Encountering the Endangered – First Day on Guam

by Bridget Hardy

Environmental Studies
Class Rank: Junior

The heat of the day already presenting itself, at 10 a.m. our group hurried off to the Department of Agriculture. Our first day on Guam was still a mystery to all of us. All we knew of the schedule was a trip to the Department of Agriculture and a hike to a lake.

The sun beat down on us as we hid in the shade and met Dr. Ginsburg’s colleague Brent Tibbatts and our endangered bird specialist, Suzanne Malina. With Suzanne dressed in jeans, I was impressed and slightly speculative as to how she could remain cool in this heat. I guess you can get used to it over time.

She led us over to a fenced-in plot of land with aisles of cages. We all rushed up to the fencing to peer in and see what there was to see. She quickly cautioned us back and said that we need to give the birds some space. Oops.

She went over to a cage door she recognized well and opened the hatch. Leaving the door wide open and reaching in, I was worried the bird would get loose. That’s funny, though, because it wouldn’t make a difference; these birds are flightless.

The Guam Rail, locally called ko’ko’, is a critically endangered, flightless bird of Micronesia. Several people are trying to regenerate populations of these little guys in cages using local diets and a little T.L.C. Currently, there are 140 birds on Guam, and populations of 35 birds in zoos on the mainland, such as in my sweet home Chicago.

Dr. Ginsburg told me of a joke that a young Chamorro kid told him once: his uncle remembers days when the “ko’ko’ blackened the sky.” Um hmm. Likely story.

The rail birds we watched were in a captive breeding recovery program. Twenty one rail birds were captured in 1984, and it wasn’t until 1997 that successful reproduction yielded around 100 chicks.

The first rail that was brought out, named Tano (Chamorro for “land”), was passed around between us, some of us shaking a little with hesitation. Suzanne instructed us to keep our hands flat and hold them to the bird’s chest, allowing him to step up onto your hands when he felt ready. He would bite our thumbs and jerk our phalanges around with his beak. We learned that this was his way of looking for a mate. He thought our thumbs were female birds, hehe.

While passing the bird around, Suzanne told us about the difficulties of increasing the rail population. Rails are an interesting type of bird: they have distinct individual personalities and odd habits. For example, the birds are startlingly selective when choosing whom they want to mate with, and some of the males are terribly viscous with the females. Furthermore, parents sometimes kill their chicks, and chicks hatching from eggs have only a 42 percent success rate, perhaps because of a small gene pool and inbred disruptions. Rails apparently have clean habits, though, and will bring their dead spouse or chicks to the opening of their cage and present it to Suzanne or another caretaker.

Suzanne replaced the rail and took out a second guy, this one with a non-Chamorro name, Staples. He received this name after eating a handful of staples after a typhoon came through the area and food was a challenge. He needed surgery to remove the metal, but he’s okay now!

Staples was a frisky guy. He was intent on mating with Kirby Culbertson’s hand (a fellow student of mine) for a while, and she allowed it. I guess when an endangered species wants to mate, you let ‘em! Staples also loves toes, and we let him walk around and peck at our toes. Ouch! He especially likes a challenge, so anyone who curled up their toes and hid them under their sandals was just asking for a peck from Staples.

Moving on, we left the gated area and into a new plot of land with tall cages, reserved for the Guam Kingfisher birds, or sihek.

These poor guys are extinct in the wild, due to active predation from brown tree snakes, an introduced reptile on the island. Twenty eight were accounted for and captured in 1986, and today 134 exist. This is thanks to a captive breeding recovery program. This year, 2010, is the first year of chicks at the Department of Agriculture in Guam! Suzanne admits that reproduction was difficult at first. Observing has revealed that parent sihek will care for any young brought before them, and care for them royally, except for when it comes to feeding. Parent sihek are ignorant when it comes to feeding their immobile chicks, and they simply don’t feed them at all. This is a major reason for the failure of the captivity efforts. Upon learning this, breeding strategies were materialized and soon after — this year — chicks have been raised! Hurray!

Pictures shown to us show the neonate form of newborns. They do not have developed eyes or any feathers upon hatching, merely a tiny skeleton, pink skin, and a hatching muscle. I am not surprised that the chicks are vulnerable and endangered. They grow quickly, however, and in about 20 days, they look like regular birds.

The birds at the Department of Agriculture are a bright yellow color and stayed on their perches on the back corners of the cages during our visit. We observed from a distance with sadness and respect. Suzanne told us that the birds are fed a local diet, which includes geckos. A visitor in the past from mainland (who also works with sihek recovery) remarked that the sihek on Guam live in cages, “like the high rises of Manila, overlooking the slums.” I guess I don’t feel too horribly for these guys then.

We shifted along into a final preserved area, the bat room. Here was a solitary bat, fanihi, named Stinky. Fittingly so; the small room was considerably smelly. He was such a big bat! Bigger than I remember seeing in Costa Rica, similar to what you might see on television or in a movie with haunted houses and vampires. I found it funny, though, that the little dude had a face resembling that of a bear! Kirby brought it up and I agreed with her. His furry head had a long snout, with a nose very similar to a brown bear’s.

The guy holding him appeared to be fighting with him, but protested that the biting was mostly playful. Soon he was cringing a bit, though, and admitted that Stinky was starting to dig his nasty teeth into his hands. He stuffed him back into the cage hastily. Stinky began climbing around noisily, banging his body against the sides of the cage, and ripping his claws into the newspaper on the floor. I was nervous. Stinky was definitely intimidating while making loud noises with his body, though I was just as afraid of the mammal when he was being still.

Suzanne also educated us on another endangered recovery program for the island aga, or crows. They were given assistance reproducing. Once successful, a soft release was ordered and the birds were carefully integrated into wildlife. Electric fences were built on the trunks of trees housing aga nests, to ward off their biggest predator, the brown tree snake.

Populations of aga were doing well and strengthening. Yet, one day, the Department of Agriculture scientists went into the field to count the number of birds and found only two males. It is uncertain how the birds died, though there are speculations involving ignorant civilians and shotguns.

From tours and education, the USC ENST Scientific Dive Team has experienced firsthand the horrific reality of critically endangered bird species on Guam. I have a newfound respect for crows, which I previously thought of as a nuisance and not particularly attractive.

Suzanne pointed out that many people on Guam are uneducated in terms of bird population sizes and endangerment on the island. She receives comments regularly from civilians that there are birds on the island.

Chickens maybe, yes.

But not birds.

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