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Hawaii’s state bird makes a comeback. Where to see nene in the wild

Nene, Hawaii’s state bird
A nene in flight over hardened lava at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawaii.
(Janice Wei / National Park Service)

Hawaii’s state bird is making a comeback. The nene (prounounced “nay-nay”) dwindled to fewer than 100 birds in the wild; today that number is greater than 3,000. Earlier in December, the native goose was removed from the endangered species list — but that doesn’t mean they’re easy for visitors to see.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park does not share nene locations or lead nene watching tours due to the vulnerability of this endemic species,” spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane wrote in an email.

Nene, Hawaii’s state bird
Drivers in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are warned to be on the lookout for nene, which frequent roads in the park.
(Janice Wei / National Park Service)

Still, it’s OK for bird-watchers to search on their own. “Our message to visitors is to slow down while driving in the park and look out for nene,” she adds. “Some nene are attracted to roadsides to eat grass, and sometimes they wander into the road and can be hit by cars.” The park, home to roughly 10% of the state’s nene population, posts signs cautioning drivers to be careful.

Hawaii at one time had nine species of geese, likely evolved from the Canada goose, the park’s website says. Only the nene still thrives. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt traveled to Hawaii on Dec. 9 to announce the species was downlisted to “threatened” after a decades-long captive breeding program. “Through collaboration and hard work, the nene is out of intensive care and on a pathway to recovery,” he said.

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Not all of Hawaii’s endemic birds are so lucky.

Akiapolaau bird from Hawaii
Akiapolaau birds are found only on the island of Hawaii.
(Rich Downs)

“Hawaii is the endangered species capital of the world, and our birds are feeling it worse than ever,” says Maxx Phillips, the director of Hawaii’s Center for Biological Diversity in Honolulu. “The situation is quite grave for many species.”

“Many ... are down to maybe 150 to 300 birds,” says Jack Jeffrey, a wildlife biologist who has studied the Big Island’s birds for more than 30 years.

Several of Hawaii’s bird species, such as the yellow-and-green-feathered akiapolaau, a species of honeycreeper, live in a single habitat on the slopes of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano.

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“It pecks into the wood of dead and dying trees … and finds wood-boring larvae,” Jeffrey says. “It pecks with its lower bill and then uses that long, thin upper bill to reach into the hole, hook the insect and pick it out.”

The akiapolaau spends a full year teaching its young to thrive. “It takes a long time to learn how to use that weird bill,” he says.

Tern on Hawaii
A tern with a baby chick.
(Rich Downs)

Over on Oahu, it’s relatively easy for Honolulu visitors to spot white terns, a sea bird native to Hawaii. The terns love city life, which takes them away from predators such as rats and owls. “It’s safer for them to breed there,” says Rich Downs, an amateur ornithologist who focuses on terns, or Manu-o-Ku in the Hawaiian language.

Once a month, Downs leads visitors and locals on free walking tours on Oahu. He will lead a tour of tern habitats at 9 a.m. Jan. 18 in Waikiki, starting at the Royal Hawaiian Center, 2201 Kalakaua Ave. “We put blue ribbons on trees when we find an egg or a chick in it with information about the terns,” he says. “We connect people who come to town with the terns.”

Pueo, a native Hawaiian owl
The pueo, a native Hawaiian owl, is one of many endemic birds on the endangered species list.
(Pierce M. Myers / Hawaii Tourism Authority)

Downs and others hope the tern, which is not endangered, can serve as a “gateway bird” to draw attention to vulnerable species on the islands, such as the pueo, a type of short-eared owl.

“It really is a sad story when you look at the other native Hawaiian species,” Downs says. “The numbers aren’t good.”


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