Guam Kingfisher: a truly rare breed
The breeding season for the Guam Kingfisher is generally December through August, and we have three pairs to introduce this year. We therefore have our work cut out for us. Historically, Guam kingfishers have been difficult to breed for several reasons, including mating compatibility – a fancy way of saying that they are very picky about who they are going to breed with. As an animal keeper, I spend a lot of time observing birds and assessing if they are compatible and ready to pair for breeding. The survival of the species depends on the production of new and healthy offspring, but no pressure!
The Guam kingfisher is known as “sihek” (see-heck) in Chamorro, the native tongue of the Marianna Archipelago, and is the rarest species we have here at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. in Front Royal, Virginia. This bird is listed by the IUCN as extinct in the wild, which means that there is not a single wild kingfisher in Guam. The last 29 remaining birds were captured in the 1980s and taken to zoos in an attempt to save the species. It’s a sad but all too common story: When brown snakes (Irregular boiga) were accidentally brought to Guam on cargo ships and military planes after WWII, they quickly wiped out 10 of the island’s 12-13 bird species. Today, the only remaining forest birds on the island of Guam are the Micronesian Starling and the Marianas Swift.
This accidental introduction of tree-dwelling brown snakes caused an ecological disaster in Guam. Think of an ecosystem as a puzzle, where every plant and animal is a piece of a puzzle. Now imagine how incomplete this puzzle looks when you start removing pieces from it. All of the birds that are now missing in Guam have served their own important purpose within the ecosystem. The Guam kingfisher has helped control populations of insects and lizards. With the elimination of birds, populations of insects, and especially spiders, have increased to the point that people often carry trekking poles to clear the path of cobwebs. Forests are also thinning or disappearing, as there are few seed-eating or fruit-eating birds to consume and spread tree seeds. It’s important that we try to replace as many pieces of this ecosystem puzzle as possible, and the Guam Kingfisher is one of them.
Today, there are only 140 Guam kingfishers around the world, all in zoological facilities dedicated to bringing them back from the brink and someday putting them back in the wild. SCBI has six of these rare and special birds – and hopefully more after this breeding season!