James Millet with captive Magpie Robins.
Photo: Dave Currie
August 16, 2002
Challenges to Conservation - The Magpie Robin
This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Seychelles.
Establishing the critically endangered Magpie Robin population is a remarkable accomplishment considering the fragility of species that are endemic to isolated oceanic islands. As the team from Nature Seychelles and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) learned, the road to recovery is fraught with major challenges and unpredictable setbacks. For example: Just when all appeared to be going well, with populations being re-established on the islands of Cousin and Cousine, tragedy struck the Magpie Robin population on Frigate Island. Brown rats were accidentally introduced, threatening the success of the entire program and ultimately the continued existence of the Magpie Robin. James Millet explains.
On Frigate [Island], the population recovered to about 40 birds by the mid-90s and of course this meant that there were birds to harvest for translocation to other islands which there haven't been in the past. By 1995, there was a major setback to the program; there was a hotel since the 1970s on the island. It was a very small operation and that was redeveloped. The new buildings required the import of quite a lot of new material including thatch. Around that time, brown rats became established on the island. Now there is no definite proof but it seems likely that building materials and most likely of all, thatch was the root that rats got onto the island. Once established, they spread extremely quickly, within two years it had reached an enormous population. The numbers of rats on the island, between about 1997-2000 were quite unreal. You could easily step out at night and see thirty rats running in front of you. That was a big problem. It was a big problem for Magpie Robins because we gained some evidence that young Magpie Robins when they leave the nest spend a lot of time on the ground. They roost on the ground. Brown rats are not good climbers but they are quite predatory and we were losing a lot of young birds within ten days of leaving the nest.
The population growth slowed and began to decline slowly. It was a huge hindrance to the hotel operation. So the island managers decided to undertake rat eradication in 2000. They went in with two other islands to spread the cost and it was a pretty major operation. It involved using helicopters spread cereal bait laced with a poison across the whole island. This bait is extremely safe to humans, reptiles, and invertebrates - pretty much everything. It is very toxic to mammals. Rats and humans are the only mammals on the island, but it is slightly toxic to birds. As a precaution, we decided that we would take the entire Magpie Robin population into captivity and that was thirty-two birds in June 2000.
We succeeded during April and May of that year to capture all of the birds, which was extremely difficult, because many of them had been caught before for ringing purposes or colouring and were very wary. But, we succeeded in catching them. We worked closely with Adelaide Zoo and their avicultural experts and their veterinarian experts. In the captive phase, we maintained all of the birds, we had no losses at all and they actually breed in captivity and produced seven juveniles. After four months in captivity, we were able to release them where establishment was absolutely fantastic. Within the first six months, we only lost one bird and that was a young one that drowned in a bucket of water. It was an absolutely accidental death. They re-established brilliantly and the population shot up to about fifty on the island.
It is very important to insure that there are measures in place to prevent a 'backslide' of any of the populations. We certainly look at social and management factors in the islands that we have selected to translocate birds to and in fact the three islands that have had birds translocated to, two of them have special reserve status, so it is extremely unlikely that at any time in the foreseeable future, that reserve status will be eroded and there may be further developments on the island, so those populations are very secure.
Photo: Courtesy of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
We all, also, have to be vigilant to ensure that we do not have any backslides. One of the great threats is the re-introduction of rats. All of the islands, which are rat-free, go to considerable lengths through quarantine events, to maintain, maintenance of permanent, rat bait stations around harbours, airstrip, stores - that sort of thing to ensure that rats do not get back onto those islands because it is a very complicated and very difficult process to get rid of rats.
With no precedent detailing captive husbandry for the Robins, and no Magpie Robins having survived captivity for more than a few days all involved were under a great deal of pressure. Ultimately, they had to undergo a crash course in the art of captive breeding. Hard work on this issue by Nature Seychelles and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) culminated in the development of a handbook that is fast becoming a blueprint for how to include captive management as an integral part of threatened species recovery, worldwide.
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