Coqui Frogs Are Coming to Oahu

Shrieking, invasive, miniature frogs have overrun the Big Island. Now they want Oahu.


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illustration: dominic bugatto

Every evening, as darkness falls across the lush east side of the Big Island, thousands upon thousands of tiny coqui frogs fill the night with their piercing, unrelenting ko-KEE-ko-KEE-ko-KEE mating call.

The racket has disrupted untold hours of sleep, scared off home buyers, plagued the nursery industry and shattered the tranquility of the East Hawaii night forever.

It also foreshadows what’s in store for us.

The coquis are coming, Oahu, and if they overwhelm the preciously thin line of defense that has kept their population from exploding here so far, no green valley or well-watered yard on the island will be immune to their dreadful call.

The Big Island, which has given up any hope of eradicating them, now serves as a giant reservoir from which coquis are constantly escaping via interisland barges and aircraft. They’ve landed on all the Neighbor Islands, stowing away in nursery shipments, car bumpers, the cut orchids you carried on the plane with you from Hilo, anywhere they can find a dark, damp nook.

The tiny amphibians—they’re about the size of a quarter, with frog legs attached—are turning up on Oahu with increasing frequency. Five years ago, the state’s Pest Hotline hardly ever rang with reports of coquis on this island. Now it rings once or twice a month. When it does, a frog-busting team is dispatched to the scene—and often it’s the same scene over and over again. It’s a giant game of Island-wide coqui Whac-a-Mole: get ’em here, they pop up over there, get ’em there, they pop back up over here.

“We’ve had to invent the word ‘re-eradicate,’ because that’s what we keep doing here,” says Christy Martin, spokesperson for the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species, a partnership of government and private agencies trying to hold off a full-scale coqui invasion of Oahu.

So far, the discoveries of coqui on Oahu have mostly been limited to plant nurseries and residential areas, where the frogs have been easy to get at. They do, after all, tend to draw attention to themselves. In small numbers, they’re manageable. The big fear is that they’ll get into remote parts of the Koolau Mountains or the Waianae Mountains, where they will breed faster than anybody can whack them down.

“If they start climbing the mountains,” Martin says, “there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”

If you call the state’s Pest Hotline to report a coqui frog on Oahu, you’re likely to get a house call from Keevin Minami, a vertebrate specialist with the state Department of Agriculture.

He’s been dubbed the Coqui Whisperer for his spot-on coqui imitation, a ko-KEE whistle so convincing that male coquis within earshot—territorial creatures that they are—feel obliged to answer. Equipped with an LED headlamp and a clear plastic tube with a Gatorade bottle affixed to the end, Minami will mimic a frog until he zeros in on its location. This can take hours. When he finally spots it, he slips the tube over it, taps it into the bottle, and takes it back to his office to live out its life in a terrarium.

“I always try to bring my man back alive,” he says.

Minami and two colleagues have caught well over a hundred coqui in neighborhoods all over the island, from Kailua to Kapolei, Haleiwa to Hawaii Kai. He’s combed the landscaping of mansions at Diamond Head and Portlock, he’s staked out foliage in Waikiki into the wee hours of the morning, he’s stalked frogs in the garden department of Home Depot, and time after time he’s been called back to plant nurseries in Waimanalo, a perennial coqui hot spot.
 

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Coqui Sounds: Courtesy Hawaii Ecosystems at Risk Project
 

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