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.