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Nene Awareness Day

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Honk if You Like Nene

A nene shows off its beautiful ruffled neck feathers, which are unique to this species.

On September 26, 2010, the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) hosted an open house to celebrate the 5th annual Nene Awareness Day in recognition of Hawaii’s endangered state bird, the nene or Hawaiian goose Branta sandvicensis. We welcomed over 150 visitors throughout the day who were treated to newly created educational displays, a tour around our recently refurbished nene pens (see post Nene: Movin’ On Up) and a presentation on the history of nene conservation over the last 100 years.

A popular exhibit was our Native Plant Walk, which was an informative display of the native Hawaiian flora we use throughout our facility for bird enrichment, diet supplementation, and for perches in our aviaries. Another hit with our visitors was an interactive display of how much the birds actually weigh. Did you know that an adult nene weighs as much as a large two-liter bottle of soda? Or a newly-hatched nene gosling weighs about the same as a pack of playing cards?

Amy gives a presentation on Nene Awareness Day.

We welcomed 14 students and 5 teachers from the Maui High School Treehuggers Group. These students learned all about the nene, and one “treehugger” followed up with our staff after the event to write a senior research project.

Nene once had a population estimated at around 25,000 across the Hawaiian Islands. But by the early 1900s, their numbers were reduced to less than 100, mainly by unsustainable hunting, the introduction of mammalian predators, and the destruction of wetland habitat. The State of Hawaii launched its own propagation program in 1949 at Pohakuloa on the Big Island. Meanwhile, a small captive flock was also maintained at the ranch of Herbert Shipman. At that time, there were estimated to be little more than 40 birds.

Intern Charlene Castillo gets excited at an interactive, educational display for young visitors on Nene Awareness Day.

As a Brit myself, I am proud to tell you that a British naturalist and the trust he founded—Sir Peter Scott and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT)—were leading proponents in conservation efforts for the nene. Sir Peter and his team proved very successful at rearing nene in captivity, and during the 1960s, 126 nene reared at the WWT in the United Kingdom were flown over to Maui for release at the Haleakala Crater.

The Pohakuloa propagation effort was eventually relocated to our current facility here in Maui. Once known as the Olinda Endangered Species Propagation Facility, the Maui Bird Conservation Center has continued to play a major role in the captive breeding and reintroduction efforts for the nene. Since the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program took over management of MBCC in 1996, over 425 captive-reared nene have been released onto the islands of Kauai, Maui, Molokai and the Big Island.

Amy Kilshaw is a research associate for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research at the Maui Bird Conservation Center.

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Nene: Movin’ On Up

MBCC staff release nene into their new home.

Red Rocket (#14) and NU (#30), our two oldest nene (or Hawaiian geese), have been around long enough to see plenty of changes. Both birds were hatched in the wild and came to live at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) in 1987 and 1992 respectively. They were moved in 1996 from mosquito-proof buildings with concrete floors to outdoor pens with grass. Now they have brand-spanking-new pens, luxury suites of the nene world! Not only were the old pens past their use-by date, but they will soon be demolished to make space for new ‘alala (or Hawaiian crow) aviaries that will be constructed this fall (see Corvid Cupid).

An aerial view shows the new pens for nene.

Aaron’s Construction recently finished building four sturdy new pens to house our nene. Each pen comes furnished with a tented mesh “roof,” so adults and their goslings can remain fully flighted and ready for release. They have also been constructed of strong wire mesh walls to keep rats and mongoose at bay, and, of course, each pen comes equipped with shelter, hoses for easy cleaning, food stations, and pools for bathing and keeping cool in the summertime. We will keep a total of four pairs of nene, with our sights set on a goal of producing at least 75 birds over the next five years; all will be released at Haleakala Ranch as part of the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife’s commitment to this safe harbor agreement.

Roy Newton offers a traditional Hawaiian blessing for the nene.

Following local cultural practice, and to prepare our nene for what we hope will be a fruitful life, required the help of a Hawaiian minister. On June 3, Roy Newton visited MBCC to deliver a Hawaiian/English blessing over the new pens and anointed each with a mixture of water and Hawaiian salt so that any animal entering them will be protected. NU and Rocket moved into their new home directly after the blessing, along with the rest of the nene flock at MBCC.

We hope NU and Rocket will be around to see many more happy changes. In the meantime, they are ready to offer a warm welcome and plenty of aloha spirit to MBCC visitors during Nene Awareness Day (mark your calendars for September 26)! Read about last year’s Nene Awareness Day.

Sharon Belcher is a senior research associate for the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read her previous post, ‘Alala Takes Extraordinary Flight.

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Nene Awareness Day

nene_flappingFor 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.

A display includes a nene nest tub with sample eggs.

A display includes a nene nest tub with sample eggs.

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.

Amy talks about nene with young visitors.

Amy talks about nene with young visitors.

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.