Guam Rails Are No Longer Extinct in the Wild (Something Only One Other Bird Can Claim)
By Jason Bittel
When you walk into the tropical rainforest room at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, the first thing you'll probably notice are the hyacinth macaws perched in mango trees. The feathers of these massive parrots are so impossibly blue that the birds look like birthday party piñatas. And the first thing you'll likely hear is the trill of the much tinier laughing thrushes as they swoop from tall cacao plants to the indoor-jungle floor. But watch out for Gus! He's the blue-headed great argus pheasant who likes to commandeer the walkway while unfurling his four-foot-tall fan of feathers in an attempt to woo female pheasants.
In all, there are 90 tropical birds in this lush and misty room, representing 32 species from all over the world. But in the midst of all this avian splendor, there's one bird you aren't likely to set eyes upon: the Guam rail. They're in there — I just doubt you'll spot one.
"We can't make a liar out of me," said Kurt Hundgen, the aviary's director of Animal Collections as he scours the understory looking for the small, dirt-colored birds. Not seeing any, Hundgen purses his lips and whistles out a few short calls of rail-speak. "There are nine rails in here!" he laughs. None answer his calls.
Unfortunately, the rail is even more difficult to find in its native habitat on the Micronesian island of Guam. Impossible, actually. This is because sometime in the mid-1900s, brown tree snakes made their way onto the island, likely stowed away in cargo delivered by a U.S. Navy supply ship. And once these lithe, narrow-necked serpents made landfall, they started gobbling up every native species in sight. Prior to the snakes' arrival, Guam had no large predators that would eat eggs or chicks. So it took just a few decades before 9 of Guam's 11 native species of forest-dwelling birds disappeared for good down the snakes' gullets. In 1987, the Guam rail was added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) ignoble list of species considered extinct in the wild.
But there is some good news. Just before the species left this world entirely, scientists managed to capture 21 rails and create a captive breeding program on Guam and at several mainland American institutions, including the National Aviary. The breeding program has performed so well that new populations of Guam rails have been reintroduced to the nearby islands of Cocos and Rota. These islands never had rails, but they also don't have any snakes, which makes them ideal sanctuaries for Guam rails. And with just 60 birds on Cocos and 200 on Rota, Hundgen says there are no indications that the birds are becoming an invasive species themselves.
To date, Pittsburgh has provided 39 birds. That's more than any other Association of Zoos and Aquariums institution, Hundgen points out proudly.
The IUCN announced at the end of last year that the continued survival of the breeding program's birds justified relisting the species as critically endangered — a step up from extinct in the wild. Guam rails are only the second bird in history to accomplish this feat. The other is the California condor, North America's largest bird. The condor's numbers plummeted in the last century due to poaching, lead poisoning, and habitat loss. If not for extreme conservation interventions, both the California condor and the Guam rail would no longer be around.
The rails were lucky in that they breed well in captivity, but reproduction is just part of the story. To successfully reintroduce an animal to the wild, you also have to prepare it for what it will face there. Hundgen believes Pittsburgh's tropical enclosure has been especially beneficial on that score. The rails' wild-like tropical rainforest habitat is 80 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 60 feet tall, allowing them to constantly interact with other birds as well as to practice defending their territories from other rails — just like they would do in a real forest.
As if to demonstrate this visually, an aviculturist named Danielle Minkus appears below the raised walkway where Hundgen and I are talking and starts flinging handfuls of mealworms into the leaf litter. Almost immediately, half a dozen long-legged birds with black and white underbellies begin to materialize from the dark understory. They find and snatch up the mealworms Minkus tosses so quickly, I find myself wondering how a snake would ever be able to catch one of them.
But that would be underestimating the brown tree snake. These suckers can grow longer than 10 feet, are excellent climbers, and pack a venomous bite. Most unfortunately, they have next to nothing keeping their numbers in check on Guam.
"At one point, there were so many snakes on Guam that they were causing electrical outages on a daily basis," says Scott Boback, an animal ecologist at Dickinson College. This happens when a large snake turns itself into a living conductor by trying to move between a power line and a tree branch.
Oddly, acetaminophen is the snake's kryptonite, with just a small dose able to disrupt its blood's ability to carry oxygen. Scientists like Boback have found that dropping pills glued to dead mice from helicopters flying over fenced-off areas can actually put a considerable dent in the local snake populations. Still, as Boback showed in a recent study, when just a handful of snakes remain, it is nearly impossible to find them. Which means it may never be safe for the Guam rail to return to Guam.
So prevention on the rails' new islands is "absolutely paramount," said Boback. To that end, the U.S. Geological Survey has installed snake-proof fencing all around the port on Rota — the only such structure on Earth.
To contribute to the effort of returning these birds to the wild has been rewarding, said Hundgen, but we shouldn't lose sight of just how much time, effort, and money it takes to bring a species back from the brink. "You can bring a species back. It can happen," he said, as the aviary's nine rails disappear back into the underbrush. "But it's 35 years later. It took 35 years to get that."
Honestly, it's incredible that we still have Guam rails at all, Hundgen said. "It'll probably go down in the conservation history books."
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
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For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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