Latest research: hope for endangered island birds, vulture venom crisis

San Cristóbal Mockingbird that adapts to change

What do you do when people invade your island and change large habitats? For the San Cristóbal Mockingbird Mimus melanotis (endangered) the answer seems to be: “Keep calm and carry on.” When investigating the heavily degraded Galápagos Island of San Cristóbal, the researchers found that this endemic bird species was far more common than before and appears to have had a stable population since the 1980s. Although the original vegetation has been compromised by grazing goats, human settlements, and non-native plants and animals, the mockingbird appears to have managed to adapt and tolerate change better than some of its relatives on neighboring islands. Local eyewitnesses also suggest that the least vermilion flycatcher Pyrocephalus dubius (currently believed to be extinct) persisted until recently – and may still survive somewhere on the island.

Peruvian diving petrel in recovery

Great news for this endangered seabird who may soon be returning to its former glory thanks to the protection of its island breeding areas. The Peruvian diving bird Pelecanoides garnotii used to have a large population of around 100,000 breeding pairs on offshore islands along the coasts of Peru and Chile. By the 1980s, however, the numbers had dropped to just 1,000 pairs. The nesting sites were occupied by guano miners, hunters, and predatory rats and dogs. In Chile, the bird now breeds on only five islands. Three of them are protected by law, but only two have management plans. In their survey, the researchers found that the Chilean petrel population had grown rapidly recently and now numbers 12,500 breeding pairs, 95% of which are found on Choros Island, the only island with adequate protection. This study shows what can be achieved if seabirds are allowed to breed in peace and security, and the importance of extending this model to other islands.

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White-backed vulture © Laszlo Csoma

African white-backed vulture in poisoning crisis

The white-backed vulture, Gyps africanus, is threatened with extinction, largely due to poisoning throughout its range. Unlike Asian vultures, which are often accidentally poisoned, much of this poisoning is intentional. For example, ivory poachers can dip elephant carcasses in pesticides to kill vultures that might otherwise congregate around the remains and draw attention to their illegal activities. Other vultures are poisoned for belief-based use of their body parts. Aerial photographs of the species in north-central Botswana showed that the number of nests had decreased by more than half between 2006 and 2017 and that the breeding success in 2017 was also significantly lower than ten years ago. This population is predicted to be evicted from the area in the next 13 years if recent high levels of poisoning persist.

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