I was lucky to see the ’alae ’ula ,”burnt forehead” bird, while visiting the Waimea Valley on the island of O’ahu several years ago. This subspecies of mudhen is the Hawaiian moorhen or Hawaiian gallinule.
Population estimates range from 300-500. Due to their secretive nature, it’s difficult to know their exact numbers. Hawaiian moorhens live mainly on the islands of O’ahu and Kaua’i, with a few reports of sightings on the islands of Maui and Hawai’i. The 15 birds living at the Waimea Valley site are considered a treasured natural resource.
So where does this moorhen get the “burnt forehead” nickname? Here’s an explanation from the Waimea Valley website:
“In Hawaiian folklore, the ‘alae ‘ula withheld the secret of fire from man. Māui, a demi-god, asked Ka’alaenuiāhina (the Great Moorhen of Hina) for the secret of making fire. When Māui found out that she lied to him, he choked her until she revealed the secret of fire. As punishment for lying to him, Māui burnt her forehead with a red hot stick. This is the reason for the red frontal shield.”
I was excited to see this endemic endangered bird in a couple places on O’ahu. Hawaiian moorhens’ threats include habitat loss, introduced predators, invasive non-native plants, and disease. Attempts to reintroduce them have not been successful so far.
I hope conservation efforts eventually pay off so future generations can catch glimpses of this elusive bird.