Nene - Saving the State Bird

by Veronica S. Schweitzer

The Nene - Hawaiian Goose.

Legend? Actually, the shy Hawaiian Goose (Branta Sandvicensis), unique to the islands, seems to have missed out on the great mythologies of the Hawaiian people, although it is mentioned in the Kumulipo, the great creation chant, as a guardian. And the historian David Malo writes how the Hawaiian people loved the nene both for its flesh and for its soft feathers to make their kahili (feather standards).

Perhaps the bird, unlike its migratory friends, was too secretive and too modest in its daily endeavors and perhaps certain stories and chants, all orally transmitted, have disappeared, vulnerable to the erosion of time.

At the time that Captain Cook arrived around 25,000 gentle birds flocked around the island¹s of Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. With him and his successors the natural balance of the islands changed. Deforested lowlands, trading, and development caused upheaval of habitat. Newly introduced predators, such as rats, mongooses, wild dogs and cats, made easy meals of the helpless nene. And, not understanding the nene's cycle, hunters killed breeding nene in Winter time. By 1950 the nene was flying toward extinction, with less than a 50 bird population existing in Hawaii.

On May 7, 1957, the rare and now deeply missed nene became the official state bird of the Hawaiian islands. Who is this soft-spoken, long-neglected bird? Standing almost upright, with light-yellow cheeks, smoky-black feet and legs, and a striped pattern of buff-gold feather-tips against a black feather-base on its neck, the nene has adapted to the arid and desolate lava fields of the Hawaiian islands. It scrambles along over the rough terrain with partially webbed feet, hunting for carefully selected leaves, berries, and grass blades. While it eats it moans the soft nay-nay sound after which it is named.

Nene breed in the Fall and Winter. The female incubates 1-5 eggs for 30 days while her often life-long partner watches guard. After hatching, the goslings won't fledge for another 2 1/2 to 3 months. This is also the time that the adults replace their feathers and are temporarily flightless. It is the most vulnerable time for the nene as a flock. After this vulnerable period the nene can reach the age of 25, perhaps older, if allowed.

Thanks to funding and restoration efforts the nene has made a partial comeback. On the island of Hawaii, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, an original habitat for the nene, has developed a carefully monitored recovery program. Open-topped pens provide lava and open-pasture settings where nene can breed protected from predators. In addition, the Park attempts to enhance foraging habitats for wild-nesting nene by mowing certain areas, planting native food-plants, closing places off from visitors, and supplementing food and water in safe locations.

The fight against non-native predators, for the sake of nene eggs, goslings, and adults, is an ongoing struggle for the Park. Goslings have a hard time surviving, with predation, starvation, and careless drivers all hitting the youngsters hard. Perhaps because of poor nutrition, a relatively low percentage of adult birds attempts to breed.

In the summer of 1997 the total nene count for the state came to a mere 890, with 375 nene on the Big Island. There are now 200 nene in the Park.

The nene has made headlines for itself, without asking for it. A legend in and of its own. But it is still as vulnerable as ever and maybe even more. It is still listed as endangered. An ancient Hawaii bird that carries the history of an island in its genes is struggling to survive. It could disappear, just as the stories did. Let's not have that happen.

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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.