tails are fragile and frequently break off, then regenerate.

Giant Toad

The giant toad reaches 7.5 inches long and weigh up to half a pound.  Often shades of olive green or brown, they have a lumpy, wart-strewn appearance.  They were introduced to the Islands in 1932, when sugar growers imported them from Puerto Rico to control insect pests.  In the evenings they endanger their safety by hopping out of the cane fields onto nearby roads.  Toads adapt to human behavior and can be found around settlements, sometimes eating dog or cat food that has been left out.  Some people find them to be pests because they are noisy in the evening, occasionally poison curious pets and hop into homes.  Others appreciate their insect-eating ways, especially when it comes to cockroaches.

Sea Turtles

The two most commonly seen sea turtles in Hawaiian waters are the green sea turtle and the hawksbill.   The green sea turtle is so-named because of its greenish body fat.  They can reach four feet in length and have a gray, green or brown back.  The hawskbill is about a foot shorter and can be easily identified by its narrow head and tapering hooked "beak."  Green sea turtles and their eggs were probably important food sources for the early Hawaiians.  The hawksbill was less palatable and was not eaten.  All sea turtles are currently endangered due to illegal hunting and drowning in fishing nets.  Sea turtles are always a delight to see when diving or snorkeling in Kauai's offshore waters but it is illegal to pursue them.  Green sea turtles are frequently spotted in the choppy surf of Queen's Bath in Princeville (see North Kauai Sights chapter).

Do Not Disturb

They may act friendly, or almost tame, but Hawaii's endangered marine animals are protected by law from interference or harassment by people.  Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the term harassment is defined by "any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance" that "has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing the disruption of behavioral patterns, including but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering."  For example, when a pod of spinner dolphins comes into a secluded bay or cove, they may be in a rest mode; their movement is slow.  If swimmers or boaters move close to the pod and cause them to change from the relaxed, slow mode to a fast, swimming or leaping mode, that would be a change of behavior, which constitutes harassment.  Should dolphins approach a boat in open ocean there is no problem, but a boater chasing a group of dolphins is certainly considered harassment.

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Special provisions in the federal Endangered Species Act protect humpback whales even further.  The law states it is unlawful "to operate any aircraft within 1,000 feet of any humpback whale; or, approach by any means, within 100 yards of any humpback whale."  Boats should maneuver out of the path of an approaching whale, should not cut across the path of a whale or pass between a mother and a calf, and should not purposefully "leapfrog" or go around a whale to get in its path.  If a boat is floating with motors off, while bottom fishing for example, it's not a violation if a whale comes approaches the boat.

Hawaiian monk seals face more human encounters than other marine mammals on Kauai due to their habit of basking on beaches.  They are attracted to popular beaches for essentially the same reasons that people are there: to rest and relax in the warm sun.  Monk seals can't sleep in the ocean, so they need the opportunity to rest unbothered.  Also, they are slower moving after feeding and beaches provide protection from sharks.  A person moving closer than the allowed 100 feet may cause the seal to retreat to the ocean and waiting predators.  Witnesses to a case of monk seal harassment may contact volunteers of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Watch Program by calling pager numbers.  They are: north shore 644-1673; east side 644-1775; southshore 644-1849; westside 644-1745.

The federal Endangered Species Act and related state legislation protect the green sea turtle.  It is unlawful to capture any threatened or endangered wildlife or take any egg, offspring or dead body part.  Owning the shell of a green sea turtle is outlawed, even if you didn't directly cause the death of the animal.



Maui Travel Guide

Kauai Travel Guide