State Bird of Hawaii – Proudly Hawaiian and Uniquely Endemic!

State bird of Hawaii - The Nene

Renowned for their awe-inspiring landscapes, diverse wildlife, and a culture that is vibrant unlike any other, the Hawaiian Islands are one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Tucked away in the Pacific Ocean, these islands are home to some of the most unique species, amongst which resides the Nene, also known as the Hawaiian Goose.

Named the state bird of Hawaii, the Nene is a species that holds a special place in the hearts of the state’s residents and its hundreds of visitors. With the bird’s cultural significance, breathtaking appearance, and significant history, it is easy to understand why it was titled the state bird.

In this article, we will discover what makes this fascinating creature so unique, how it upholds the Hawaiian spirit, and, most importantly, what makes it such an iconic bird in the state.

The History of the Nene: From Endangerment to Conservation Success!

The Nene, sometimes called the Hawaiian Goose and scientifically titled the Branta sandvicensis, has a long history. This species has been roaming the Hawaiian islands for centuries allowing it to adapt well to the ecosystem.

A Nene goose is standing on a rock

However, in the early 20th century, the bird started to face habitat loss due to hunting and predators, leaving a handful in the wild.

This was when conservationists stepped in to save the species from going extinct. It was in the 1950s that the Hawaiian Territorial Legislature declared the Hawaiian Goose as Hawaii’s state bird. Thanks to its cultural significance. 

This move had two significant impacts – first of all, it highlighted the ecological significance of the species.

Secondly, it helped to raise awareness regarding the need for the conservation of the Nene, which would result in the conservation of the flora and fauna that is unique to Hawaii. 

Why Is the Nene (Hawaiian Goose) the State Bird of Hawaii?

The Nene is a species endemic to Hawaii, meaning it is the only place in the world where this beautiful bird can be found.

Due to this, the Nene eventually became a symbol of the Hawaiian Islands and their natural heritage. But that is not the only reason this bird was chosen to represent the state.

1. Cultural Significance 

Besides the ecological significance, the Nene is rooted deep within Hawaii’s culture. Legend says that the Hawaiian goose is a messenger from the gods, and its honk is a good luck sign that the people would wait for.

A Hawaiian goose taking rest

Additionally, as a larger bird, the Nene has a flock of attractive feathers used in ceremonial clothing and cultural artifacts – both of which made the bird more valuable to the state. 

2. Survival 

However, one of the most important reasons was its survival. As we have stated before, the Nene once became an endangered species. 

To prevent this from happening again, Hawaii officially recognized the bird due to its historical, cultural, and environmental significance. 

Giving it the title of the state bird had helped immensely in the cause, as it raised awareness to conserve and protect this endemic species, making it a cherished symbol of the Hawaiian Islands. 

A Brief Overview of the Nene: Appearance, Habitat, Behavior & Diet

This beloved bird of the Aloha state has many unique characteristics that make it special to the island’s people.

From having one-of-a-kind appearance to its loud honks, there is much to learn about this bird. Let us take a look at all these details. 

1. The Appearance and Anatomy of the Bird

This striking bird features many distinctive details, which helps set it apart from regular geese. Its size, for instance, is the first thing to catch one’s eye as it happens to be the smallest among its subspecies.

The bird measures between 16 to 17 inches and weighs below 5 pounds, making it small enough to attract onlookers that pass.

A hawaiian nene goose standing

Another feature that makes the Nene stand out is its plumage. With a dark brown body, strikingly white cheeks, and a neck decorated with black and white stripes, the many contrasts make it distinct. It also has a pointed beak with stocky and short legs, adapted to life on land. 

While these physical appearances of the Nene are sure to catch one’s eye, what’s even more distinctive is actually its call.

The Nene’s honking call can be compared to that of a car and is an integral part of their courtship rituals. It may sound amusing to a visitor, but to natives, it is a familiar sound they grew up on. 

2. Behavioral Traits of Nene 

This fascinating bird has not one but a plethora of behavioral traits that will make you take a second look if you ever come across one.

One of the most notable traits of this bird is how social it is. They live in flocks, often consisting of their mates and offspring, and they love to stay near grassy lands or water bodies.

A flock of Hawaiian geese standing beside water

Their courtship rituals are also fascinating, where the male birds will perform displays to attract their females. This is usually done by stretching their necks and wings, giving the impression of a larger body, followed by honking calls to establish dominance over the other male birds. 

Although small, the Nene can be a territorial bird, especially during their breeding seasons. 

During this time, the male birds often get aggressive, sometimes even physically fighting to establish their grounds and dominance. Female Nenes are no different when it comes to being aggressive. 

But their agitations usually come out while protecting their offspring and eggs from predators trying to feed on their nests. 

3. Habitat of the Nene Goose

As an endemic species, the habitat of the Nene is limited to the Hawaiian Islands. 

It can be explicitly found in Hawaii, Kauai, and Maui. Although, historically, it was found throughout the Hawaiian archipelago, hunting and habitat loss caused the population to die down and eventually become limited to certain islands.

Two hawaiian geese on water

Today, this small goose can be found in shrublands, wetlands, and grassy areas, around 8000 feet above sea level. The Nene likes to live in areas with mixed vegetation, which includes sedges, shrubs, and grasses. As geese, they prefer to stay near water bodies as it helps them to bathe and drink. 

4. The Nene’s Diet 

As a primarily herbivorous bird, the Nene likes to feed on various plants. After adapting to its life on land, the bird’s eating habits have also adjusted accordingly.

The Nene feeds on sedges, grasses, and all herbaceous plants. It may also consume fruits, flowers, and leaves from trees and shrubs in rare cases.

Two hawaiian geese eating grass

But, as a species of geese, their diet is also very dependent on water. The Nene always prefers access to clean drinking water, which is one of the main reasons it often lives near water bodies. 

It also consumes aquatic vegetation like algae and watercress, making it more convenient for them to be near water. 

Interesting Facts About Hawaii’s State Bird: The Nene

Living in one of the most exciting and vibrant states in the world, the Nene sure has many interesting facts you would love to know.

1. Conservation Status of the Nene

As one of the world’s rarest geese, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has named the Nene an endangered species. As we have learned, the Nene faced severe habitat loss before returning to the population. Thanks to conservation efforts. 

To prevent this, it has officially been named endangered, with only around 2500 individuals present.

2. Evolutionary Origins 

The Hawaiian goose is known to have evolved from the Canadian Goose, which arrived in Hawaii through oceanic rafting and migration. 

With time, it eventually adapted and evolved to Hawaii’s unique flora and fauna. This caused the bird to have reduced webbing and other changes physically, allowing it to live on the islands.

3. Distinctive Honking Calls 

A highly vocal bird, the Nene uses its honking calls for communication, even more so during mating and courtship displays. These calls, unlike other birds, are raucous and loud and can be heard across the landscape as it echoes far.

Wrap Up 

As we learn about the Nene, we realize that it is more than simply a state bird. The beauty and resilience of the Nene reflect the state of Hawaii, as it symbolizes the culture and heritage of the colorful and vibrant Hawaiian Islands.

From being a vital part of the islands’ history to be included in folklore and helping the Hawaiian Islands to maintain the balance of its natural environment, the Nene has indeed carved its space well in the state. 

However, regardless of its beauty and unique attributes, the bird continues to face challenges in the face of habitat loss. And this is why it is essential to acknowledge its beauty and contribution to the state to help keep the species alive through conservation efforts.

Photo of author

Written and Fact-checked by David Neff

Author at BirdBonica

David is an expert birder and bird parent with in-depth knowledge of birds. He has years of experience observing birds in their natural habitats, studying their diets, behavior, and more. (Learn more about David here...)

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