The state bird of Hawai’i is the Nēnē. It is also the rarest goose in the world – in fact it’s one of the most endangered waterfowl species on earth. Efforts to increase the nēnē population are ongoing and have been successful.
History and decline
The nene are a close relation to the much larger Canadian goose and first migrated to the islands approximately 500,000 years ago. Since their arrival they have adapted to their environment, developing padded toes and claws – most likely in order to navigate the lava rock terrain.
At one time during the 1700s the population of the nēnē likely exceeded 25,000. However, due to changes brought about by the arrival of the Europeans (such as agriculture changes to the environment, and the introduction of predators) the population went into decline.
The decline of the nēnē was almost permanent. By the turn of the 20th century nēnē were only found on the Big Island and by 1950 there were just 30 birds still alive.
The nene is a medium-sized goose. They grow to about 25 inches and have a black head, gray/brown body, and webbed feet. They can be found in volcanic areas, alpine grasslands, and in pastures in rural locations. They can live in locations from sea level to 8,000 feet. There are now populations of nēnē on all major Hawaiian Islands. Their diet consists of leaves, seeds and various fruits. Their breeding season runs from October to March. The nēnē mate for life and their nests are built on the ground, making them vulnerable to predators. The nēnē young remain flightless for the first 4-6 weeks.
Dogs, rats, cats, pigs and the mongoose, are all predators of the nēnē. Indirectly – cattle, pigs and goats affect the nēnē by altering their physical environment and potentially disrupting access to food. Management of nēnē populations on Maui now include predator control initiatives such as fences.
The nēnē became the state bird in 1957. Nēnē, in Hawaiian, means “to chirp, as a cricket; to croak… whimpering, as a sleeping infant.” It is pronounced ‘nay-nay’.
By 1990 more than 2,000 nēnē had been returned to their native habitats as a result of captive breeding programs. The program at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park also focused their efforts on controlling predators and improving the conditions of the nēnē’s habitat. As a result of programs like this, and on other islands (Maui, Oahu and Kaua’i), there are now approximately 3,200 nēnē in Hawai’i.
Where to see them
The best place to see the nēnē on the Big Island is Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. They are often seen on lava fields, in the Crater Rim Trail area, and also near the road itself (Crater Rim Drive) – keep an eye out for the ‘Nēnē Crossing’ signs!
You might also see them on the Pu‘u Wa‘awa‘a ʻŌhiʻa Trail (just north of Kona) – for more information https://hawaiibirdingtrails.hawaii.gov/birding_hotspot/puu-waawaa-halapepe-and-ʻohiʻa-trails/
The nēnē population continues to be monitored but still faces significant challenges to their survival from the many introduced predators.