By Thalya DeMott
The White Tern is often referred to as “Fairy Tern,” which is the common name of a black-crested tern not found in Hawaiʻi, but in the southwestern Pacific including Australia and New Zealand.
Manu-o-Kū, or bird of Kū, the god of war, is the more accurate name for our indigenous Hawaiʻi subspecies, Gygis alba candida, also referred to as Angel Tern or White Noddy. Gygis refers to an ancient Greek word for a mythical bird, and alba is Latin for white.
The appearance of manu-o-Kū includes a pure white body, sharp black beak with a blue base, black-rimmed dark eyes, gray-blue feet and legs, and a notched tail. With an average wingspan of 30 inches, it is among the smaller seabirds.
As year-round residents, breeding sites were exclusive to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands until the first nesting pair on Oʻahu were observed in 1961 in the Koko Head area. This year marks their 60th on Oʻahu and, in that span, their urban population has grown to an estimated 2,300 as the graceful birds have become a beloved presence.
The most unusual characteristic of manu-o-Kū is their nesting habit, which is to lay a single speckled egg in a fork or depression on the horizontal bare branches of a mature canopy tree. Brooding sites may also include man-made structures and are found in populated makai areas from Hawaiʻi Kai to Pearl City.
Drivers along mauka Kalākaua Avenue may notice blue ribbon bands marking the center median trees as protected from trimming during the breeding season between February-June, although the birds can lay eggs throughout the year and raise up to three chicks. Mating pairs stay together for several seasons and may return to the same nesting trees.
These agile fliers dive from the air to the water’s surface to hunt baby squid and small fish. The whole fresh food is fed to the chick, which grips its precarious perch with strong clawed feet.
Traditional Pacific navigators knew the manu-o-Kū as reliable indicators of the direction and distance to land, as the birds normally roam no farther than 30 miles from shore, returning at nightfall to roost.
State-listed as a threatened species, manu-o-Kū was formally designated as Honolulu’s official bird by Mayor Hanneman in 2007.
Interested readers can learn more from Hui Manu-o-Kū, a dedicated local organization, at www.whiteterns.org.