Few avian species
have as precarious a perch on life as the Tuamotu Kingfisher, a tiny Pacific Islander with a cream-colored head, blue and green feathers, and a white underbelly. A recent census indicated that just a single colony — a mere 125 birds — is all that remains of this once-populous native of one of the world’s most beautiful places.
Believe it or not, this dire number is actually something of an improvement, says Dylan Kesler, the MU assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife who is leading an international effort to save them. At one point, no more than 39 birds could be located.
“If we lose these birds, we lose 50,000 years of uniqueness and evolution,” Kesler says. “Because it has lived in isolation for a very long time, it’s unlike any other bird. There is no other bird like this on the planet.”
Centuries ago, the Tuamotu Kingfisher thrived on several South Pacific islands in what is now French Polynesia. Today, it lives only on one small sprig of coral, Niau atoll, a 10-square-mile dot surrounded by deep azure seas.
The reason for the birds’ decline is uncertain. One theory suggests that rats, imported from sailing ships, have depleted populations of the lizards that kingfishers’ depend upon for sustenance. Added pressure, Kesler says, has likely come from the feral cats that roam the island and attack young birds. Typhoons may also have played a role by destroying nesting trees.
These factors, along with the birds’ tiny population, led the Gland, Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature to formally declare the Tuamotu Kingfisher as one of the world’s 192 “critically endangered” birds. So perilous is its situation, the IUCN says, that a storm could deliver the species’ coup de grâce.
On one recent trip, Kesler left the cold and snow of Missouri to join his team, some 28 hours later, on an isolated island airstrip. Soon thereafter, assembled under the island’s dense palm canopy, they commenced their investigations of the kingfisher movements, its critical resources, breeding biology, nesting behavior, and population demography.
The group is nothing if not eclectic, including enthusiastic residents of Niau, members of the Tahiti Ornithological Society, graduate students from the invasive species ecology laboratory at Université Paul Cézanne Bâtiment Villemin, a bird expert from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, conservation enthusiasts from the Pacific Islands Conservation Research Association, and University graduate students in avian conservation.
Most bring some unique bit of knowledge or technological expertise to the effort. At a minimum, they come with patience and a capacity for hard work.
On this trip, survey work came first: Four times the researchers canvassed the entire island looking for birds. Once they had established the birds’ ranges and movements, program members used fine netting, called mist nets, to capture 60 kingfishers. It was a tense time. With populations so low, injuring even one of the delicate animals could possibly tip the species into extinction.
There were no mishaps. If a captured bird was deemed healthy, the researchers attached a tiny radio-transmitter to its back. These high-tech bird backpacks, designed to encumber the birds for only a brief window of data collection, themselves represent years of research and testing. Kesler and a group of his MU colleagues perfected the devices in the forests of Missouri during an inquiry into how tree cover affected birds’ nesting and flying decisions. As with the nets, the team’s paramount concern was that no Tuamotu Kingfishers were injured.
The transmitter packs allowed Kesler and the other scientists to follow birds’ movements for weeks before the transmitters dropped off. At the same time, they broadcasted kingfisher calls through portable speakers. The kingfishers happily sang along with their prerecorded friends as researchers plotted their positions.
Kesler discovered the birds were doing poorly in Niau’s atoll forest — palm trees growing out of the jagged coral — because the dense foliage provides cover for the lizards the kingfishers eat. Overabundant cover is a problem because of the kingfisher’s unique way of hunting. When pursuing a lizard luncheon, the kingfisher typically perches on a limb over a clearing. When an unfortunate lizard shows itself in the open, the kingfisher pounces on it — something researchers termed a “wait-and-drop” attack.
If healthy atoll forests were a problem, however, farmers’ coconut groves were a potential solution. The lowest fronds of the neatly aligned trees are typically about five feet off the ground, the perfect plunge for a lizard-hungry kingfisher. What’s more, farmers usually burn off the grove’s underbrush, providing kingfishers a clear, rat-free hunting space.
“Interestingly, the twist on these birds seems to be that agricultural habitat is key to their survival,” Kesler says. “The birds use agriculture more than any other habitat type, and they seem to be unique among endangered species that benefit from anthropogenic [human-altered] landscapes.”
With this insight, along with the rest of his collected data, Kesler was able to outline three broad conservation plans. The first involved educating Niau’s coconut farmers on how they might further enhance their hospitable habitats. A second involved getting the local population excited about preserving their unique bird species. The third involved relocating some of the birds to another suitable island — developing an insurance policy, of sorts, against extinction on Niau.
The education program started in Niau’s single primary school, where students joined in bird capture and release efforts, wrote term papers on the birds’ significance and made up songs about the species. It was a big success. “The students were as excited about the project as we were,” Kesler recalls. “These birds are part of their history, and no one is more excited about the kingfishers’ survival.”
Coconut farmers, too, embraced the project. Instead of immediately clearing the dead trees kingfisher prefer for nesting, farmers agreed to leave some standing. To stop climbing cats and rats, farmers teamed up with project members to install metal-band barriers around the trees.
“Getting the local population involved is absolutely the first and most important step,” Kesler says. “We can develop the science, but the ongoing effort to harmonize these birds with human activities rests with the people of Niau. If they are willing to make changes to provide a mutually beneficial habitat, then there is a chance that this bird population can stabilize and expand.”
Finding an island to host a second “rescue” population of birds was another challenge. In the end, the team identified three potential candidates — the Gambier Islands, the high island of Makatea, and the atoll islands of Anaa.
The Gambier Islands, a small group of islands at the southeastern end of the Tuamotu Archipelago, was eliminated from contention due to its abundance of invasive species. Makatea, a patch of “uplifted coral” rising more than 250 feet above sea level, wouldn’t work because of environmental problems related to a century of phosphate extraction.
That left Anaa, which Kesler’s team visited in March 2010. “The habitats on these atolls are similar to those on Niau,” says Kesler, “with many of the same native plant species, stretches of forest untouched by human activities, and expanses of coconut plantations.”
Coconut groves had plentiful hunting perches and exposed ground for good lizard plunging. Reptiles were abundant enough to ensure that relocated Tuamotu Kingfishers — and the existing animals — would have plenty to eat.
With a likely rescue island identified, the team next tested how the birds would react to a move. Using nets, they captured birds on one side of Niau and released them in an area without kingfishers. Not only did the birds seem at home, they again sought out the nearest coconut plantation. “Perhaps the prehistoric primary habitat of the kingfishers is now entirely absent and the birds are making the best of a bad situation,” Kesler says.
Over time, radio-tracked movements confirmed the birds were healthy and happy. “The translocation experiment was a resounding success,” Kesler says. Both translocated and control birds weathered the experiment well and several found new mates within days. These observations are the key for designing the larger inter-island relocation that we hope to undertake in the next few years.”
Make no mistake, Tuamotu Kingfishers are still very much endangered. But Kesler and other project scientists say the bird now has a fighting chance for survival.
With the species at least a step away from the brink, Kesler is wrestling with some of the larger questions related to this, and other, conservation projects. In a world beset by environmental difficulties, why go to the trouble and expense of saving a tiny bird on an impossibly remote island?
“We humans are pretty good at recognizing the economic value of species and assigning a worth based on that,” Kesler says. “We are not so good at identifying how each species works within a larger and complex ecosystem. We are only now beginning to appreciate how losses in the genetic diversity of one species not only impact that species, but influence the lives of other species.
“Also, and this is something that I am struggling to adequately describe, we humans, as good stewards of the planet, have a moral obligation to do what we can to protect plants and animals for their intrinsic worth. The Tuamotu Kingfisher may not have a direct economic benefit like a cow or promise to provide us with a new medical discovery, but it is important because its song and beauty brings joy to the people who come across them.”
Kesler points out that the techniques developed to save the Tuamotu Kingfisher can be used as prototypes to save other island birds. “The kingfishers’ situation is representative of larger issues,” he says. “We are seeing a decline in many of the forest birds in French Polynesia. The Tuamotu Archipelago, by itself, is seeing significant declines in nine endangered species. What we learn can directly be used to intervene in these other situations. All island birds, to some extent, are facing the same pressures as the kingfisher.”
Still, Kesler reluctantly admits that moving birds from Niau to Anaa may not, ultimately, be enough to save the Tuamotu Kingfisher. “Unfortunately, even with all our work to date, the Tuamotu Kingfisher population on Niau is still crashing,” Kesler says. “We’re seeing some turnover, but each year when we return, there are more empty territories and the population decreases.”
This sober assessment has not stopped other scientists from praising Kesler’s efforts.
“The research and conservation work that Dylan has done with the Tuamotu Kingfishers has been extremely helpful to us,” says Anne Gouni, executive and programs director for the Société d’Ornithologie de Polynésie. “French Polynesia is challenged with many endangered birds, and the recovery program that Dr. Kesler has been involved with has become one of our success stories.”
Kesler’s MU team, Gouni says, has provided important conservation and ecological information about the Tuamotu Kingfishers. We now know much, much more about the birds and what to do than we did five years ago, she says. “The kingfisher is no longer a mystery to us.”
“I have high hopes that the Tuamotu Kingfishers will not go extinct,” Gouni adds. The science that has been aimed at these birds gives us the opportunity to design conservation strategies, and now we are working with island residents and government agencies to implement those plans.”
Susan Haig, a wildlife ecologist who studies extinction of small populations for the US Geological Survey, puts it another way. Plain and simple, she says, the Tuamotu Kingfisher would have no chance without Kesler. And the kingfisher is not alone in its debt to the MU scientist.
“He is the only researcher who has not only taken an interest in their intrinsic value as a species, but has gone out of his way to research, develop and implement conservation measures that are providing the best hope for survival of this and other endangered species,” she says. “His research on cavity-nesting birds, like woodpeckers and nuthatches living in isolated forest patches in Missouri, has tremendously benefitted forest-dwelling, cavity-nesting species on Pacific Islands, and vice-versa. He understands that remedies for species undergoing conservation crises on Pacific Islands require the same approach and expertise as species undergoing similar issues on the mainland.
Among these approaches, of course, is the aforementioned species translocation — a relatively new, and sometimes controversial, method for saving endangered plants and animals. Even its adherents considered translocation to be a last resort, one used only when other conservation methods have failed.
Between 1973, when the Endangered Species Act became law, and 1986, at least 93 species of native birds and animals were translocated. A translocation is considered a success if a new self-sustaining population is established, even if the founder population goes extinct.
“The main danger of translocation is that we introduce a species to a new area that negatively impacts the population already there,” Kesler says. “But we can make a very good case that this is the last hope for the Tuamotu Kingfisher. These birds once lived on the rescue island we’ve chosen. Also, we have been very careful to model their impact there and are confident there will be no problems. While some people will never like it, it is the only practical way left to save this species, particularly with the increasing effects of climate change.”
Not much science has documented the techniques and success of relocating bird species, making Kesler’s experiments of great interest in several disciplines. His discoveries have made the cover of the Journal of Wildlife Management, and a feature story was recently published in The Auk, a journal of the American Ornithologists Union.
“As we become more committed to saving species, translocation will become a more important tool,” Kesler says. “The science to move animals is just being developed.”