The Hawaiʻi ʻōʻō was first described by Blasius Merrem in 1786. It had an overall length of 32 centimetres (13 in), wing length of 11–11.5 centimetres (4.3–4.5 in), and tail length of up to 19 centimetres (7.5 in). The colour of its plumage was glossy black with a brown shading at the belly. It was further characterized by yellowish tufts at the axillaries. It had some yellowish plumes on its rump, but lacked yellow thigh feathers like the Bishop's ʻōʻō, and also lacked the whitish edgings on its tail feathers like the Oʻahu ʻōʻō. However it had the largest yellow plumes on its wings out of all the species of ʻōʻō.
At the time of discovery by Europeans, it was still relatively common on the Big Island, but that was soon to change. The Hawaiʻi ʻōʻō was extensively hunted by Native Hawaiians. Its striking plumage was used for ʻaʻahu aliʻi (robes), ʻahu ʻula (capes), and kāhili (feathered staffs) of aliʻi (Hawaiian nobility). The Europeans too saw the striking beauty of this bird and hunted many of them for specimens in personal collections. Some were even caught and put in cages to be sold as song birds only to live for a few days or weeks before diseases from mosquitoes befell them. The decline of this bird was hastened by both natives and Europeans by the introduction of the musket which allowed hunter and collectors to shoot birds down from far away places and from great heights and numbers. As late as 1898, hunters were still able to kill over a thousand of the birds, but after that year the ʻōʻō population declined rapidly. The birds became too rare to be shot in any great quantities, but continued to be found for nearly 30 years. The last known sighting was in 1934 on the slopes of Mauna Loa.