The Hawaiian goose, or nene (pronounced “nay nay”), is the state bird of Hawaii. In the 1950s only slightly more than two dozen were in existence. Today, thanks to recovery plans of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the total number of nenes is believed to be approaching a thousand. I have long wanted to see a nene in the wild, so on a recent trip to Hawaii I was determined to finally make that wish come true.
In the late 1700s Captain James Cook dropped in from England to say hi to the Polynesian inhabitants and suggest they call their home the Sandwich Islands. At that time the strange little goose inhabited most if not all of the major Hawaiian Islands. Tens of thousands were running around. The Hawaiians were not interested in changing the name of their homeland, and about the closest thing to the term “Sandwich Islands” you will hear in Hawaii today is in the nene’s scientific name – Branta sandvicensis.
The Hawaiians killed Captain Cook, but not because he was a threat to the nene population. Though problems did increase for the unusual bird, a few were able to survive the rats that inadvertently arrived by boat and the onset of hunting by new settlers to the islands. The intentional introduction of mongooses for the futile exercise of ridding the commercial sugarcane fields of rats came later. Despite these various threats, the nene was able to escape the sad fate of the dodo.
Among the world’s geese, several are native to the continental United States. The most common are Canada geese, which travel up and down much of the country during migratory seasons. DNA analyses indicate that the Canada goose is the closest relative of the nene. Apparently, half a million years ago or so, a flock of Canada geese ended up on one of the Hawaiian islands. Isolated from those on the mainland, these geese eventually evolved into a new species, the nene.
Nenes do not migrate to any significant degree. (Why fly from one island to another that has the same climate?) They mostly walk around on lava slopes instead of swimming around in water, and they have less webbing on their feet than other geese. As for finding a nene in the wild, I had to work at it. First, I traveled to the top of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (elev. 4,000 feet) on the Big Island and stopped at every Nene Crossing sign to look around in the brush growing on the surface of exposed lava rock. No nene.
Then I traveled to the island of Maui, where I headed to the top of Haleakala National Park. At an elevation of 10,000 feet, this national park is considerably cooler than most parts of Hawaii. (That was the only time I wore a jacket during our trip.) Again, no nenes. A park ranger told me she had seen one after she had worked at the park for three months. Dismayed, I set out for Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on the island of Kauai.
My wife gets credit for spotting the bird, a majestic male nene standing on a rock with a view of waves crashing against a rocky cliff far below. The goose paid no attention to us as we took picture after picture of it. Clearly, it would have been easy prey for mongooses (which were never introduced on Kauai) or any human bent on making a meal of it. I was happy to have finally seen this rare and elusive bird. And I felt an odd sense of gratification at observing, in its natural habitat, an animal that might now be extinct without human intervention.
In the interest of full disclosure I should mention the reason I had never seen a nene before: this was my first trip to Hawaii, which is the only place nenes occur in the wild. I hope they will still be there on my next visit. (Next week: Hawaii’s silversword.)
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Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.