Hawaii News — Slaughter Or Management; Wildlife Officials Seek Order To Kill Barn Owls And Egrets

By Alan D. McNarie

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to make it easier for federal and state officials to kill barn owls and egrets.

The federal agency has proposed issuing a “control order” allowing officials from ten federal and state agencies, including the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Defense, the National Park Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Hawaii Departments of Agriculture and of Lands and Natural Resources, to shoot, trap, asphyxiate, break the necks of, or destroy the nests and eggs of egrets and owls within the main and the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The order would not allow unauthorized private individuals to kill owls or egrets. The proposed new rule is currently under consideration; the public can comment at http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=FWS-HQ-MB-2013-0070.

Currently, the two species cannot be killed without a special permit. But wildlife officials at both the state and federal level argue that both species are introduced and invasive in Hawaii, that they can pose a threat to airplanes taking off from local airports and that they have been known to prey on endangered native species. The new order would allow them to act immediately if humans or endangered species are at risk rather than wait for an order to be issued.

The proposed order has drawn fire from some local animal lovers, who point out that both species were introduced into the islands in the 1950s to combat other invasives: the barn owl to combat rodents in cane, and the egrets to combat horn flies on cattle. But the Environmental Assessment for the proposed order maintains that “No measurable decline in rodent or horn fly populations has been associated with cattle egret or barn owl populations.”

Both introduced birds have thrived in the main islands and are pushing their territories into the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. “Both cattle egrets and barn owls have been documented to prey upon native species, including waterbird and seabird species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act,” the EA states. Among the birds that have been preyed upon—mainly chicks or exhausted migratory birds–by one or both of the two invaders are `ua`u kani (wedge-tailed shearwaters, `a`o (Newell’s shearwaters), koloa (Hawaiian ducks), `ala eke`oke`o (Hawaiian coots), `alae `ula (common moorhen), ae`o (black-necked stilts) and pu`eo (Hawaiian owl).

Among the proposed order’s most vociferous critics is Syd Singer, who’s also fought control programs for such species as coqui frogs, feral pigs and strawberry guava. He’s fired off a barrage of op-ed pieces and letters to the editor in at least a dozen publications and Web sites.

“To their credit, the agencies responsible for wildlife control have tried non-lethal methods to chase away the egrets and owls, but the birds returned,” he wrote in a piece for the Huffington Post. “Apparently out of non-cruel options, the government is mandating ‘the final solution.’ State and federal agencies will be ordered to eradicate these birds from Hawaii. Hawaiian native birds are already struggling with lost habitat, climate change, pollution, disease, and predation by rats, mongooses, cats, and dogs. Killing owls and egrets will probably be too little, too late. But that won’t stop the mass killings.”

But the federal and state officials that the Chronicle reached maintained that the goal of new rule was a “control,” not extermination.

“It is not an eradication order,” stated wildlife biologist Hans Sin of the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

“The purpose of the control order is to control damage from these invasive species. It’s not to eradicate them,” said Jenny Hoskins, who prepared the Environmental Assessment for the proposed order.

On the other hand, there’s nothing in the order itself that says extermination won’t be the goal. The current language sets no take limits or geographic boundaries within the state or the Northwest Hawaiian Islands; it basically gives the designated officials a license to kill as many barn owls and egrets as they choose.

“We haven’t put an upper limit on how many birds we’re going to take because we haven’t set that number yet,” said Hoskins.

That’s not the only vagary that troubles the critics. The Environmental Assessment states that egrets and owls have preyed on endangered species, and cites examples “At the Nu‘u Pond, wildlife managers have observed cattle egrets leaving a nearby rookery tree (up to 700 cattle egret nests in 2 trees at the pond’s edge), flying to the pond and capturing Hawaiian coot or ‘alae ke‘oke‘o (Fulica alai) chicks and consuming them. In upland areas of L?na‘i, cattle egret predation on chicks of the Hawaiian short-eared owl, or pueo (Asio flammeus sandwicensis) has been documented….” But no rates of predation or numbers of incidents are given. With barn owls, especially, there’s a question of how frequently the owls actually prey on birds. In their native habitats, they’re known for feeding chiefly on rodents and insects. The Environmental assessment notes one documented instance of an owl preying on a honeycreeper in Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge, and notes that the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife had “annually collect carcasses of adult Hawaiian petrels depredated by barn owls on L?na‘i … and DOFAW personnel on Moloka‘i have documented numerous instances of barn owl predation on Hawaiian stilts.” But again, there are no solid statistics given.

The EA also concedes that a study of stomach contents of 70 barn owls shot around Lihue Airport on Kauai “indicated a large number of crickets and grasshoppers in the diet; however, it has yet to be determined if these insects are indeed common or preferred prey.” But that study corroborates the experience of Big Island veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitator Shannon Nakaya.

“I’m sure that if pushed to starvation , it’s possible a barn owl will eat another bird….but in the barn owls I’ve autopsied, I’ve never found it’s ingested a bird,” Nakaya told the Chronicle. “I’ve found roaches and rodents. And we’ve got no shortage of roaches and rodents on this island.”

It may well be that some populations of egrets and owls have learned to prey on native birds, while others stick to more conventional diets. If owls settle permanently on Midway or Laysan, for instance, they may find birds a more reliable food source than rats or roaches.

“We know that the populations on different island are very, very different The Big Island is the only island in the state with an i’o population. When you make a blanket rule on the state or federal level, I don’t think we know what the impact is going to be, or how necessary it is in the different areas,” believes Nakaya. She suggests that the officials take a look at Alaska’s wolf management plan, where individual boards tailor wolf control programs to specific areas of the state.

What is known is that on some occasions, owls and egrets prey on endangered native birds.  What is not known is how big an impact owls and egrets have or how widespread this predatory behavior is. If the proposed order is implemented, then how well those gaps in knowledge are filled in, and how intelligently state and federal officials use that knowledge, may determine whether the proposed order is an intelligent targeting of problem birds or a general slaughter.

“If we target just those egrets and barn owls that are preying on the native water birds in HI, it will not have a significant impact on the worldwide populations of them [owls and egrets],” Hoskins believes. “But it will have a significant positive impact on the endangered species that they’re preying upon.”

(Alan McNarie has been reporting on Big Island issues for two decades. As Senior Contributing Writer, then Senior Contributing Editor at Ka’u Landing and its successor the Hawaii Island Journal, McNarie became known for in-depth investigative stories on such issues as the proposed Ka’u prison, the continuing East Hawai’i garbage crisis, the problems with Puna Geothermal and the influence of outside money on local elections. He’s also done investigative reporting for Honolulu Weekly, Big Island Weekly and the Hawaii Independent, and feature stories for Hana Hou and Ke Ola. He’s published a few dozen poems and one novel, Yeshua, which won the Editor’s Book Award in 1991.) 


10 replies
  1. Handyman
    Handyman says:

    I think the research on the negative effects of these two birds should continue but I also feel the “Control Order” should be implemented also.

    It is obvious that there’s a threat to human life at airports a d possibly elsewhere. Population control is in preserve.


  2. John
    John says:

    There’s certainly been an explosion of the egret population in the Kona area these last couple of years. They appear to have eliminated or driven away the native Hawaiian stilts from Kaloko-Honokohau NHP. I inquired of the Forestry people as to whether this egret population was new, or whether there was an existing population that has increased. They told me “Egrets? We had a few, but then again too few to mention!”

  3. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    Humans, the most invasive of species, deciding which others…
    Maybe we are, shortly, getting rid of the humans, and then the others species can figure it out.
    Cooperation is the more valuable impulse
    than competition, in evolution.
    Sorry, I do enjoy egrets, and I’os, and barn owls.
    I don’t enjoy monoculture papaya industry’s chemical assault on all life forms.
    For starters, stop the rodenticides. It kills pueo and i’o,

  4. Karl
    Karl says:

    “On the other hand, there’s nothing in the order itself that says extermination won’t be the goal.”

    It’s not the goal because it’s largely impractical. There are too many and they live in too many remote places to eradicate. In any case, away from endangered species they aren’t necessarily all bad.

  5. James Weatherford
    James Weatherford says:

    We have egrets at our farm in Pahoa. The numbers vary from twenty-something to periods with zero. They ride and walk around the cattle to feed on flies.
    We also have seen a barn owl.
    We often see the I`o that are nesting and hunting there.

  6. Handyman
    Handyman says:

    Aloha James Weatherford,

    I too have a farm in Kalapana, with barn owls helping to keep the population of rats down along with the I’o. With the I’o working during daylight and the Puu’eo and Barn owl working at night, I got a very convenient “Organic” rat and cat eradication program going on here.

    I stopped using rat poison years ago because of the adverse effects it took on these three bird species. All three are now flourishing in my neck of the woods.

    I would also like to mention that over the course of many years, I have on multiple occasions witnessed all three species carry off kittens of stray cats. I even lost a few kittens to them too. It is simply the cycle of life and nature.

    Although I don’t see any egrets on my farm, and I feel fortunate because I got honeybee hives. I don’t know if egrets consume honeybees but I don’t want to find out, if they do.

    With that said, I still feel that if there’s a danger to humans, such as interfering with the flight plan of an airplane that, “I just might be on”, then a “Control Order” needs to be implemented.

    The Barn Owl is a real asset to my farm, but not at the cost of my life or anyone else’s. Human life is much more important than my farm. Besides, as long as my farm provides food for the Barn Owl, they will survive. I will never grant permission for anyone to enter my farm with the intent of exterminating the Barn Owl.

    My farm is over thirty miles from any airport and there’s a sufficient amount of food and over 300 acres for them not to leave.


  7. Henry Sutro
    Henry Sutro says:

    I say say that we should not kill but captor and move to CA, WA ETC. Allow if you think that they don’t help with rodents you are crazy.


  8. Henry Sutro
    Henry Sutro says:

    I say say that we should not kill but captor and move to CA, WA ETC. Allow if you think that they don’t help with rodents you are crazy.


  9. Henry Sutro
    Henry Sutro says:

    I say say that we should not kill but capture and move them to CA, WA ETC. Also if you think that they don’t help with rodents you are crazy.


  10. BobH
    BobH says:

    “Wild” pigs do considerable crop damage and wreck residential yards. They should be considered an evasive species too as well as all humans of non Polynesian decent, frogs, mongoose, dogs, cats, cattle, horses and every other animal brought here by man. It’s man that is the problem….he continues to screw up every environment he sticks his nose into and continues to believe without a doubt that HE knows best.

    Saw my first Barn Owl tonight and it was magnificent! Thank you God!

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *