Return of the Nene in Hawaii?

Centuries after going extinct on Oahu, the Hawaiian goose is back—maybe.


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Oahu’s entire wild nene population consists of these five birds, photographed in March.
photo: courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife service
 

Will they stay, or will they go?

That’s the big question surrounding the family of nene that took up residence on the North Shore earlier this year.

The parents and their three goslings, who have a nest among the reeds at the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge near Kahuku, are the first wild nene to set webbed foot on Oahu in recorded history.

As delighted as wildlife managers are by the birds’ appearance here, they say it wasn’t entirely unexpected. “None of us who work with nene were surprised,” says Annie Marshall, a wildlife biologist and the resident nene expert at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the refuge. “You know, they’re birds, and they fly and, like humans, they want to go home.”

Home for the two adults was originally Kauai, and nene watchers like Marshall suspect they were trying to get back there when they made a stopover on Oahu to lay eggs.

Identified by their leg bands as K-49 and K-60, the two adults originally lived at the Kauai Lagoons golf course. Nene have thrived on mongoose-free Kauai since the 1980s, when a group of captive birds escaped during Hurricane Iwa. The golf course, with its large ponds and nutritious young grass, became an especially attractive home for them.

But the golf course stretches between the two runways of the Lihue Airport, and as nene numbers there grew, so did fears that a wayward bird would get sucked into a jet engine or smash through a cockpit window, causing an air disaster.

Efforts to relocate the nene to other parts of the island failed, as the birds easily flew home to the golf course. Finally, with more than 500 nene waddling and winging around the fairways, the state launched a campaign to move the birds off-island. In early 2012, K-49 and K-60 were among the hundreds of birds captured and released on the Big Island, 260 miles away. The pair was last spotted there in June 2013, then turned up on Oahu in January 2014.

After spending a week around the fifth hole of the Mid Pacific Country Club in Kailua, they moved to the 164-acre James Campbell Refuge, a rich wetland with the benefit of a year-round predator-control program. Their goslings hatched in March, and they are expected to have their wing feathers by this month. If the family is moving on, it could happen any time this summer, the nene flocking season.

Should the birds return to Kauai Lagoons, they’ll be captured and relocated again, says Marie Morin, a wildlife program manager with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. “Oahu was never part of the plan,” Morin says. “But now that they’re here, I hope they’re going to stay.”
 

TO THE BRINK OF EXTINCTION AND BACK

Fossils reveal that nene, branta sandvicensis, once lived throughout the Hawaiian Islands, but by the late 1700s, when European naturalists began recording such things, they could be found only on the Big Island. The introduction of new predators, such as cats and mongoose, hastened their decline. By the 1950s, there were only an estimated 30 nene left in the world. With the help of captive breeding programs, they have sprung back. There are now an estimated 2,500 birds on Maui, Molokai, Kauai, the Big Island and—for now, at least—Oahu.

Did you know? The nene was named the emblem of the Territory of Hawaii in 1957. It wasn’t until 1988 that the state Legislature  named it the state bird.

Read More Stories by David Thompson

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