Bird Watcher's General Store

Story of the Hawaiian Goose, The NëNë


Dear Bird Folks,

I just returned from a trip to Hawaii where I saw lots of new birds including Hawaii's state bird. It's a type of goose that they call " NëNë" (pronounced nay-nay). I would like to know where the name " NëNë" comes from. Is it a name that means something special in Hawaiian?

- Mel, Truro, MA

This is a hard question, Mel,

Each week I spend countless hours working on answers to the questions I receive. First, there's lots of time spent doing the research; then more time is spent double and triple checking each and every fact...if I actually happen to use any facts. But all that hard work is nothing compared to the effort I had to put into writing about Nenes. Do you have any idea how long it took me to figure how to write the weird letter "ë"? And when did we start writing the "e" with two dots it? On my brand-new computer I can communicate with people from all over the world, watch homemade movies featuring bulldogs riding on skateboards or check on my General Motors stocks (which I haven't checked for a while but I'm sure they are doing fine). However, typing a double-dotted "e" is not as easy as it sounds. I pressed every button I could think of, looked through book after book and called every geeky person I knew before one of them finally told me the secret to the double-dotted "e." Whew! What would we do without the geeks? Or in this case, gëëks.

The NëNë, or Hawaiian Goose, is a rather interesting bird but the origin of its name is nothing special, except for the spelling. The NëNë gets its name from its call, which sounds to some folks like it is saying "nay, nay." Yup, that's it. Lots of birds, like Whip-poor-wills and bobwhites, for example, have earned their common names based on the sounds they make. NëNës say their name, too. The problem is there is no letter "y" in the Hawaiian alphabet, so instead they put a few dots over the letter "e." This explains why Nene isn't spelled "Naynay" and the state isn't written "Hawhyee." I wish there was a more exciting story behind the bird's name, but it all comes down to a lack of y's. That's just the way it goes sometimes.

None of this letter talk should diminish your encounter with those NëNë, Mel. Seeing one is a rare treat, with "rare" being the key word. You probably see more gulls on an average day in Truro then there are NëNë in the entire world. Not long ago the wild population wasn't much more than two dozen birds. Protection and captive breeding programs have increased this number to several hundred, which still isn't very many. The NëNë's future is under constant threat from a whole host of problems, including illegal hunting, habitat changes and three introduced mammals: rats, mongooses, and the most sinister of the group, golfers. More than a few Nns have been struck and killed by stray golf balls and one manly golfer actually went out his way to kill one of these rare birds. (Apparently killing an endangered bird is considered macho by golfer standards.)

Some reports suggest that today's NëNës are related to a wayward flock of Canada Geese that somehow stumbled upon Hawaii 500,000 years ago. Finding the nice weather, the fresh pineapple and the steady supply of Mai Tais to their liking, the geese opted not to return to frigid Canada. (Not a bad decision.) In addition to the aforementioned reasons why the geese became fond of Hawaii, there was also one other feature that they liked about the islands; there were no land mammals to hassle them. With no raccoons, foxes, coyotes or grizzlies looking to pounce on them the birds became less attached to the protection of water and slowly became more terrestrial. Over the passing centuries the NëNë's wings became shorter, their legs became stronger, their toes and toenails grew longer, and their feet became padded, with less webbing between the toes. These adaptations not only helped them maneuver over Hawaii's rough terrain, but the geese also lost most of that silly waddle that other waterfowl have to put up with. With that waddle gone, the birds no longer had to be self-conscious about the way they walked. Now the only thing they have to be embarrassed about are those ridiculous Hawaiian shirts. Hopefully, evolution will eventually get rid of those, too.

Even though NëNës are rare and one of the most endangered geese in the world, they are not that difficult to locate. (Well, once you travel to Hawaii, that is.) They can often be found close to the visitor centers in Hawaii's national parks. Due to legal protection and captive breeding programs NëNës are rather tame and approachable birds. Also, like you said, the NëNë is the state bird of Hawaii. It was voted that distinction in 1957. I only mention this fact because Hawaii wasn't even a state in 1957. It didn't become a state until 1959. What? How could Hawaii have a state bird two years before it became a state? I guess I'll have to ask one of my smart friends for that info, too. Once again, thank goodness for the gëëks.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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