Maui vs. the Moorhen

Travel Blog  •  Pam Mandel  •  05.13.09 | 10:20 AM ET

Picture by Charles Lam via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The fluffy little chick paddling in the pond at Waimea Valley didn’t look like much of a keeper of fire. She was all black fuzz and pathetic peeping. The endangered ’Alae ’Ula chick—or Hawaiian Moorhen—was the last of a brood of three that hatched this spring. There are only about 300 of the birds left, according to a State of Hawaii fact sheet.

As we were learning about the tiny bird, barely visible in the bright green reeds, I had one of those “Aha” moments: this is the same ’Alae mentioned in Big Iz‘s song, Hawaiian Superman:

The secret of fire was locked somewhere in time
So when the ahi died in the hale kuke, no way to reignite
So off he goes in search of those who hold the information
So that fire could be used by all the future generations

He found out the ’Alae held the fire connection
But his plan of deception fell short of perfection
With no other choice he had to get mean
So he squeezed ’Alae’s throat until she screamed the secret.

There are lots of variations to the legend about how the bird got its red colored shield and bill but the basics are as follows:

’Alae, the moorhen’s namesake, held the secret of fire. She tricked the demi-god Maui when he asked the bird to share her knowledge. ’Alae lied, telling Maui that he should rub green plants together. When this failed, he grabbed ’Alae by the neck and wouldn’t release her until she gave up the secret. Once he knew how fire was made—with sticks, not green plants—he rubbed the bird’s head with a flaming stick, leaving her with the distinctive red mark she now bears.

Pam Mandel is a freelance writer and photographer from Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in a variety of print, radio, and web publications and she's contributed to two guidebooks, one on British Columbia and one on Hawaii. She plays the ukulele, has an internal beacon that is surprisingly capable of locating the best baked goods in town, almost any town, and speaks German with a Styrian accent. Learn more on her personal blog at Nerd's Eye View.

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