The state bird of Hawaii, the nene (pronounced nay-nay) is a conservation success story but is still the rarest goose in the world and further help is needed to continue its preservation. Learn more about this member of the Anatidae bird family and what makes it so unique in this fact sheet, including how you can add the nene to your life list.
- Scientific Name: Branta sandvicensis
- Common Name: Nene, Hawaiian Goose
- Lifespan: 8-20 years
- Size: 20-28 inches
- Weight: 2.5 pounds
- Wingspan: 43-45 inches
- Conservation Status: Vulnerable
The nene has a classic goose jizz with a long, thin neck and a thick, triangular cone-shaped bill with a slightly spatulate tip. Genders are similar though females are smaller and weigh less than males. The face, chin, and back of the neck are black, contrasting with creamy buff cheeks that may show a slight orange wash. The sides of the neck and the throat are buff or whitish, and deep black grooves show in the feathers on the side of the neck where the skin shows darkly underneath. A thin brown-black collar rings the base of the neck. The upperparts are brownish-gray with pale edging, and the underparts are paler with a scaly barred look on the flanks. The uppertail coverts are gray or brownish, the undertail coverts are white, and the tail is black. The legs and feet are black but are only partially webbed, unlike most other waterfowl.
Juvenile Hawaiian geese are similar to adults but have more brownish coloration overall and their neck markings are not as clearly defined.
These are quiet geese with a soft honking "oooo" or "ooo-aaah" call that sounds similar to blowing air over the mouth of a jug. The pitch can be low or somewhat squeaky. Different trumpeting and cackling calls are also part of their vocalizations, but are heard much less frequently.
Nene Habitat and Distribution
These geese are endemic to Hawaii and are found nowhere else in the world. They prefer elevated volcanic slopes with scattered scrub vegetation as well as grassland areas and scrub forests, and can also be found in pastures, golf courses, and parks. They are found in isolated areas on several islands in the state, including Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai, and were at one time found on Molokai as well, though they have likely vanished from that island completely.
Hawaiian geese do not migrate but can show minor nomadic patterns between different elevations or following the richest food sources in different seasons.
These geese are primarily terrestrial and rarely swim. Their wings are short and they do not frequently fly either, but are often seen grazing and are well adapted for walking and even running on volcanic terrain. Because they are heavily protected, they can seem quite tame and may easily approach humans, but disrupting, feeding, or disturbing nenes is illegal. When threatened, nenes will stretch their necks out horizontally in an aggressive pose, while rattling their wings and hissing to intimidate rivals or scare away intruders.
Diet and Feeding
Like most geese, nenes are herbivorous and eat a wide range of plant material. They graze in a nibble-like fashion almost continuously, feeding on leaves, seeds, fruit, berries, flowers, grass, and buds. Seeds are often excreted in their feces, which spreads plants to new areas and helps rejuvenate vegetation.
While nenes do not regularly eat meat, on rare occasions they will eat fish or insects when these foods are easily available.
The nene is a monogamous bird that mates for life after subtle courtship when the male chases away rivals. The nesting season stretches from August through April, though most nesting occurs between October and March. The female builds a shallow bowl-shaped scrape nest on the ground, typically under a bush for concealment and lined with weeds, grass, and down.
Eggs and Young
The oval-shaped eggs are plain white or a creamy color, but can become splotched and stained as they are incubated. There are 1-5 eggs in a typical brood and only one brood is raised each year.
The female parent incubates the eggs for 30-32 days while the male stands guard and cares for her. After hatching, the nene goslings are ready to leave the nest and feed themselves under the watchful eyes of their parents within just a few hours. The young birds make their first flight at roughly 80-100 days old, but will remain in a loose flock with their parents for up to a year, when the next breeding season begins. It takes 2-3 years for young nenes to reach sexual maturity and seek their own partners.
Hunting, egg collecting, and the introduction of invasive predators such as the Indian mongoose, pigs, dogs, cats, and rats nearly drove the nene to extinction. In the 1950s there were as few as 30-50 of these geese remaining in the wild. Captive breeding programs helped resuscitate the species, however, and today the nene is listed as vulnerable internationally but endangered on a regional scale. Habitat loss continues to threaten nene populations, and vehicle collisions often cause nene fatalities near national parks. Strong conservation programs continue to be helpful to preserve nene populations.
Tips for Backyard Birders
The nene is not a backyard bird, but birders can easily see them when visiting national parks in the right areas of Hawaii. Visitors are discouraged from feeding or approaching the birds, however, because doing so will get them accustomed to humans and can lead to greater fatalities along roadways and parking lots if the birds are seeking handouts. If nenes do appear in private yards, individuals are encouraged to report their sightings so the birds can be evaluated and protected as needed.
How to Find This Bird
Nenes are common residents of many of Hawaii’s most popular national parks, and they are often seen in picnic areas and grassy open spaces, as well as parking lots. The Haleakala Crater is a popular spot for finding nenes, and they are also frequent guests at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, including near its famous lighthouse.
In addition to the wild populations in Hawaii, nenes are found in zoos, aviaries, and private collections throughout the world. Many of those facilities contributed to the captive breeding success that allowed more birds to be returned to their native range.
Hawaiian Geese in Culture
The nene is revered in Hawaii, not only because of its endemic status, but also as the official Hawaii state bird. The nene was actually adopted as the state’s official representative in 1957, two years before Hawaii achieved statehood. Today, the bird is well-known to all Hawaiians and many visitors to this distinctive state and is mentioned in the Hawaiian creation chant as a guardian spirit of the land.
Explore More Species in This Family
The nene is just one of the fascinating birds in the Anatidae bird family. Birders interested in learning more about this diverse and interesting family should be sure to check out:
At the same time, don’t miss our full collection of wild bird profile fact sheets to learn great trivia and useful information about all your favorite bird species, from hummingbirds to gulls to raptors and more!