The last few centuries haven't been kind to birds in Hawaii. At least 71 of the islands' 113 native bird species have become extinct since the 1700s, and 32 of the remaining 42 are federally listed as threatened or endangered. Ten of those haven't been seen in the wild for decades.
Flying in the face of this trend, however, the endangered nene goose — Hawaii's state bird — is not only staging a comeback, but seems to be recolonizing the state's most populous island, a place it hasn't been seen for centuries. Wildlife officials announced this week that a nene couple has nested and hatched three goslings on Oahu, the first Hawaiian geese to do so since at least the 1700s.
The pair was first spotted near Waimea Bay on Oahu's North Shore in January, the Associated Press reports, and later moved a few miles away to the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge. That's where they made a nest, hatched three eggs and are now bravely raising their family.
Oahu is home to Honolulu and nearly 1 million humans, making it a rough place to raise endangered offspring, but the geese couldn't have picked a much better part of the island to nest, the AP points out. The 1,100-acre refuge offers food, a buffer from people, fences to keep out dogs and pigs, and traps to catch smaller predators like mongoose. It also has wetlands and ponds that can protect nene from cats or other invasive predators that get past the refuge's defenses.
Nene have a long history in Hawaii, evolving from Canada geese that flew there hundreds of thousands of years ago. They're the only survivors of at least nine original Hawaiian goose species, saved by their flying skills while eight flightless species were killed off by Polynesian settlers.
A nene poses at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Kauai, home to around 900 of the birds. (Photo: Brenda Zaun/FWS)
Fossil records show nene once lived on all the main Hawaiian islands, but they had already vanished from Oahu when Europeans arrived in 1778. Some 25,000 still lived on other islands, including a large Big Island population, but a mix of hunting, habitat loss, highway collisions and invasive species decimated them over the next 170 years, reducing the entire species to just 30 birds by the 1950s.
The nene was declared an endangered species in 1967, and biologists launched a captive-breeding program in the 1970s to fend off extinction. Captive-born geese were later released on Kauai, Maui and the Big Island, helping the species rebound to today's wild population of about 2,000.
Although the newly unveiled nene are the first-known family to nest on Oahu, another pair was also recently spotted on the island's southeastern coast. Those birds didn't stay, but they did help raise conservationists' hopes that nene might finally recolonize Oahu after centuries of exile.
"We were hoping, as recovery progressed, that eventually there would be nene on all the main islands where they used to occur," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Annie Marshall tells the AP. "It's a little sooner than we thought it would happen, but it's all part of recovery."
The Oahu nene probably stopped there on their way to Kauai from the Big Island and then decided to stay, Marshall adds, so it's possible they'll return to Kauai after their goslings fledge this summer. But even if they do, there's a good chance those goslings will eventually come back to Oahu, since adult nene often return to their birthplaces to breed and raise young of their own.