Have you ever stopped and listened to the calls of birds in your area or a forest? Or marveled as they swooped and dived in flight? Birds are one of the wonders of our world, from the smallest hummingbird to the largest living bird, the ostrich, yet hundreds of species are threatened with extinction, with many already extinct.
Asian Crested Ibis
The World’s Rarest Birds project has joined with Birdlife International in an effort to highlight the plight of the most threatened of these, and one of their first steps was a photo competition to find images of the rarest of all in three categories, which will be published in a book next year. We are lucky to have all 13 winning photos to share with you in the meantime.
The beautiful crested ibis has white plumage with red or pink skin that shines through. Once plentiful throughout Asia, now only a few individuals are left, with estimates of between 50 and 250 living in the world. Listed as endangered, there is some good news as the Chinese and Japanese governments are taking measures to conserve and protect this special bird.
Through protected areas and captive breeding programs, the population is slowly increasing overall. There is a small enclave of wild crested ibis in the Shanxi province in China, while Japan has reintroduced 10 birds to the wild with a goal of 60 by 2015.
The critically endangered Kakapo, one of the world’s few flightless birds and a member of the parrot family, is the heaviest parrot, is one of the longest living, and is nocturnal and herbivorous. As of 2010 there were only 124 individuals known, so few that each one of them has been given a name and a radio transmitter.
The Kakapo Recovery Plan has done herculean work to preserve and increase the population. All known kakapos were relocated to two islands where stoats and feral cats had been removed, Codfish and Anchor Island. Both islands will hold 100 kakapos each and work is ongoing to find a suitable island where one day kakapos will be able to live free from human management such as the sanctuaries. Two possibilities have been identified by the department of conservation and it seems some work is already being done to prepare them. Out of all the birds on the list, the kakapo has a good chance because the government is so intimately involved in trying to protect the species.
The Red Crowned Crane is named for a patch of skin on its otherwise white head and body that is red and brightens when it is excited or angry. There are only 1,700 of these endangered birds left in the wild; much of its decline being due to habitat loss, such as wetlands drying up in Asia and fires in its breeding areas in Siberia. They are legally protected now in Russia, China and Japan and more work is being done to protect and conserve their habitat.
Classified as endangered, these birds are a male and female Scaly-sided Merganser. Approximately 2,500 of these beautiful ducks are left in the wild, most of them around the area where the borders of Russia, China and North Korea meet. They are under threat due to habitat loss – the forests by rivers that they nest and forage in – pollution and fishing nets. Birdlife International is following some promising conservation efforts but these birds do not live in large groups so accurate counts are difficult. An interesting note is that they forage during the day but like many people in the world, noon time is for resting, preening and socializing.
The Palila is a critically endangered finch-billed species of the Hawaiian Honeycreeper with approximately 1,500 left in the wild. It is highly dependent on the maname tree for food, eating almost exclusively from the highly toxic immature seeds when available, somehow having a mechanism to render them neutral. They also eat the leaves, flowers and buds of the species. Cydlia caterpillars also make up a good portion of the diet, especially for nestlings whom it seems can’t handle the poison when young. The caterpillars have eaten it but have rendered it non-toxic so they themselves are not poisonous. The Palila’s habitat is exclusively on the upper slopes of Mount Kaua where legal challenges have started to remove the goats and sheep that are problematic to the maname trees and shrubs.
A unique legal note, the Palila is the first animal to have a case in front of the 9th circuit Palila v. Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources 852 F.2d 1106 (U.S. 1988), which opened the door to more agencies like the EPA getting standing in environmental and conservation cases.
Conservation authorities believe there are less than 250 individuals of this magnificent bird surviving. Living in Brazil for the most part, there are a tiny number in Argentina and it has been extirpated from Paraguay. Unfortunately, all trends of the merganser population are downward, following work on hydroelectric dams, silting and pollution of rivers from agricultural activities, as well as mining, all leading to deforestation. Hopefully, groups like Birdlife International and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust will be able to help increase and stabilize the population in the future.
The Honduran Emerald hummingbird is a flitting jewel in the dry forest, darting between bromeliad flowers, acacias and cacti while snapping up small insects midair. It is the only bird exclusive to Honduras and critically endangered, with fewer than 1,000 left due to habitat destruction. One thing it does have now is its own Emerald Hummingbird Reserve created 6 years ago with the help of the Nature Conservancy.
The Forest Owlet lives in the forests of central India and was considered extinct from 1884 to 1997 when it was rediscovered. Critically endangered, experts believe there are less than 250 individuals, some in areas already protected as park sanctuaries. Most of their prey are lizards with rodents and small birds making up the rest. They perch in trees and wait until they see their prey before pouncing. Birdlife International and others are working hard to increase their population numbers.
Critically endangered, Orange-bellied parrots are endemic to Australia, specifically Tasmania and the southern mainland. With fewer than 250 and some estimates as low as 50 wild parrots left, the government decided to capture 20% of the remaining wild parrots for their existing captive breeding program, to increase the genetic diversity. Work is ongoing to reestablish salt marshes and protect what is left of its habitat. Hopefully, the captive breeding program will allow reintroduction to the wild as a solid alternative and one that will pay off in the long run.
Great Indian Bustard
The endangered Great Indian Bustard is a huge bird that lives on the ground. It weighs up to 32 pounds and is 3 feet tall. It prefers arid to semi-arid conditions of scrub and brush and feeds on grass, berries, insects, rodents and reptiles. In 2008 there were less than 1,000 individuals left in the wild, both due to habitat loss and hunting. Worryingly, any attempts at breeding them in captivity have failed. Conservation attempts revolve around education programs, hefty fines for poaching (the bird is legally protected) and the reestablishment of its grasslands.
The Marvellous Spatuletail hummingbird is absolutely brilliant in coloring and design. Along with its turquoise gorget, the male only has four tail feathers, two of which are the very long ones you see that end in a violet disk or spatule. The male birds wave it frantically in mating displays to the females. There is a 5:1 female to male ratio, sadly because the spatule’s make great targets for slingshot hunting and the dried hearts of the tiny bird are believed to be an aphrodisiac by the locals in Peru. A conservation easement has been set up by EOCAN and hopefully, this endangered beauty will get the boost it needs along with education programs and eco tourism possibilities to increase its population.
Northern Bald Ibis
The critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis has a long history on earth with fossils dating back as far as 1.8 million years. The birds nest among cliff ledges and forage in the steppes nearby, which is very different from most Ibis who live in wetlands. Once plentiful in North Africa and the Middle East, population is now down to about 500 wild individuals, most in Morocco with a few in Syria. There has been a large conservation push and there is reason for some cautious optimism for possible increases in the population.
Christmas Island Frigatebird
The Christmas Island Frigatebird is endemic to Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. There are an estimated 2,400 to 4,800 mature birds and since they can only raise one chick every two years, population increases happen slowly if at all. Phosphate mine clearances have already caused one colony location to be deserted, and habitat loss is a major problem on the rest of the island. These birds are almost 100% percent aerial, neither walking nor swimming. They eat on the wing, snatching up food from the surface of the waves or beaches as well as committing “aerial piracy” by taking food from the beaks of other birds. One of the worries for the future is the introduction of the yellow crazy ant, which has almost destroyed all the red crabs on the island and conservationists fear will add extra hardship to the species.
This look at 13 of The Worlds Rarest Birds is just the tip of the iceberg for threatened birds. There are 566 species which are either endangered, critically endangered or extinct in the wild (and the rarest bird recently having been discovered), and the upcoming book will describe what the issues and solutions are. BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme funds projects worldwide and for those who wish to help, it is a great starting point.
Written by: Michele Collet