Nene Propagation: End of an Era

Nene pair Red Rocket and Nu enjoy retirement.

On June 24, 2011, we handed over four nene (Hawaiian geese) to Haleakala National Park staff, who took them away for release in the crater of the dormant volcano on Maui, Hawaii. These birds had received the routine physical examination before their release and had been micro-chipped and banded for identification in the wild. Nothing unusual there: the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program has released 442 nene (pronounced nay nay) since 1996, helping to augment wild populations on the Hawaiian islands of Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island, as well as establishing an entirely new population on Molokai. But importantly, these birds represented the last two breeding pairs from the nene captive propagation flock at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC).

Robert Taylor, intern, and Sharon Belcher, senior research associate, get the nene ready for release.

In April this year, we had received the news from our partners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife, that it was time to end the captive propagation-and-release program for nene. The nene population throughout Hawaii has risen to nearly 2,000 birds, having been at a low point of only 40 birds in the 1950s, representing a very significant conservation success story. With the population now at this level, captive propagation is no longer considered the most efficient tool for further recovery of the nene. But management of the wild population by our field partners will continue to play a vital role.

So having hatched 395 goslings, we are coming to terms with the fact that we will no longer have gray fuzz-balls as the focus of our attentions over the winter months. Crucially, however, our spirits are lifted by the knowledge that captive propagation and release have been instrumental tools in bringing back the nene from the brink of extinction. It is time for us to say “job well done.”

One pair of nene, known to the staff as Red Rocket and Nu (pictured at top), will remain at the MBCC facility. Red Rocket (a female) was wild hatched in December 1987, though in her 24 years she has never laid a single egg! She happily spends her time with the male, Nu, who was hatched at MBCC in June 1992 from a wild egg. We are very glad to still have these two retirees to keep us company.

Amy Kilshaw is a research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Honk if You like Nene.

5 Responses to Nene Propagation: End of an Era

  1. That’s great!! Really an incredible conservation victory. Congratulations to the team.

  2. Amy, thank you for this very heartwarming blog. It is truly amazing to hear that the Nene population stands at nearly 2,000. What a wonderful recovery for a species that was on the verge of extinction.

    I wish to thank you and the San Diego Zoo’s Nene Conservation Program for saving these birds. The Nene can now thrive and live out their lives in a happy and protected environment. Good luck to Red Rocket and Nu – may they enjoy many years in retirement. Indeed, “job well done”.

  3. wow! I can’t believe the new numbers! congrats. to all of you that have been involved over the years in saving this endangered species. I was lucky to have seen a ne ne in the wild 12 years ago in Hawaii while on vacation and visiting my daughter who was stationed there ( lucky girl! ) for 4-years! she went to Hawaii Pacific university while there and my 1st grandson was born there. beautiful islands! I visited three separate times I’m happy to say! my daughter became an officer and a nurse and retired from the navy a year ago after the birth of her fourth child! her husband is still in the navy and they are now in england for 3-years! wonderful military family! happy for the nene’s!!!!!!

  4. As a senior citizen born and raised in the Hawaiian Islands who never saw a nene while I lived there, I am extremely gratified by the efforts and dedication of the people who brought the state bird from near extinction. I finally saw one during a visit to Kauai seven years ago. I was very excited at that time. I am even more excited today to read your news. Thank you, job well done!

    What new projects will you be focused on next?

  5. Aloha, Mae.
    We will still be working with our other focal bird species at both MBCC and KBCC. `Alala are undoubtedly our #1 priority and also both Palila and Maui Parrotbill each have major conservation challenges. We will also continue to work with the Puaiohi, whose numbers are now considered to have increased significantly from the estimates in the mid-1990s, following our releases of 200 birds into the Alakai Swamp on the island of Kauai. Additionally, there are a number of endangered Hawaiian bird species who are in dire need of intensive conservation management, which we will certainly be interested in working with, as part of our 3-way partnership with the USWFS and State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife. Our program will continue to evolve, in accordance to the goals of that partnership.
    The Nene work has been very satisfying for us. It is the culmination of many decades of work, involving a wide number of cooperating agencies. The end of the captive breeding program represents a transition onwards from the reintroduction phase of the species recovery effort. However there will still be hurdles in the management of the Nene in the wild.
    Many thanks to you all for your interest!
    Richard Switzer (Conservation Program Manager, HEBCP).