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What is the State Bird of Hawaii? (And Why?)

Hawaii is a small island state located 2,000 miles west of the US mainland. It is the 47th smallest state and the 40th most populous with a population of just over 1.4 million people. The state animal for Hawaii is the Hawaiian monk seal, but what is the state bird?

The state of Hawaii chose the Nene (Branta sandwicensis), also known as the Hawaiian Goose, as the state bird in 1957. The large-sized, cream, tan, and black-colored, nene (pronounced nay nay) bird endemic to the island of Hawaii differs remarkably from the rest of the goose family. This endangered bird is the only of nine goose species on the island that retained the ability to fly; the others devolved, becoming flightless.

Close up of a Nene or Hawaiian Goose

Close up of a Nene or Hawaiian Goose

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Why is the Nene goose the state bird for Hawaii?

The Aloha state, Hawaii, chose the nene, also known as Hawaiian goose, for its state bird. The nene once populated the islands, but now only about 2,000 to 4,000 birds remain. Hawaii chose the nene as its official bird as part of a public education campaign to educate its populace on the importance of preserving nature and native species. It also successfully lobbied for the addition of the nene to the Federal List of Endangered Species in 1967.

The state of Hawaii has worked with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) in England to raise nene outside of Hawaii, then reintroduce the foreign-reared birds to the state. This helps reduce inbreeding. In 1949, only 20 to 30 birds remained, but the late Sir Peter Scott took two of the birds to England and bred them. To date, more than 200 birds have spawned from the two relocated birds and been reintroduced to the Hawaiian islands.

When did the Nene become the state bird for Hawaii?

The state of Hawaii waited until 1957 to name its official bird. At the time, Hawaii remained a US territory, as did Alaska. Both became states in 1959. Technically, Hawaii had a state bird before it became a state.

The Hawaiian Goose is sometimes also referred to as the Nene Duck

The Hawaiian Goose is sometimes also referred to as the Nene Duck

What does the state bird of Hawaii look like?

If you have ever seen a Canadian goose, the nene looks a lot like it. Both feature a blackhead with a matching crown, bill, feet, and face. This contrasts with their cream-colored neck that segues into brown or gray plumage. Scientists believe the nene evolved from the Canadian goose, traveling to the island by floating on debris.

From head to tail, the nene measures up to 25 inches in length. Its wingspan ranges from 11 to 12 inches. These little birds don’t weigh much – only 3.3 pounds to 6.6 pounds.

How do Nenes behave?

These birds live in the wild on the islands of Hawaiʻi, Kauaʻi, Maui, Molokai, and Oahu. They marry and remain monogamous for life. When two birds find themselves attracted to one another, the male Hawaiian goose begins a subtle courtship by chasing off any rival males who approach. This lets the female goose know he cares. These geese typically nest from October and March, but their nesting season can lengthen, beginning as early as August and not ending until April.

The female nene lays one to five eggs per brood. These oval-shaped, cream or white-colored may splotch as the bird incubates them. Incubation requires 30 to 32 days, in which the male nene guards the nest and cares for his mate. The couple has just one brood per year.

Once hatched, the nene goslings only need a few hours before they’re ready to toddle out of the nest to feed themselves. Their parents supervise these meals. The babies learn to fly at about the age of 80 days, but it may take up to 100 days of life before they soar. For about a year, they fly with the flock their parents belong to, they may strike out on their own. Their parents will busy themselves with the next breeding season, making siblings for the baby birds. By the age of two to three years, young nenes reach sexual maturity and begin the search for their own partner. They will also build a nest, court, marry, and mate, producing a brood of goslings each year.

Hawaiian Goose with goslings

Hawaiian Goose with goslings

Do nenes form communities?

Nenes form nuclear families within a flock, so they do belong to a community. They do not share their nest, however. The flock makes small migratory adjustments together.

Nenes typically make their homes on elevated volcanic slopes in the areas propagated by scrub vegetation. They also favor settling isolated areas in grasslands, pastures, and scrub forests. The Hawaiian geese aren’t picky about human contact, so if they spot a park or golf course they like, they’ll build their home there. You just play through it without touching or harming the bird because that would create a federal offense for which you get charged a $50,000 fine.

What do nenes eat?

The nene dines on a menu of berries, flowers, leaves, and seeds. Its vegetarian diet features many tropical delights. While most birds have a small list of items they consume, the Hawaiian goose eats more than 30 species of plants, most native to the state, but a few introduced.

Hawaiian Nene foraging for food

Hawaiian Nene foraging for food

How does the nene differ from other geese?

The preference of the nene is to live the entire year in the same habitat. While they’re the only geese on the islands that can fly, they can’t fly for long distances. They migrate short distances within the islands to find better food sources. While the other eight goose types can’t fly at all, the nene can fly in very short bursts.

They don’t swim either. You’ll rarely see these birds in the water. When they do enter the water, they are apt to walk in it or wade in it.

Their feet evolved for walking and lack some of the webbing that other types of geese possess. Their feet also evolved to provide a better grip on the volcanic terrain of the island. They evolved for walking and don’t waddle as other geese do.

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