Saving the State Bird
by Veronica S.
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
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
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
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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