The Magpie Robin
Photo: Dave Currie
August 13, 2002
Magpie Robin Recovery Program
This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in the Seychelles.
Changes to the natural environment often benefit humans but create severe problems for wildlife. Before humans arrived in the Seychelles 250 years ago, birds like the Magpie Robin were numerous and widespread. Part of the reason was that there were almost no predators that threatened them apart from the odd lizard or gecko that may have destroyed some eggs or even killed a few young chicks. Today, the Seychelles Magpie Robin is one of the world's most endangered species. It is a distinctive black and white bird with a beautiful flute-like song. It's bold nature and inexperience with land predators, coupled with its propensity to hop around on the forest floor left it vulnerable to the predators that settlers brought with them: cats, dogs, pigs and rats, while land clearing robbed it of its preferred habitat.
Today, we spoke with James Millet of Nature Seychelles. James is one of a small but dedicated group of people responsible for the Magpie Robin Recovery Program
My name is James Millet, I work for Nature Seychelles although technically I'm employed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, (RSPB) which is the Bird Life partner in the UK. I am out here to give technical support to Nature Seychelles.
There are officially twelve endemic bird species in the Seychelles. The Seychelles Magpie Robin is one of a group of birds called Copsychus, they're related to Flycatchers and Chats. Magpie Robins are found throughout Asia and Madagascar, but the species in the Seychelles is unique and also the most endangered one. They're a forest living species that like an open forest structure while they hunt for food on the ground. Evidence from historical records suggests that they were found on all of the inner, granitic islands on the Seychelles bank. It's doubtful that they were found on Bird Island or Denis, which are much newer sand cays. They were historically recorded from at least seven islands, but the early ornithologists who came to the Seychelles came after a great deal of plantation agriculture had already started, so they had probably become extinct on other islands. They then rapidly began to disappear during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from their remaining range.
All of the evidence we have strongly indicates there were two main factors causing the decline of the Magpie. The first one was changes in land use, particularly the lowland forest and the coastal plateaus which were felled for agriculture and housing. The early settlers also brought a range of animals, particularly cats and Black rats to the islands, and these are predators to the Magpie Robin. Black rats are agile climbers, they will climb up into the nests and eat the eggs or babies of Magpie Robins. Magpie Robins are virtually without fear, they are extremely confiding with no natural fear of cats so they were easy prey.
The low point for the Magpie Robin was in the 1950's when a naturalized population on the Alfonse atoll became extinct within a few years of cats being introduced, leaving a sole surviving population on Frigate Island. This population actually went down to only 14 individuals and seemed to range on average between about 20 and 40 individuals between 1950 and the late 1980's.
Prior to 1990 there had been virtually no conservation measures on the Magpie Robin, although cats had been eradicated from Frigate Island during the 1980's. There was some concern among the international community that it was a bird that was very likely to go extinct. There had only been periodic visits by ornithologists on sabbatical or holiday that had even looked at the birds. In 1990, the RSPB and Bird Life International launched the Recovery Program. At the outset, most efforts were concentrated on Frigate Island to try and bring this population up to a safe level. In 1990 there were 22 Magpie Robins on Frigate. The people out there at that time immediately started a program of research in parallel with conservation measures, the research confirming that the conservation measures implemented were the right ones. It was very simple things like planting native trees to increase the area of forest, clearing alien plants like the futtock grass which forms very dense stands preventing the Magpie Robins from having good feeding areas. Nesting boxes were also put up, giving them secure nest sights and controlling introduced pests such as the Indian Minor bird, which are a predator of the nest.
Photo: Chris Johnson
The Recovery Program has been a remarkable success, first of all it has saved a bird from almost certain extinction. Without management and without the removal of cats and rats, I think it is very unlikely we would have had Magpie Robins alive today if it hadn't been for the Recovery Program. The population now stands at about one hundred to one hundred and ten birds, this is not sufficient to take the birds off the endangered list so we still have a lot of work to do. We have identified a number of islands that are suitable for them but need some conservation work, either forest management or predator eradications. We are working with island managers to make these islands more suitable, we are optimistic that we will establish another one or two populations in the next two years.
It has been a very important 'flagship' species for the Seychelles, several species have been recovered from the brink of extinction, but the Magpie Robin has certainly been the most interesting and the most charismatic. We've learned a great deal and even developed a captive management book on this. It has increased our knowledge not only in the Seychelles but also on a worldwide basis for the management of some of the more difficult endangered island endemics.
In regards to education and capturing the hearts and minds of the public, the Magpie Robin is a dream species to work with. It's very charismatic, it's a very sharp looking bird, it's black and white, they're totally fearless, they come into houses and run around your feet, they take food off the dinner table. People love them. Certainly a number of species are still being introduced. Although good legislation exists it is very important that people are aware, the general public is aware of the threats of introducing alien species and are able to report accidental introductions to an agency such as the Ministry of Environment or Nature Seychelles so action can be taken to prevent their establishment.
Saving species threatened with extinction is widely acknowledged to be one of the most urgent and important jobs now facing humanity. Sadly, not many species facing extinction are brought back to populations of more than 100 individuals. Projects such as the Magpie Robin Recovery Program is an outstanding conservation success story. The excellent work co-coordinated by Nature Seychelles and funded by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is an example to the rest of us of what can be achieved through cooperation among varied interest groups coupled with ecologically sustainable management.
For more information see the 'Captive Management Handbook for a Critically Endangered Species: The Seychelles Magpie - Robin'.
ISBN Number - 99931-53-04-4
Log by Genevieve Johnson