Writer’s Note: In 2006, I received a Call for Papers from the Caribbean Chapter of the College English Association (CEA-CC). They were interested in adding several papers prior to publishing the Fall 2006 Conference Proceedings (This Watery World: Humans and the Sea). I had been working on an essay that explored how navigator Harold Gatty believed that the spring migration of the Pacific Golden-plover from Tahiti encouraged northward exploration by Polynesian mariners, which resulted in their discovery of the Hawaiian Islands.  


The 2nd edition of “This Watery World” is distributed by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in the United Kingdom and is available from Amazon.com.



Petroglyph: Kolea (Pacific Golden-plover), Hawaii. 



The Discovery of the Hawaiian Islands:

A Case of Human-Bird Mutualism

Tom Leskiw

Humans have been, and continue to be, a restless lot. Despite this, our self-image is one of being semi-sedentary, especially when we consider the exploits of truly migratory species such as caribou and wildebeest, shorebird and salmon. However, the scope and arduous nature of non-human migration should not obscure the fact that we, too, are a migratory species: in our daily commute to work, our weekend and vacation journeys in search of re-creation, the flight from winter’s cold by legions of “snowbirds,” and initially, the human race’s peregrinations outward from our evolutionary cradle in Africa.  Since long before recorded history, humans have observed the comings and goings of other animals. The scientific study of migration began with Aristotle’s speculation in book eight of Historia Animalium about what happened to swallows in winter. Today, wild creatures continue to pique our interest as we study their migratory patterns and technology has played a pivotal role in providing the answers to the long-standing questions of their points of origin and their destinations. 

Seas have served as barriers to travel since time immemorial and crossing them has often entailed the crossing of a frontier. The Hawaiian Islands—geologically speaking, mere specks of rock—are renowned as the most isolated archipelago in the world, as they are situated 2,400 miles from California, 2,500 miles from Alaska, and 2,240 miles from Tahiti. This remoteness, arguably representing the ultimate frontier, prompts several questions with regard to the ways in which they were discovered and what could have possessed mariners to set out across the Pacific considering the exceptionally long odds of encountering land. 

Voyagers from the Marquesas discovered the Hawaiian Islands 1,600 years ago. It was the Polynesian mariners’ intimacy with the sea that enabled them to use a number of subtle clues for navigation: clouds, water color and taste, wave patterns, currents, presence of seabirds, fish, and plants, and the position of stars and planets.  Harold Gatty, the aviation pioneer whom Charles Lindbergh called the “Prince of Navigators,” suggested that it was birds that led ancient mariners to Hawaii. As Rachel Carson writes in The Sea Around Us (192):

Students of primitive navigation believe that the migration of birds had meaning for the Polynesians, and that they learned much from watching the flocks that gathered each year in the spring and fall, launched out over the ocean, and returned later out of the emptiness into which they had vanished. Harold Gatty believes the Hawaiians may have found their islands by following the spring migration of the golden plover from Tahiti to the Hawaiian chain, as the birds returned to the North American mainland.

The plover’s migration route strongly suggested the presence of land to the north, prompting the Polynesian explorers to sail in that direction and eventually discover the Hawaiian Islands. As critical as celestial navigation was to their success, it is important to note that the correct compass heading required to reach the Hawaiian Islands from Tahiti could only have been confirmed following successful landfall by the first mariners.

Apparently, long-distance flights of the Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva) also served as inspiration to early British explorers. In 1773, Captain James Cook sailed the waters of Tahiti during his second expedition. He was on a mission to find Terra Australis Incognita, the “Great Southern Continent” purported to lie somewhere between New Zealand and Australia. Naturalists aboard the H.M.S. Resolution noted the presence of the Pacific Golden Plover. The first recorded specimen was collected on 26 August 1773 at Matavai Bay, Tahiti. Subsequently, the species was first scientifically described by naturalist J.R. Forster. The Tahitians informed Cook and his naturalists that the species did not nest in the islands, north each spring. Cook wondered if perhaps the small shorebird might breed on the elusive continent that he and his men were seeking.   In 1778, Captain Cook was on his third expedition, seeking the elusive Northwest Passage. During late summer, in the North Pacific/Bering Sea, his crew spotted a Pacific Golden Plover, which seemed to be migrating south. Cook wondered if the birds knew something about geography that he didn’t: “Does this not indicate,” he wrote, “that there must be land to the north where these birds retired in the proper season to breed?”(Johnson, The Pacific Golden Plover 140) Cook’s insight is regarded as the first written statement by a European concerning migration in the northern Pacific region. 

By the time Cook reached the Hawaiian Islands in 1776, voyages between Hawaii and Tahiti had ceased. Cook and his crew were astounded to find a thriving civilization in such a remote location. The subject of how a Stone-Age people, lacking compass, sextant or chronometer could have found the islands was widely debated. Cook, for one, believed the natives had finely honed wayfinding skills. In 1769, while in Tahiti, he took a native sailor named Tupaia aboard the Endeavour and let him navigate the ship 300 miles south to the island of Rurutu. The expedition sailed westward on various courses to New Zealand, then to Australia, then northward through the Great Barrier Reef, touching at New Guinea. Throughout this entire convoluted voyage, Cook was astonished to discover that whenever Tupaia was asked to point out the direction in which Tahiti lay, he could do so without access to the ship’s charts or compass.

The daily lives of Polynesian mariners were dependent upon an intimate knowledge of the Earth’s sky and waters. The Pacific Golden Plover, is known as kolea in Hawaii, an onomatopoetic word that mimics the species’ three-syllable flight call. That the explorers’ nautical knowledge should be informed by the study of this shorebird’s annual migration comes as no surprise. What is surprising, however, is the degree to which man’s relationship with the kolea is mutualistic, where the association actually benefits both species. Mutualisms have been divided into two categories: obligate and facultative. While facultative mutualisms are beneficial but not essential to survival and reproduction of either party, obligate mutualisms are those that are essential to the life of one or both associates.  Information is sometimes the currency in mutualisms, and in the case of kolea-Polynesian explorer mutualism, the kolea traded information (the presence of the Hawaiian Islands) for food (expanded foraging opportunities following colonization by man). The discovery of the Hawaiian Islands aided by the kolea’s migration flight was a boon to seafaring Polynesians. We will never know how many of their expeditions navigated a course destined  never to encounter land, perishing in the process. Following the explorers’ successful landfall, the Pacific Golden Plover benefited from the islands’ subsequent habitat alteration. However, because man and the kolea are not essential to the survival of each other, their association represents facultative mutualism[1].


Native Polynesians intuited the location of the Hawaiian islands by watching the kolea’s spring migration. In the absence of the plover, who can say if they had been inclined to set out to discover other lands? Many aspects of the kolea’s life history lend credence to Gatty’s theory. The species winters over a vast area, about half the circumference of the Earth—ranging west to Africa and south to New Zealand and Australia. Fossilized bones 120,000 years old found in Pleistocene lake deposits on Oahu evidence the species’ long presence in Polynesia (James 221). The bird is easy to locate on its wintering grounds and close studies by professional and amateur alike are aided by the species’ attachment to a particular place, the degree to which it exhibits site fidelity. Wintering territories are vigorously defended, as the same individual returns each year to the same patch of grass. For instance, a banded bird returned for 27 consecutive years to Bellows Air Force Station in windward Oahu, a record for shorebirds. Interestingly enough, various Hawaiian place names touch on the species attachment to a particular site, such as Papakolea (Plover Flats) on the Big Island and Puukolea (Plover Hill) on Molokai.

Residents of Polynesia continue their close observations of the kolea to this day. The “Krazy for Kolea Kontest”—founded in 1997 by the nonprofit organization Nene O Molokai—is held annually on that island to spot the first returning “fall” bird each August. An interactive website, “Kolea Watch,” encourages observers to report the spring exodus of the kolea (1).  The long tenure of humans observing the pattern in the kolea’s spring northward migration predates their written language. The birds’ exodus is uncannily consistent; on Oahu, the migration starts within 2 days of April 24, making it one of the most precise internal calendars discovered in animals. Prior to their departure for their breeding grounds, the birds abandon their territories, gathering over a several-day period. The flock—known as a congregation of plover and consisting of up to 200 individuals—usually departs just prior to dusk. The birds fly in circles or make angled ascents to a great height before starting their northward journey (Henshaw, Migration 249).

In contrast to many long-distance migrant shorebirds, the kolea’s numbers are thought to be stable, not requiring special management efforts to stabilize their population.  In fact, the kolea have benefited from the discovery of the Hawaiian Islands in several ways. The arrival of Polynesian explorers from the Marquesas around 400 AD unleashed a process of deforestation and as a result, less than 50 percent of the original forest cover remains.  The conversion of forests to grasslands has actually benefited the plover because the kolea prefer microhabitats where plant cover is short or absent, allowing ease of movement and relatively unobstructed vision while on the lookout for predators (Johnson, Birds of).

New or expanded habitat niches include grazing lands, grassy borders of airport runways, cemeteries, athletic fields, parks, golf courses, and military bases, as well as paved surfaces adjacent to grass and other low vegetation from which the plovers glean insects. As the lowland forests gave way to sugar cane cultivation, the kolea moved into cane fields, foraging on caterpillars of two widespread and destructive cutworm species[2]. Annual sugarcane harvest followed by tilling created large, barren tracts of land, facilitating kolea foraging opportunities.  Where suitable habitat such as pastures occur, Pacific Golden Plover ranges to at least 2,500 meters in elevation, which furnishes foraging opportunities over a substantial portion of each island that have experienced forest to grass conversion. Widespread planting of ironwood (Casuarina) trees also helped the plover, which often can be found foraging on the dense, insect-rich mats of shed foliage. Actual scientific data on how the deforestation of the Hawaiian Islands benefited the kolea is lacking and can only be inferred based on the kolea’s preference for open habitats with low-growing vegetation.  However, a contemporary comparison of the ways in which deforestation may have benefited the kolea can be seen in the relationship between the recent deforestation of the Amazon and the American Golden Plover, a close relative of the kolea. Research has revealed that the widespread conversion of rainforest to pasture in South America has created new habitats for migrating and wintering American Golden Plovers (Stotz 608).  Furthermore, favorable habitats resulting from settlement in the Eastern U.S. may have prompted some birds to eschew their autumnal migratory flight to the Amazon and wintering instead in the United States (Paulson 121).  


In contrast, evidence of the kolea’s habituation to humans is abundant. Flocks utilizing traditional nighttime roosting areas (beaches, rocky points, tops of mangrove trees) are found in parking lots and on levees and flat roof tops—the latter site also offering protection from cats (Johnson, The Use of 45). Sites illuminated by streetlights may offer protection from introduced Barn Owls and feral cats.  In addition, Plovers have been observed foraging on human foods such as bread, rice, French fries, and apples, and an injured bird ate earthworms, insects, and snails from the hand of its benefactor while in captivity. The availability of these supplemental foods may be a factor in the species changing its migration habit, as it is now a year-round resident on Oahu. However, the kolea’s close association with humans does have its price, such as the exposure to agrichemicals like those used at golf courses and on lawns and potential human-introduced predators include mongoose, Barn Owl, and feral house cat. A scat analysis failed to detect kolea remains in barn owl or feral house cats, but kolea remains were discovered at a Barn Owl roost on Kaula Island, Hawaii.  From a historical perspective, the kolea were utilized  by the early Hawaiians, plucking its golden feathers for capes and feathered staffs, often without killing them.  Yet while Early Hawaiians snared the kolea for food, plover hunting was banned in Hawaii in 1941. 

Technology has unlocked a treasure trove of the kolea’s secrets. We can now state that this species can fly nonstop for at least 70 hours, flapping its wings twice a second to sustain speeds up to 70 miles per hour (5). The kolea—those that winter as far south as Australia—are capable of flying up to 6,260 miles nonstop, even though it is unable to glide or soar to conserve energy. The plover’s trans-Pacific flight is made possible by the accumulation of fuel in the form of fat, increasing its body weight by as much as 64% in the weeks prior to its migration (Johnson, Birds of ).  About one month after the vernal equinox, kolea begin to grow restless, each bird departing the territory it has vigorously defended since fall. For several days, they mill about, swelling in number. Flocks form along shoreline and grassy headland. Then, as dusk falls, the congregation—in the ultimate act of faith—lifts off, circles, and begins its 2,500-mile flight over the Pacific Ocean. Human eyes follow the flock until tiny specks dissolve into darkness. To the north, a bright pinpoint of light, Hoku-paa, the “immovable star,” shines. It is this beacon, Polaris—the North Star—that will guide the birds’ movements through the sky for the next two nights until they reach what the Hawaiians call Kahiki, the kolea’s Arctic breeding grounds.

Native cultures demonstrate that technology is but one part of the puzzle to understanding a creature. Hawaiians have long acknowledged their debt to the kolea.  The long association with and careful observation of the kolea has inspired its inclusion to Hawaiian dance, song, and legend.  The hula kolea is performed in a kneeling position, with the dancers forming a single row facing in the same direction. Arms, heads, and bodies imitate the movements of the plover. Still performed today, there is no instrumental accompaniment to the kolea hula. 

The 3,000-mile, nonstop flight back to their Arctic breeding grounds requires substantial energy reserves. In preparation, the kolea gorge on their favorite foods; a bird weighing 110 grams in March may grow to 180 grams by late April. Their weight gain and annual exodus were well-known to native Hawaiians and resulted in the following chant (Pukui):  

When the feathers darken on the breasts,

The kolea returns to Kahiki to breed

The kolea eats until he is fat, then returns to the land

from which he came!


When there is a desire for plovers,

The child to be born will travel to Kahiki

The plover can only cry its own name

The egg of the kolea is laid in a foreign land.

In addition, native Polynesians regard birds as potential gods or spirit beings. Oral histories recount how migratory birds or those that nest in high cliffs serve as messengers for the alii (kings). Acknowledging the part the kolea played in the discovery of the islands, legend holds that the bird is sent, generally in pairs, to act as scouts or to carry messages from island to island. The trans-Pacific kolea-man association is depicted on a 1984 U.S postage stamp commemorating the 25th anniversary of Hawaiian statehood. A kolea is shown in flight, ahead of a traditional Polynesian sailing vessel, inspiring the navigators onward.

H.W. Henshaw, in his landmark 1910 paper in the Auk, “Migration of the Pacific Plover to and from the Hawaiian Islands,” touched on our sense of wonder for the species’ twice-annual migration. (245).

When we consider the number of miles traveled, the widely different characters of the regions chosen for summer and winter abodes, and the perils necessarily attending the passage between them, the migration of no other of our birds appears so wonderful as that of the Golden Plover. 

Ecologists estimate that the Hawaiian Islands were colonized by plants and animals at the rate of one species every 100,000 years. The slow, millwheel grinding of time and isolation produces new species, the raw materials being storm-blown birds or floating seed pods. Exploration, for shorebird and human alike, is evolutionarily adaptive; that is, the trait confers an advantage to its bearer in terms of contributing to successful survival and reproduction. As Joy Harjo--poet, performer, writer, musician and part-time resident of Hawaii—observed, “There has to be power or sustenance in migration or the world would be without humans, most plants and animals.” Chickens, pigs, taro root and coconut trees are among the animals and plants that have accompanied ocean voyagers in search of new lands to colonize. We readily acknowledge them as our “partners in migration.” The kolea has played a pivotal—albeit underappreciated—role in the human exploration of the Pacific frontier.

Literature Cited


Carson, R.L.. The Sea Around Us. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. 1950. 192


Dean, W. R. J., W. R. Siegfried, I. A. W. MacDonald. The Fallacy, Fact, and Rate of Guiding Behavior in the Greater Honeyguide. Conservation Biology. 4.1 (1990): 99-100.  


Henshaw, H.W. Migration of the Pacific Plover to and from the Hawaiian Islands. Auk 27.3: 245-262.


James, H.F.. A Late Pleistocene avifauna from the island of Oahu, Hawaiian Islands. Docim. Lab. Geol. Lyon No. 99 (1987): 221-230.


Johnson, O.W. The Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva): Discovery of the Species and Other Historical Notes. Auk 110.1: 140


Johnson, O.W., and P.G. Connors. American Golden Plover (Pluvialis dominica), Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva). In The Birds of North America, No.201-202 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington D.C. 1996[VPM1] .<http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/BNA/account/American_Golden Plover/FOOD_HABITS.html>


Johnson, O. W., R. M. Nakamura. The use of roofs by American Golden Plovers, Pluvialis dominica fulva wintering on Oahu, Hawaiian Islands. Wader Study Group Bull. 31 (1981): 45-46 


Kolea Watch: Student Science With Native Shorebirds. Hawaii Nature Center. 10 November 2006. <http://www.hawaiinaturecenter.org/kolea/index.html>.


Paulson, D.R., D.S. Lee. Wintering of Lesser Golden Plovers in Eastern North America. Journal of Field Ornithology. 63 (1992): 121-128.


Pukui,  Mary Kawena, Olelo Noeau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983.


Stotz, D.F., R. O. Bierregaard, M. Cohn-Haft, P. Petermann, J. Smith, A. Whittaker, S. V. Wilson. The status of North American migrants in central Amazonian Brazil. Condor 94 (1992):  608-621. 

[1] There are other examples of human-bird mutualism, such as the Boran people of Africa with a bird known as the honeyguide, where human hunting parties are often joined by the Greater Honeyguide, Indicator indicator, which leads them to bee colonies. When searching in unfamiliar areas, the average search time by the Borans was reduced from 8.9 hours when they were unguided to 3.2 when they were guided and the efficiency in locating beehives increased by 64% (10).  Borans use fire and smoke to drive off the bees, break open the nest and remove the honey, but leave larvae and wax behind which are left for the birds. The use of fire and smoke reduces the bird’s risk of being stung and in turn, the humans gain accessibility to nests. According to the Borans, the honeyguide informs them of the location of honeybees, from the compass bearing of bird flight, the duration of the bird’s disappearance and height of perch and by the “indicator call.” There are indications that this association has originated quite some time ago: pictographs indicate that humans have collected honey in Africa for 20,000 years. Birds and Borans can survive without the other, but because each benefits from their association, this  is also an example of facultative mutualism (Dean 99-100). 

[2] On a different register, a more recent manifestation of the benefits derived from the mutualistic relationship with the kolea is through the biocontrol of agricultural pests such as cutworms, grasshoppers, beetles, grubs, roaches, and semi-poisonous millipedes.  Some of these pests are considered to have a substantial adverse economic impact upon a variety of agricultural products that include sugar cane. 

 [VPM1]Please cite online version.


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