Among the most endangered birds in the world are the native birds of Hawaii. Amid them soars the graceful io, the Hawaiian hawk, once a powerful symbol of Hawaiian royalty. Although the islands were once home to eagles, harriers, and several other hawks, only io managed to survive among birds of prey. You may have seen it diving from the sky, focused on its catch, or in a tree, motionless yet vibrantly alert.
Measuring about 18 inches in length, feathered dark-brown or light-colored, found from sea level to elevations well above 6,500 feet, io is endemic to Hawaii: This means that it hunted these volcanic mountains long before westerners or Hawaiians sailed ashore. Historical data on io populations are scanty, though. Individuals have been spotted on the islands of Kauai, Oahu, and Maui, and fossils are known from Maui and Molokai. The species doesn’t nest beyond Hawaii Island, it seems.
In 1967, io was placed on the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. Around that time, native forests were yielding to logging, development, and large-scale ag. Raptors around the world were in decline in general. It seemed a prudent thing to do. Surveys and studies about strong-winged io began in earnest, and conservation and recovery efforts allowed the species to reestablish itself. We’ll never know for sure, however, to what extent io habitat or populations were lost.
Within what is now considered its usable habitat range, which spans less than 60 percent of Hawaii Island, io finds safety in large areas of protected, forested lands. It has managed to adapt its own behavior to Hawaii’s changed environment. While it largely depends on mature native ohia forests for nesting, it forages today in agricultural areas such as fallow sugar cane fields, and in nearly any landscape where large trees are dominant. It preys on introduced species such as rodents, insects, even non-native birds.
An estimated 2700 to 3000 birds live in the wild today. In 2008, United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) initiated a multiple-year process to remove io from the federal endangered list, believing that the io population has sufficiently stabilized. This means that all protections provided for io under the Endangered Species Act may be removed in the near future.
Not everyone agrees with this initiative: Reduced support may have detrimental and irreversible consequences for the majestic Hawaiian hawk. Any slight loss is significant, and all of Hawaii’s native species are interconnected in ecosystems that remain vulnerable to any new change. Io is also important in Hawaiian culture: With its loss, part of a native culture will die.
Io defines the logo of Kohala Zipline, and of its parent company, Hawaii Forest & Trail, for its inherent freedom and strength. Where bird populations and their habitats overlap with culture as well as human enterprise, each and every io counts.