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Meet the Guardians of the Nēnē Who Are Helping to Save Hawai‘i’s Endangered Bird

On private lands across Hawai‘i, generations of families and ranchers have hosted and cared for the endangered nēnē, playing a key role in bringing our state bird back from the brink of extinction. Their stories weave a tale of resilience, passion and community strength.


Published:

Update as of Dec. 8, 2019: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the nēnē is downlisted from endangered to threatened in December. This story was originally published in the July 2019 issue of HONOLULU Magazine.

 

flock together

 

No matter where Peggy Farias goes, nēnē follow.

 

They show up in every shape and form, at the most unexpected times and places. They filled her childhood, congregating on her family’s sprawling Big Island estate in Hā‘ena as uninvited (and hungry) guests at countless picnics, overzealous wedding escorts (once chasing her cousin down the aisle) and beloved family members returning home to mate after a long absence.

 

They followed her 5,010 miles away to Harvard University, popping up in the form of a 15-cent red Reyn Spooner nēnē-printed aloha shirt she found in the heart of Boston while shopping for Halloween costumes. And they inspired her to pursue a career in environmental science.

 

It seems the nēnē have finally caught up with Farias, now president of her family’s land management and development company, W.H. Shipman. In her Kea‘au office, they are everywhere: a fluffy stuffed animal on the shelf, a painting and three portraits hanging on the walls, and printed on every piece of paper and correspondence. The birds are even on coasters, as the company’s logo. They still roam freely on her family’s Hā‘ena estate, and every once in a while, they can be seen flying above the office.

 

“It’s not something I thought about before, but looking back, they were always there,” says Farias, 42. “Whether it was the nēnē seeking me out or just fate, I can’t figure it out. It was kind of like, I was never going to escape them.”

 

The nēnē’s and her family’s histories are deeply intertwined. As our state bird neared extinction several decades ago, Farias’ great-great-uncle, Herbert Shipman, raised flocks of the endemic geese on the family’s land, eventually working with the state to start a captive-breeding program. A 1950s photo of Shipman watching over a flock at Hā‘ena hangs at the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park visitor center. That same picture (below) is preserved in the company’s archives, a treasure trove and testament to Shipman’s conservation efforts. Farias knows her uncle would be proud that they’ve continued his legacy.

 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials credit the private landowners who volunteer to host the birds, like Shipman, for their vital role in the species’ 61-year road to recovery. Their collective efforts have been so successful that the federal agency proposed downlisting the nēnē last year from endangered to the slightly less serious threatened status. While that effort is ongoing, the nēnē’s story continues.

 


SEE ALSO: Bad News for O‘ahu’s Nēnē Population: We’re Down to Zero


Flock together

Herbert Shipman with a flock at Hā‘ena in the 1950s.

 

The Road to Recovery


 

It all started with a pair of nēnē 101 years ago.

 

As the youngest son of William and Mary Shipman, Herbert Shipman was never meant to take over the family’s ranching business. But that changed when his older brother died of cancer in his 20s. By that time, Shipman’s place in the family had allowed him to develop his undeniable passion for conservation. Farias, a Hilo native and Waiākea High grad, and her dad, Tom English, tell the stories of how Uncle Herbert, a no-nonsense, stern man, collected rare plants and grew them in his greenhouse, known as the orchard quarantine, which still sits in the back of their Hā‘ena estate.

 

He also developed an affinity for the nēnē at a young age. It began in 1918. Barbara Ann Andersen, Farias’ cousin, recalls that Shipman and his mom were visiting family in Kona when he looked out the window and saw a gaggle. The family’s story goes that the mother goose ran away, frightened, and left the goslings to fend for themselves. Shipman took a pair of them back to Hā‘ena with him and began rearing and breeding his own flock. He eventually took over as company president in 1943 after his dad died.

 

“For Uncle Herbert, the nēnē were near and dear to his heart,” Farias says. “A lot of the nēnē now were in some way descended from our family’s efforts. It’s tremendously cool to have that history.”

 

At that time, the species was facing a bleak future. Scientists believe the first Canadian geese arrived in the Hawaiian Islands prior to the Polynesians, around A.D. 400, and evolved a shorter wingspan and half-webbed feet to walk on lava. It is estimated that 25,000 were in Hawai‘i prior to Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778, but by 1952, the population had dwindled to a mere 30, a result of hunting, predation and loss of habitat.

 


SEE ALSO: Hawai‘i’s Endangered Nēnē Photo Gallery


sunset

Video: courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

 

The state intervened and began a captive-breeding program in 1949 using two pairs given to them by Shipman. Those birds were released in 1960 and eventually bred and multiplied.

 

But the comeback took time and diligence. Nēnē typically nest in lowland areas, where people can disrupt them. The geese also molt their feathers, which means they cannot fly during that time, making them especially vulnerable to mongooses and rats. A study conducted between 1978 and 1981 at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park found that 77% of their eggs were ravaged by mongooses.

 

In 1967, the nēnē was listed as an endangered species, and in the years after, about 2,800 captive-bred birds were released at more than 20 sites statewide, including national parks, wildlife refuges and private lands.

 

Some of Shipman’s nēnē were also sent to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in England, one of the world’s largest wetland conservation organizations, where they bred and were eventually sent back to Hawai‘i to be released.

 

“We walk hand in hand,” says Annie Marshall, a longtime USFWS biologist who specializes in nēnē. “The Shipman birds were very important in the early days of nēnē conservation. It’s still important that the public is engaged in helping us move forward.”

 


SEE ALSO: How Hawai‘i’s Endangered ‘Alalā is Slowly Making a Comeback


Nene bird

 

A Labor of Love


 

So many of Farias’ childhood memories involve the nēnē. There were the family picnics at Hā‘ena when they would “cruise by and be like, ‘OK, what do you have for us?’” Then there was one particular bird that Farias remembers as “not afraid of humans at all.” It would come right up to them and start grabbing food out of their hands. This was the same one that chased Farias’ cousin down the aisle at a family wedding at Hā‘ena: “The goose was trying to be in the wedding!” she jokes.

 

Then there was one mating season in the 1990s when several nēnē pairs hatched goslings. But eventually all of the goslings ended up with only one adult pair. Farias recalls the adorable sight of two adults with 12 goslings waddling behind them like hānai children. That is one of the photos (below) she took with her to Harvard.

 

English, the company’s former CFO who describes himself as “mostly retired,” remembers when he used to get in trouble for chasing the geese as a kid during the many summers and weekends spent at Hā‘ena. But he quickly learned that they were precious.

 

When asked what Shipman was like, Farias and English, 71, pause then burst into laughter. “From what I’ve heard, he was just a very difficult man to describe,” Farias says gently. Shipman died before she was born, but she’s heard enough stories to understand the man behind the bird. English takes a different approach, describing his uncle as a blunt, assertive man with a strong sense of purpose and undeniable old-school values—“that’s Herbert.”

 

“Looking back, they were always there. Whether it was the nēnē seeking me out or just fate, I can’t figure it out. It was kind of like, I was never going to escape them.” — Peggy Farias

 

That is evident in the dozens of letters, black-and-white photos, documents and newspaper clippings, yellowed with age, that the family has collected in cardboard boxes since the company’s founding in 1882. Shipman sent and received countless letters from family, friends, officials and others about the nēnē and his conservation work.

 

In a 1966 permit application to the USFWS that would allow him to rear migratory birds, Shipman wrote as the reason for applying: “I was the man who saved the nēnē from extinction and I wish to continue to propagate them.” The application only came after another disgruntled letter outlining the moment two government officials told him to apply for a permit to continue raising them. Farias chuckles and admits that some of his letters are “a little brusque.”

 

But Shipman’s correspondence also depicts a man whose curiosity drew in others. He replied to dozens of students asking for more information on the birds (all on the same yellow typewriter paper). He also invited many people to his Hā‘ena estate to see his flock.

 

His work was recognized in the November 1965 National Geographic—a slightly tattered copy sits in Farias’ office. Shipman, described by the writer as “an old-timer of Hilo,” expresses his frustration over the geese’s dwindling numbers. And in true Herbert Shipman style, he didn’t hold back: “I was distressed when they wasted those wonderful birds, but we still have others.”

 

“The nēnē was a special case, and it was Uncle Herbert’s special passion,” says Bill Walter, former company president and Farias’ cousin. “We continue to carry that with us.”

 

An important part of that legacy is the family’s serene 25-acre beachfront estate. Simply called “Hā‘ena” by the Shipmans, the land has been owned by the family since company founders William and Mary bought it in 1882.

 

We are just 15 minutes out of Hilo, but it feels like a different time and space. A long, winding dirt road opens up to a pristine plot of land with freshly mowed grass and palm trees swaying in the wind between two cozy homes.

 


SEE ALSO: Could Hawai‘i’s Endangered Native Crow Be Saved From Extinction?


swimming nene

video: jayna omaye

 

The sound of crashing waves at the makai end of the property mixes with vibrant bird calls. The endangered ae‘o (Hawaiian stilt) and the endemic auku‘u (black-crowned heron) fly overhead and land in trees lining a sequence of ponds that curve and bend like pieces of a puzzle. Patches of grass surround the edges of the water, with a small rock bridge connecting the two largest sections.

 

We turn our heads suddenly toward a loud squawking call—the ae‘o alerting the others of our arrival. Farias says it’s “scolding us.”

 

That’s when we spot them: the nēnē. A pair swims in the water while seven others graze on the grass. Farias seems mesmerized by one as it steps out of the water and flaps its wings, showing off its entire brown and white wingspan. “So majestic,” she says.

 

The nēnē are docile, curious creatures that seem a little unsure of our presence at first. Six make their way toward us—and two of them look like “someone just ruffled their feathers,” Farias says. That’s because they’re molting (shedding feathers to grow new ones). English, who’s wearing the now slightly faded Reyn Spooner nēnē-printed aloha shirt Farias bought in Boston about 20 years ago, teases, “Oh no, you got to grow some good feathers.” The spoken words immediately send the birds in the opposite direction. Farias jokes, “Oh no, don’t walk away all offended.”

 


SEE ALSO: A Snail’s Tale: Can Rare Hawaiian Land Snails Be Saved From Extinction?


Nene bird

A pair of adult nēnē mind some goslings at Hā‘ena in the 1990s.

 

At one point, English, an amateur birder who is constantly pulling out his iPhone to check his iBird Pro app, tells us to listen closely. We stop talking and lean closer to a flock. A long low-pitched moan breaks the silence. “They’re talking to each other,” he says excitedly.

 

Farias approaches another group and asks if they have “jewelry,” pointing to the colored bands on their feet. Each color marks where the birds were initially banded. Red and white means Hā‘ena.

 

As the day passes, Farias and English continue to banter with the nēnē. It’s obvious that the geese are living, breathing parts of their family. They joke with the birds, tease them, talk to them and marvel in their beauty. It’s a deep connection.

 

Throughout the rest of the estate, Farias points out wire cage traps that are meant to catch predators like mongooses and rats. English says the nēnē were kept in pens when Shipman first started breeding them. The breeding grounds were next to Shipman’s house, the same house that Farias plans to move into later this year.

 

Over the years, the company evolved from ranching to land management and development. But no matter what, the birds were always a priority. And the family didn’t profit off that work—the company received some government reimbursements in the 1980s and 1990s, but it wasn’t much, Farias says.

 

She mentions later in the day that she never thought she’d work for the family business, watching over the birds. English remembers that cousin Walter, then-company president, had approached him first, asking if he thought Farias would be interested in the job. He told Walter, “Well, I don’t think so, but you can ask her.

 

“And I’m glad he did,” he says with a smile.

 


SEE ALSO: Return of the Nēnē in Hawai‘i?


flock together

Peggy Farias and her dad, Tom English (who proudly dons a nēnē aloha shirt), carry on their family’s legacy as protectors of the birds.

 

A Shared Passion


 

The Shipmans didn’t do it alone. There were others like them who worked tirelessly to protect the nēnē.

 

One of them was the Baldwin family.

 

Of the more than 300 animals on his dad’s Maui ranch (mostly cattle and horses), Duke Baldwin always worried about the geese. It was the early 2000s and Baldwin, a pilot, had just gotten into a bad helicopter accident. It just so happened that a year before, his dad, Peter, had purchased Pi‘iholo Ranch and offered him a job there. He accepted.

 

His first job: managing the ranch’s nēnē pen. It was an undertaking that the father-son duo sought out because of their love for conservation. Peter Baldwin, a lifelong rancher, recalls seeing nēnē the first time he rode a horse near Haleakalā Ranch about 75 years ago. After seeing the birds in the wild, he became “very aware” of them.

 

It took them about a year to finalize their 14-page safe harbor agreement. When it was completed in September 2004, six nēnē were delivered to the ranch. That’s when the real work began.

 

The agreement meant setting up predator traps, constructing a 200-by-200-foot pen, maintaining 600 acres of habitat land, feeding them food provided by the state, constructing fencing several acres around the pen’s perimeter, putting together quarterly reports and working with wildlife staff regularly.

 

First thing each morning, Duke Baldwin would take his four-wheel drive out to the pen, about 15 minutes from the ranch’s headquarters, and make sure the nēnē were all accounted for. If he found babies making an escape, he’d quickly scoop them up and carry them back. For 10 years, that was his routine.

 


SEE ALSO: 10 Things You May Not Know About the Endangered Nēnē


nene

PHOTO: COURTESY OF U.S. Fish and wildlife service

 

“Everybody’s got cattle and horses, but there’s not a lot of nēnē around,” he says. “We felt we were doing something really good to help this native bird.”

 

Safe harbor agreements like the Baldwins’ allow private property owners to help endangered species recover through a government partnership, with the landowners providing the safe habitat space essential for endangered species. They aren’t paid or given tax breaks, but they are protected in case of any accidents involving the species. A detailed plan is laid out—this can take months to years to finalize—on how they will manage their land to suit the species and protect it from predators.

 

The first agreement for nēnē was signed in 2001 by a ranch on Moloka‘i, followed by Pi‘iholo Ranch in 2004. Last year, Kamehameha Schools finalized a 50-year safe harbor agreement covering seven native bird species, including nēnē, on 33,000 acres of forest and shrubland on the Big Island, the largest of its kind. The USFWS hopes others will follow.

 

While the Shipmans didn’t have an official agreement to breed and care for the nēnē until a 1966 permit, the family continues the legacy by laying predator traps and allowing the birds to roam freely on their land. (When Shipman first started caring for nēnē, no such program existed.)

 

The hard work has paid off so far—population estimates now exceed 3,000, with the biggest numbers on the Big Island and Kaua‘i. That includes about 75 nēnē on the Shipman property and in the surrounding area.

 

At Pi‘iholo, more than 100 birds were released over the next decade during a time when there were no other nēnē in the area. Some wild ones would show up and breed with the ranch’s banded females, increasing the population. The new colony also provided an opportunity—the ranch offers horseback riding, and tourists still love seeing and learning more about the nēnē.

 

Although the agreement spanned only 10 years (after that, the state stepped in), the Baldwins say wild nēnē still appear on the ranch. And that always puts a smile on Duke Baldwin’s face.

 

“It was unbelievable. We got quite attached to them,” says Baldwin, who now splits his time between Maui and Oregon. “To see them in the wild in general is pretty neat. A lot of people don’t realize how rare they were. It’s like a proud father seeing your kids out there.”

 


SEE ALSO: Inside HONOLULU: A Wild Goose Chase


population

O‘ahu is the only major Hawaiian island without any wild nēnē.

 

What (F)lies Ahead


 

We’re not at the finish line just yet.

 

As the population grows, Marshall, the USFWS biologist, says people need to be more aware and cautious of the birds. The Endangered Species Act prohibits “take” of any listed species, which means it’s illegal to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect them. Fines range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars and even possible jail time for violations.

 

The agency’s downlisting proposal—which would lift some of the property-use restrictions under the Endangered Species Act—would give greater flexibility to other landowners to step forward and host the nēnē. That doesn’t mean the birds would be more vulnerable—threatened and endangered species have the same levels of protection.

 

“They’re still under threats. There are still predators … and loss of habitat,” Marshall says. “We still need the public’s help. Without all of our partners, we’re never going to end up recovering the species.”

 

So, the nēnē will most likely always need our help to survive. At sites like Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, staff mow pastures, close some brooding areas to the public and maintain safe pen enclosures for nēnē to rest, feed and nest. Officials also continue to band and track them from a young age.

 

For Farias and English, the work is not done yet. Farias speaks candidly about how her parents taught her and her siblings to understand the privileges of being born into the Shipman family, and most importantly, to give back as much as they can. That’s why the family still takes its role as protectors so seriously, vowing to preserve Hā‘ena as a pu‘uhonua (refuge) for the family and wildlife that call it home.

 

“Our family has just been really honored to be a part of the nēnē’s story,” she says passionately. “They are part of our family.”

 

Read more stories by Jayna Omaye

 

 

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