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Robin with insect A Seychelles magpie robin enjoying a meal.
Saving the Magpie Robin
by Nirmal Shah

In the late 1960s, while the world preoccupied itself with rock-'n'-roll and flower power and moon landings, a small bird far out in the Indian Ocean came within a hair's breadth of vanishing forever. The Seychelles magpie robin (Copsychus sechellarum), a black-feathered bird about the size of a European blackbird, dwindled to fewer than 20 individuals on a single island in the Seychelles, an archipelago of about 100 granite and coral islands strewn like a handful of beads between India and Madagascar. One bad storm, one virulent disease could have relegated the species to the extinction bin.

In 1990, BirdLife International launched an eleventh-hour preservation effort, and now, a decade hence, the Seychelles magpie robin numbers 90 individuals, with healthy populations on three islands. We at BirdLife Seychelles are proud of the part we played in coaxing the species back from the brink, but we're fully aware of how much we still have to do, and our motto remains "Safe But Not Yet Secure."

The story behind this ongoing rescue is charged with frustration and elation, grave losses and stunning victories. It's astonishing how protective you can become of individual birds when only a handful remain, how emotional you can feel about their well-being. We've suffered and celebrated and above all learned a great deal over the years, and we hope that our story can offer useful lessons for conservationists peering over similar cliff edges.

Map of Seychelles inner islands The inner islands of the Seychelles

Neither magpie nor robin
The Seychelles magpie robin is no bird of paradise. It cannot boast gloriously sweeping tail feathers or a fancy plume or outrageous colors. But its dress is as sharp as that of any bird, the males and females both bearing immaculate, glossy, coal-black plumage with a brilliant dash of white across the wings. Before the arrival of humans 230 years ago, the Seychelles magpie robin lived in lowland forests hunting insects and lizards and associating with giant tortoises, which uncovered the bird's favorite prey as they lumbered through the woods. For the robins it was a small step from following the tortoises to following people. Early English colonists bestowed the name magpie robin, because the bird's bold plumage resembles that of the European magpie, and its close relationship with humans is reminiscent of European robins.

The bird evinces a cool confidence, curiosity, and lack of fear. When you walk in the forest, the robins seek you out, and even in your house these wild birds will join you, bounding across the dinner table to look for scraps or loiter in the hope of being fed. To the Seychellois, as the people of our country are known, the Seychelles magpie robin is as precious as, say, the bald eagle is to Americans.

While charming to us, the magpie robin's tame behavior almost led to its downfall. Once widespread in the Seychelles, it lived in closed-canopy forest, and its only predators were the native Wright's skink and an endemic snake, which stole eggs and chicks from the birds' nests. But the natural balance was thrown off in the decades after Europeans began permanently settling the archipelago in 1770. Colonists felled the forest for timber and farmland, and as the species became rare, bird collectors hunted it. In the 19th-century, one Frenchman reportedly shot 24 Seychelles magpie robins in one day on the island of Aride. (If he had done that on the island of Frégate in the 1960s, he would have extinguished the species.) Most devastating of all were the predators that came with the settlers: rats, cats, and the Indian mynah bird. The naïve and confiding magpie robins have no defense against these crafty hunters, and they succumbed on one island after the other.

Skinks eating eggs The Wright's skink, a lizard native to the Seychelles, likes to dine on magpie robins' eggs and chicks.
By 1970, 16 Seychelles magpie robins remained on Earth, all on Frégate. The species had become the most critically endangered of the Seychelles' 11 endemic bird species and one of the world's rarest birds. In the 1970s, conservationists tried to start a new colony on Aride but failed for unknown reasons. Research work took place in that decade and the one following, but no comprehensive conservation effort existed. By 1980, the population had increased to 27, but ten years later, it had dropped to 23. The future did not look promising for Copsychus sechellarum.

Then, in 1990, with funding from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, BirdLife International initiated its Recovery Program. Over the next decade, the population blossomed by nearly 400 percent.

How did this happen? How does one go about saving a species so close to extinction?

To the rescue
First, the ornithologists on the project had to ask two questions: Why is the Seychelles magpie robin headed for extinction? And how can this slide be reversed? To learn the chief causes of high mortality, researchers typically rely on an experimental approach. That is, they use portions of the population as a control to separately test each factor—for instance, habitat loss or mynah predation—and then tease out the key limiting factors. But during such tests, controls continue to fare poorly, and we couldn't risk that with such a tiny population. So we studied their ecology observationally.

Robin chart 1

Robin chart 2 The overall population of Seychelles magpie robins has increased manifold since the early 1990s (top chart). But a closer look at individual island populations during the 1990s shows a species far from thriving (bottom chart). Note: click on charts to see larger versions.

We determined that changes in land use cause loss of habitat, that safe nest sites were in short supply, and that Indian mynahs were eating eggs and chicks. Surprisingly, adult birds were also succumbing to household pesticides, which residents put out to keep down the cockroach population. (Seychelles magpie robins love cockroaches and will eat them dead or alive.) Perhaps the poor birds could survive one of these assaults, but not the combined effect.

With these data in hand, Recovery Program staff got to work. They built nest boxes and provided supplementary food every day. To begin restoring the habitat, they replanted native trees. They banned household pesticides and set about controlling the mynah population. Finally, they raised public awareness by telling Frégate residents of the dangers and distributing informational leaflets. By 1995, the Seychelles magpie robin population had more than doubled.

Continue: Other Islands

Seychelles Through Time | Saving the Magpie Robin
Why Do Islands Breed Giants? | Build an Island
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