Birds of the Sandwich Islands, watercolours by Frederick W. Frohawk

Reproduced in S.B. Wilson and A.H. Evans, Aves Hawaiienses: The Birds of the Sandwich Islands (London, 1890-99)

The feathers of these small birds, all indigenous to Hawaii, were used in large quantities to decorate the prestigious cloaks, capes, helmets, ornaments, ceremonial staffs, and images of gods owned by high-ranking Hawaiians.

The demand for the vividly coloured red, yellow and black feathers, particularly favoured by the nobility, made the procurement of feathers a worthwhile occupation; professional hunters trapped birds using nets and sticky 'lime', which they applied to perches.

All but one of these birds are of the subfamily of honeycreepers, which feed on the nectar of flowers. The 'i'iwi (Vestiaria coccinea) was the main source of red feathers, a colour associated throughout Polynesia with gods and chiefs. It has brilliant scarlet feathers, black tail and wings, and a curved beak. This species survives today on some of the islands. Dark crimson red feathers were obtained from the 'apapane (Himatione sanguinea). Numbers of these birds remain steady today. As the 'i'iwi and the 'apapane are predominantly of one colour, they were regularly trapped and killed for their feathers, and the flesh was eaten.

The 'o'u (Psittirostra psittacea) is a green honeycreeper which feeds on fruit. The male bird has a bright yellow head. Green feathers were less popular for featherwork. There are seriously dwindling numbers of these birds, now found in just a few locations.

Yellow feathers were the scarcest, as there were no fully yellow feathered birds. The 'o'o (Moho nobilis) is a relatively large bird, predominantly black with a few yellow feathers. It may now be extinct. The mamo (Drepanis pacifica), also black with a few yellow feathers, is now almost certainly extinct, having last been sighted in the late nineteenth century: its bright yellow feathers were in even greater demand than those of the 'o'o. Both birds were trapped by hunters in the moulting season, then released after their yellow feathers had been plucked, to allow them to grow more. Only one full-length cloak made entirely from yellow feathers is known, which belonged to the Hawaiian king Kamehameha I.

These birds are now mostly categorized as endangered species. Although no longer trapped for their feathers, many die of avian malaria carried by mosquitoes introduced to the Hawaiian Islands in the 1820s.

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Birds of the Sandwich Islands, watercolours by Frederick W. Frohawk

apapane (Himatione sanguinea)

  • i'iwi (Vestiaria coccinea)

    i'iwi (Vestiaria coccinea)

  • o'u (Psittirostra psittacea)

    o'u (Psittirostra psittacea)

  • mamo (Drepanis pacifica)

    mamo (Drepanis pacifica)


More information


H.D. Pratt, P.L. Bruner and D.G. Berrett, A field guide to the birds of (Princeton University Press, 1987)

S.B. Wilson and A.H. Evans, Aves Hawaiienses: the birds of (London, A.H. Porter, 1890-99)

J.D. Holt., The art of featherwork in old (Honolulu, Topgallant Publishing Co. Ltd, 1985)


Museum number

AOA Library

not on MERLIN


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