Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi Hawaii’s
Back yard

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

Nene have a
friend on Molokai

Canada geese may be nene's ancestor

Nene O Molokai

Address: P.O. Box 580, Kaunakakai, Molokai. Directions will be given at the time the appointment is booked.

Tour: Offered 9 a.m. once a week by appointment (the day varies)

Admission: Donation

Call: 808-553-5992 to book a tour or 888-SEE-NENE (733-6363) for information about nene sightings


Web site:

Visit the Molokai home of Arleone Dibben-Young and you'll meet a cast of characters that are more colorful than a soap opera's.

"No. 9 had two wives, dumped them both and got together with No. 5," Dibben-Young says. "Then No. 9 became a wife beater. He now gets an injection of the female hormone Depo-Provera every other month for anger management, and it helps tone down his aggression.

"PB and NH were a pair when they lived in Olinda, Maui, but when they came here, they divorced and NH went for a younger male. When he passed away from inflammatory bowel disease three years later, NH hooked up with PB again."

Listen to Dibben-Young and you'd never guess that she's talking about her brood of nene (Hawaiian geese), Hawaii's state bird and an endangered species. She and her architect husband, Rich, operate Nene O Molokai as an educational facility in cooperation with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

For years when they lived on Maui, the Youngs had maintained native North American species of waterfowl at their home for educational purposes.

"Students of all ages would visit and, over time, grow interested in the birds and the environment," Dibben-Young recalls. "As the students continued through school, several sought careers in biology, forestry, conservation and related fields. When DLNR found out we were moving from Maui to Molokai, we were asked to set up and manage a similar facility."

After a lengthy approval process, Nene O Molokai received its first nene in 1994. The birds' refuge is located on the lovely, tranquil 1-acre site beside Kanoa Pond where the Youngs live.

"The shoreline has a tremendous subterranean flow of fresh water on its way to the ocean," Dibben-Young notes. "We created a little wetland with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program for private landowners, and now have endangered aeo (Hawaiian stilt) and alae keokeo (Hawaiian coot) flying in and out."

Nene O Molokai was started to tend the endangered species and teach people about their plight.

The state did not provide funding for fencing or landscaping to raise the nene, so Dibben-Young established Nene O Molokai as a nonprofit to qualify for money that would not otherwise be available. But, she points out, "Nene O Molokai really doesn't need much to operate. We have no paid staff and the overhead is very low."

When they're growing new feathers or molting, nene eat an enormous amount of feed. But once they are full grown, they eat less grain and more grass. One $23 bag of custom-mixed whole grain feeds Nene O Molokai's current flock of 10 birds for a month. The grain supplements their natural diet of grass, makaloa (a perennial sedge), algae, fish, water insects, and dragonflies and their larvae.

Once Nene O Molokai was up and running, Dibben-Young says, it developed a mind of its own.

"For years the state's endangered species facility in Honolulu had a hands-off policy for the general public," she recalls. "The first thing we did was open the doors and say, 'Come on down!'

"We didn't expect the overwhelming response; we started doing daily tours (now they're once a week), and there were times we were booked two years in advance! We quickly learned that an endangered species can't be 'saved' unless you get the general public to own it."

To that end, Dibben-Young allows visitors face-to-feather contact with the birds. Students from Molokai High and Intermediate School come every year, and she says, "They gain a very healthy respect of the birds, and it isn't too long before a few show up on a Saturday or Sunday wanting to help out in some way.

"Some will ride their bikes or scooters from Kaunakakai -- four miles away -- to spend the day watching the geese from afar while they play konane (Hawaiian checkers). It's wonderful to see the impact getting close to the nene can have; the opportunity will surely produce several more wildlife biologists."

Living with the nene, aeo and alae keokeo has rewarded Dibben-Young with a deep appreciation for Hawaii's endangered birds, and it's a gift she hopes to instill in every person who visits Nene O Molokai.

"We don't charge for the tour because we'd like people to give what they want, if they want, from their hearts," Dibben-Young says. "Education remains a priority for us because from knowledge comes caring; from caring comes action.

"One boy donated the money his parents had given him for a candy bar. Even the smallest act of concern -- like putting 50 cents in our donation jar -- can make a big difference."


Scholars believe that
HawaiiÕs nene descended
from Canada geese

Scholars believe the nene, or Hawaiian goose (Branta sandvicensis), descended from Canada geese that settled in Hawaii long before humans arrived.

Over the centuries, as the geese adapted to the environment of the isolated islands, they evolved into a new species, what we now know as the nene.

Unlike its relative from North America, which has an affinity for water, the nene is a land bird. As such, its legs are longer, the pads on the bottom of its feet are thicker and the webbing between its toes is shorter.

Before 1778, when Capt. James Cook put Hawaii on the maps of the Western world, the nene population numbered an estimated 25,000. By 1952 their population had dropped to less than 30 due to hunting, destruction of their habitats and foraging grounds from development, and the introduction of horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, dogs, mongooses and other animals that preyed on the fowls' eggs, goslings and nesting females.

In 1949, concerned about the nene's plight, the Territory of Hawaii appropriated $6,000 to launch a Nene Restoration Project with a pair of birds obtained from Big Island rancher Herbert Shipman. The program's aim was to breed nene in captivity, then release them in the wild when they were big and strong enough to survive on their own.

Since then, Hawaii's nene population has increased to about 1,150. Their habitats on rocky lava flows and steep mountain slopes encompass some of the state's roughest terrain. Although nene likely lived on all the islands at one time, they are found in the wild today only on Maui, Molokai, Kauai and the Big Island.

Nene are being bred at propagation facilities at the Maui Bird Conservation Center and the Big Island's Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, both run by the Zoological Society of San Diego. The goslings produced at these facilities are held for about a month at rearing and release pens above Olowalu in the West Maui Mountains, at Puu O Hoku Ranch on Molokai, and at the Big Island's Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge before being released.

In the pens, an adult pair of nene serve as surrogate parents. They also may produce offspring of their own for release. The young birds that are released from the rearing pens return in subsequent years to nest.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.


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