Hawaiian moorhen

Gallinula chloropus sandvicensis / ‘Alae ‘ula
Dark blue brid standingin the water with mangroves in the background

The ‘alae ‘ula is known as the most secretive native waterbird. In Hawaiian legend, these birds were thought to have brought fire from the gods to the Hawaiian people. They can be found in freshwater marshes, taro patches, irrigation ditches, reservoirs, and wet pastures. They favor dense emergent vegetation near open water, floating or barely emergent mats of vegetation, water depths of less than 3 feet (1 meter), and prefer fresh water as opposed to saline or brackish water.

These birds nest year-round but the active season is usually from March through August. It is believed that the timing of nesting is related to water levels and vegetation growth. The ‘alae ‘ula usually lays an average of 5 to 6 eggs and incubation is 19 to 22 days. They are good swimmers and chicks can swim shortly after hatching.

No historical population estimates are available for the ‘alae ‘ula. Because they are such secretive birds, it is difficult to conduct surveys. It is believed that they were common on the main Hawaiian islands in the 1800s but radically declined by the mid 1900s. Surveys in the 1950s and 1960s estimated no more than 57 individuals. However, the spread of aquaculture in the 1970s and 1980s helped boost their numbers by providing more suitable habitat for these birds.

Today, ‘alae ‘ula can be found only on O‘ahu and Kaua‘i. A sizable population is found at the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge. The O‘ahu population is widely spread but is mostly found between Haleiwa and Waimanalo. 

The primary causes of the decline of this Hawaiian native waterbird has been the loss and degradation of wetland habitat and introduced predators (e.g., rats, dogs, cats, mongoose). Other factors include alien plants, introduced fish, bull frogs, disease, and sometimes environmental contaminants.

Facts About Hawaiian moorhen

Mollusks, insects, water plants, and grasses. 

Freshwater marshes, taro patches, irrigation ditches, reservoirs, and wet pastures.