The tradition of Friday night football on the island of Kauai has been disrupted by an unusual culprit: Young seabirds migrating to the ocean mistake stadium lights for the moon and stars, causing them to become disoriented, drop from the sky and fall prey to cats.
School officials canceled Friday night football for almost all of the season on Kauai and moved the games to Saturday afternoon, angering residents who are upset that their beloved fall tradition has been thwarted because of a bird.
They have been showing up to games wearing T-shirts that disparage the policy, and occasionally voicing their displeasure from the stands during games.
"Because we’re in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, we don’t have much to have to offer our kids. On a Friday night, this is what our kids would look forward to," said Lori Koga, whose 17-year-old son is a Kauai High School varsity linebacker and running back. "And then they took that away from us."
At issue is a bird called the Newell’s shearwater, which numbered about 80,000 in the mid-1990s. Its population has plunged 75 percent in recent years as Kauai grew in size and added more lights that confuse the birds.
The birds take their first flight a few months after hatching from ground nests in Kauai’s wet mountain forests. These fledglings, some still with down feathers, are prone to mistaking the bright lights at sports fields, hotels, parking lots and other places for the moon and stars, leading them to repeatedly fly around in circles.
They become exhausted and eventually drop to the ground, where they’re often attacked by cats or hit by cars unless they are rescued by volunteers. The species is also threatened by pigs and goats that trample on their nests.
"When they hit the ground, it’s usually very hard for them to take off. They need a breeze or they need a place to launch from," said Scott Fretz, the state’s wildlife program manager. "They’re just sitting ducks for the cats that are all over the place."
The problem for football is that fledglings take off between Sept. 15 and Dec. 15 each year – smack in the middle of the season.
Most football games are now played on Saturday afternoons, except for days closest to the full moon. Schools allow later games on those days because birds are less likely to be confused by artificial lights.
The switch to Saturday games has upended a revered tradition on Kauai, an island once dominated by sugar cane fields that is now known primarily for its relaxed, breathtaking tropical resorts. The small community of about 60,000 doesn’t have concert halls, amusement parks or any college teams for people to enjoy, making high school football the only show in town.
Football attendance has dropped as some parents have to work during game hours or take player siblings to different sports activities. Saturday games have drawn an average of 1,173 people so far this season — about 200 fewer than last year’s season average. Some fans don’t want to sit in the sun and players complain about the brutal daytime heat.
Some residents are directing their anger at the birds. An enterprising fan has printed more than 250 T-shirts saying "Buck the Firds" on the front and "Let the Boys Play" on the back. They come in the colors of each of Kauai’s three high schools.
Kapaa High’s head football coach, Kelii Morgado, has taken steps to prevent heatstroke during day games, including telling his players to drink lots of water starting three days before. When players come off the field, they’re sponged with ice water.
So far the teams have avoided major medical problems due to the heat. Even so, Morgado said one of his players got so hot and lost so much fluid during a game the coach thought he showed concussion symptoms. The student thankfully recovered after trainers put ice water on his neck and had him drink water.
Travis Koga, Lori Koga’s son, said high school players have it especially hard during day games because most of them on the field for both offense and defense.
"It’s hot. And you get all tired. You cannot focus," Travis Koga said after Kauai High defeated Kapaa High in a 14-13 nailbiter last Saturday. "I think it’s best — Friday night lights. Not Saturday day football. It’s Friday night lights."
The Kauai Interscholastic Federation changed the football schedule as Kauai County was facing possible federal prosecution for failing to protect seabirds.
The U.S. Justice Department said federal wildlife officials notified the county in 2005 its lighting was hurting the birds, in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The government said the county failed to install shielded lights that shine down on the field, not out, thus being less harmful to the birds.
The county ultimately reached a deal with prosecutors in which officials will install shielded lights at Kauai’s three football fields by next season. Any night games next year will have to be played under specially designed shielded lights, and the county must have an escrow account to cover fines for any birds downed during the games.
"This is a serious situation, and we are on a trajectory to extinction with this species if we don’t take real responsible action," Fretz said.
Meanwhile, island residents like Rich Rapozo warned that some people are talking about refusing to rescue birds they see on the ground in protest of the Saturday games.
"They chose the bird over our keiki," he said after a Saturday game, using the Hawaiian word for children.