Laurence Arnold

Hawaii's state bird hadn't been seen on the island since the 1700s.

The nene goose — an earth-toned lava-flow-walker known for murmuring "nay nay" — is Hawaii's state bird. But you wouldn't know that living on Oahu, which according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hasn't seen a nene for centuries.

That's suddenly changed: Oahu's nene population is up from zero to at least five. A pair of the endangered birds have been spotted raising fluffy goslings at the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge, about a 40-mile drive north of Honolulu. And boy, their wings must be tired, as there's no indication that they were put there by people, reports the Associated Press:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday a pair of nene have nested and successfully hatched three goslings at a national wildlife refuge near Kahuku on the North Shore. The agency says this is the first time the birds have been seen on Oahu since the 1700s.

Spokesman Ken Foote says the geese found their own way to Oahu and weren't brought to the island by humans.

What's been called the "world's rarest goose" was once a common sight on all the Hawaiian islands. But by the late 1800s, gun-blasting hunters and egg collectors had put a serious dent in their numbers. Their ranks were further whittled due to habitat loss and predation from introduced animals such as cats, rats, pigs, and mongooses. In 1951, it was estimated there were only 30 nene geese left.

The nene made the federal endangered-species list a decade later, and Hawaii ratcheted up conservation efforts that allowed the bird to slowly make a comeback. Today, more than 2,000 wild nene dawdle around Hawaii, mostly on Kauai, where they can ruffle feathers with flocks of feral chickens. They're plentiful enough on the island that in 2011 authorities were fretting about how to move them away from the local airport, where they were posing a threat to airplane engines.

Optimists might view the nene's long-delayed return to Oahu as a sign that the population is healthy. It will have to be seen whether more will arrive over the years; if they're flying to the national park from Molokai it's about 60 miles over land and water, but from Kauai it's more than 90 miles over the open seas.

Top image: Laurence Arnold / Flickr. Bottom: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Kathleen Misajon / Associated Press

About the Author

John Metcalfe
John Metcalfe

John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.

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