For the third consecutive year, the staff and interns at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC), a captive propagation facility of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program, found themselves floating among a sea of excited school children and curious visitors. On September 26, we opened our doors to the public to celebrate Nene Awareness Day, a day recognized by Hawaii to honor its state bird, the nene.
The nene, or Hawaiian goose, has come to symbolize one of the natural wonders of the Hawaiian Islands. But like many of Hawaii’s native flora and fauna, human activities and introduced animals reduced the nene population to as few as 30 birds in the wild and 13 birds in captivity. Recognizing that the species was endangered, conservation biologists in the late 1940s undertook a captive breeding program to assist in population recovery.MBCC plays a significant role in recovering the species. Since the inception of the conservation center, more than 400 captive-hatched nene have been released by the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife. Through a combination of conservation efforts and breeding programs, the nene population is increasing, and the total number is estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000, with each of the island populations being supplemented by captive-reared birds. Despite the reintroduction success of the nene to the islands, the species remains vulnerable, and it is important that residents of Hawaii understand the challenges facing nene recovery so that we can all assist in the effort. Nene Awareness Day gives us an opportunity to showcase our conservation work through educational and entertaining displays, demonstrations, and activities. Approximately 100 visitors were treated to an opening talk, a brief facility tour, and diverse exhibits designed by staff and interns. The aim of our exhibits was to connect visitors to the science of wildlife conservation through hands-on participation. For example, guests candled real eggs while we explained embryology concepts used to determine the age and health of the embryo. Visitors examined our incubators and hatchers and they practiced chick feeding using “parent bird” puppets. Our veterinary clinic exhibit showcased our medical equipment and allowed guests to examine actual X rays. Another display highlighted the various types of nest boxes used during the breeding season.
We also displayed the field equipment we use to transport birds to our release sites. In the “Keiki Zone”, children made enrichment items for the birds, practiced their bird-watching skills, and identified real feathers, eggs, and nests. Guests, children and adults alike, enjoyed posing in our giant nene cutout. The crowning activity, of course, was viewing two of our charismatic nene, Little Mickey and Red Rocket.
Through this open house, MBCC biologists hope the local community will join us in our conservation goals and aid in the stewardship of natural resources. Together we can keep the endangered nene from going extinct.
Amy Poopatanapong is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo’s Maui Bird Conservation Center.