If you’re lucky, early in the evening you may hear a soft honk echo across a blue Kauai sky. Look up, and you might catch sight of the majestic Hawaiian Nene riding a gentle trade wind in a synchronized flock, or two by two. Our beloved state bird is an awesome sight, and one that was almost lost forever.
The Hawaiian Nene (Branta sandvicensis) is endemic to Hawaii, meaning it is found nowhere else, and is a close relative of the Canadian Goose. The male is slightly larger than the female, but otherwise they are identical, with black heads, cream-colored cheeks, and black and white striped necks. It is believed Canadian Geese migrated to the islands hundreds of thousands of years ago and evolved to adapt to their unique environment. Nene are smaller than Canadian Geese and have developed a shorter wingspan in response to the fact that they don’t migrate and rarely fly. After millennia of gripping lava rock, their feet have evolved into a unique half web, half claw hybrid. Nene have become mostly land dwellers due to the lack of fresh water lakes in the islands, and are even reported to mate outside of the water, a feat no other goose can claim.
Before westerners arrived Nene were prolific, numbering in the tens of thousands, and happily inhabiting all of the major Hawaiian Islands. By the mid nineteen hundreds there were less than 30 in existence. There are several factors that make the Nene particularly vulnerable to threat. They nest in the wet winter months (September to March), and have the longest nesting season of any goose. Female Nene build their nests on the ground out of grass and feathers, lay 1-5 eggs, and patiently tend them for a month. The male, her life-long mate, lovingly stands guard. Once born, the goslings are flightless for up to three months, and during this same time the adults replace their feathers and are unable to fly. Introduced mammals such as feral pigs, dogs, cats, and especially mongoose, which thankfully have not invaded Kauai, present the biggest threat to Nene eggs, babies, and molting adults. Loss of habitat is also an issue as the islands continue to develop, and before they received protection, Nene were hunted for sport. In the 1940’s it became legal to hunt Nene during their vulnerable winter nesting months, which almost led to their complete eradication. Conservation efforts began around 1950, and in 1957 the beautiful Nene was named the official state bird of Hawaii. Since then heroic efforts have been made to save the Nene. Breeding and reintroduction have built their numbers back up into the thousands. There are healthy populations on the Big Island, Maui, and Kauai, but they remain on the endangered list.
Nene are vegetarians. They subsist on local berries and grasses, and apparently, taro. Lately there has been some contention between the Nene and the taro farmers in Hanalei Valley on Kauai’s north shore. The Nene are eating up mature taro plants and causing huge losses to the local farmers. Taro is used to make poi, which is still a main staple in the local diet. All efforts are being made to find a creative solution that benefits both farmer and fowl.
Unfortunately, as car traffic increases in the islands, Nene are often hit by careless drivers. So please keep your eyes peeled for our sweet, feathered friends while exploring Kauai. Nene are shy, so if you encounter one respectfully keep your distance, and be thankful for the opportunity to witness another uniquely Hawaiian miracle.
You can also visit the Kilauea Lighthouse Bird sanctuary and Preserve, along with other various activities, during your stay at one of our Kauai real estate homes.