Amazing Animals around the Big Island
Donkeys. The donkeys of Hawaii Island date back to the 1820s, when they were commonly used as utility animals such as to carry crops down the mountains. Gradually, with the influx of war surplus jeeps after World War II the need for donkeys waned and farmers released them into the wild. During the 1970s, feral donkeys that fed in the Kona grasslands near Queen Kaahumanu Highway were moved to the mountainside along upper Waikoloa Road, where–due to their braying sounds–they became known as the Waikoloa Nightingales. Over the past few years an extensive project has been under way to capture, neuter and treat the feral Waikoloa donkeys and the majority of them have been successfully re-homed.
Wild donkeys normally live in herds led by one jack (male) and consisting mostly of jennies (females). A baby donkey is called a foal. Voracious eaters, donkeys eat grass and occasionally some shrubs or plants. They are most active during the mornings and evenings, while preferring to rest during the hottest part of the day.
Feral pigs can live in a variety of habitats but they thrive in Hawaii’s wet, vegetation-rich rain forests. With their long snouts they dig for earthworms, leaves, plant roots and fruits, stirring up the forest floor which in turn disrupts native plant habitation. The earliest domesticated pigs came to Hawaii with the Polynesians in the 4th century and these were smaller and more passive than the wild pigs we see today. A different, larger breed of domestic pig introduced by the Europeans in the late 18th century rapidly adapted to the moist, green and predator-free forests.
The gestation period for feral sows is 112 to 114 days. They produce on average 1.1 litters per year, though are capable of producing up to two litters per year, each averaging seven piglets. They reach maturity between 10 and 12 months. Feral pigs, usually travelling in large herds, cause widespread destruction to the tropical forests as they churn the undergrowth. This results in an alteration of the forest terrain as native plants get destroyed and their nutrients exhausted, while invasive plants proliferate. Management agencies employ various techniques to control the pig population and thereby reduce the impact on our tropical rainforest ecosystem. These include fencing, snaring and hunting.
Hawaiian monk seals have protection under the Endangered Species Act as well as the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and by Hawaii State law. This native mammal has a more slender physique compared to the common seal found in frigid waters, but shows an equal agility of movement and, at times, a playful nature. The monk seal has a somewhat small, dog-like face with large eyes, a short snout and whiskers. Its fur is dark, shiny-grey or dark brown on the back and a lighter grey or white on the inside, with pups being a darker black. Among the two other earless monk seal species within the family Phocidae, one is extinct (the Caribbean monk seal) and the other is severely endangered (the Mediterranean monk seal).
The remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are the Hawaiian monk seal’s primary habitat, with the Main Hawaiian Islands presenting limited populations in certain areas. Occasionally they may be seen basking along rocks or on the sand. The seals have a diverse diet including reef fish, cephalopods, crustaceans, octopus, and eels, and forage both in lagoons and in the deep ocean. The Hawaiian monk seal was designated the official state animal in 2008.
Mongooses. The small Indian or Asian mongoose is the most common type seen in Hawaii. They live in forests, scrubland and populated areas. Their bodies are long and slender with short legs, a long tail, small round ears and long snouts. Mongooses have long claws that are used mostly for digging. When they mate, they make high-pitched noises called giggling. These quick, intelligent creatures are often used to control vermin and can attack venomous snakes. Mongooses were introduced to Hawaii in the 1880s when plantation owners, having seen positive results of the animals controlling rats in Jamaica a decade earlier, had a group of them shipped to the Big Island. Island mongooses have since become a threat to native species. Most are solitary but they may travel in groups and share food or burrows. Their main diet is insects–including spiders and scorpions–and birds’ eggs.
Common Myna. We are all familiar with the variety of vocal sounds that the myna bird makes including snarles, shrieks, screeches, and whistles, which can be annoying at roosting time. These spunky birds have a brown body with white wing patches and tail edges, a glossy black head, and yellow legs. Their characteristic yellow bill and yellow eye band creates the appearance of a mask. The scientific name for the common myna, Acridotheres, translates to grasshopper hunter. It is a member of the starling (Sturnidae) family.
In countries outside their natural range–including North America, Australia and New Zealand–the common myna is considered a pest. In Hawaii, the myna is responsible for aiding the spread of the invasive Lantana camara weed by dispersing its seeds across open grasslands. In a 2004 survey by the Hawaiian Farm Bureau the common myna ranks number four on the list of worst avian pests in the fruit industry. It ranks sixth in number of complaints of avian pests overall. The common myna is listed among the 100 World’s Worst Invasive Species.
Despite their bad reputation, mynas have lively personalities. In their native India they hold religious significance and are important for their assistance in pollination, seed dispersal and insect control. The Hindi word maina comes from the Sanskrit word madana, which means joyful or delightful, and the myna is valued for its ability to entertain. Most of the 30 species of myna are talented mimics who can vocalize human words. In fact, the myna is closely related to the mimid family of birds which includes the mockingbird.
Geckos thrive in the warm, humid atmosphere of Hawaii and are all around us, whether crawling amid forest foliage or walking across a wall. The bright green Gold Dust Day Gecko, which is a native of northern Madagascar and Comoros Islands, has a more flattened tail. The peculiar tchak tchak tchak sound we often hear in our homes signifies that a Common House Gecko is nearby. Also known as the Pacific House Gecko or Moon Lizard, this species is a native of Southeast Asia where it is believed to bring good omen. However, in many countries House Geckos are considered pests or even poisonous. The small Mourning Gecko was introduced to Hawaii from countries along the Pacific Coast. This nocturnal lizard has an asexual reproduction system (parthenogenesis) that makes it unique. Mourning Geckos live both in suburban areas and in the wild. Geckos are able to climb across vertical surfaces due to a special anatomical toepad system that makes their feet sticky. Most also have a built-in autotomic mechanism that allows them to spontaneously lose their tails when threatened. Geckos eat insects, nectar and some fruit.
Chameleons. Special pigment cells that reflect light allow these lizards to change color to green, brown, black, blue, red, yellow, or orange, depending on the species. Color variations serve not just as camouflage but to communicate with other chameleons. Exceptional hunters, chameleons have long, extrudable tongues that allow them to rapidly catch prey. Stereoscopic vision and strong depth perception, combined with a unique eye structure, provide a heightened ability to focus in on objects. They are expert climbers due to their specialized feet, which contain sharp claws and a grip-like mechanism. Some, like monkeys and snakes, have prehensile tails. Various species of chameleons have been introduced in Hawaii, notably the Jackson’s chameleon, which has horns. Chameleons usually live in trees or bushes, with some smaller types preferring to burrow under foliage on the ground. They eat various insects, including grasshoppers and crickets, as well as some plant material.