Hidden Colony Doubles Known Numbers of Rare South Pacific Bird

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
July 15, 2003

One would expect a bird living in the shadow of remote island volcanoes to lead a somewhat precarious existence. Even so, in 1993 ornithologists were shocked to discover only around 400 adults separated the Polynesian megapode (Megapodius pritchardii) from extinction.

In a desperate effort to save the species, eggs from the bird's last remaining colony, on the Tonga island of Niuafo'ou, were taken to a uninhabited speck of land, 20 hours away by boat.

Ten years on, and the experiment has proved a huge success. Much to the surprise of Dick Watling, who recently visited [March 2003] Fonualei in the western South Pacific.

"Others who had been to the island, or learned of its habitats, thought it wouldn't support megapodes, so I wasn't prepared to find them," said the Fiji-based ornithologist, who was forced to swim the last leg of his journey because large boulders prevented him landing by boat. "It was difficult doing the final 50 meters [164 feet]!"

Yet the risks were worth the effort. Before leaving the next morning he had counted enough birds—known locally as the malau—to estimate a total population of between 300 and 500. In effect, the malau's known global population had doubled overnight.

"The news is spectacular," said René Dekker, chairman of the Megapode Specialist Group, a Swiss-based conservation union working on protecting the 22 species of megapodes. "This means the malau occurs on two islands instead of one, and the population seems to have doubled."

Megapodes are found mainly in moist, tropical forests in Australasia and Southeast Asia. They belong to the avian order Galliformes, which includes grouse, partridges, pheasants, and turkeys. What sets megapodes apart from these game birds is their extraordinary breeding behavior.

Buried Eggs

"Megapodes are fascinating," said Dekker. "They are the only birds which don't incubate their eggs by means of body heat, but bury them, like sea turtles, in the soil. The chicks emerge after days of digging, but have no parents to take care of them."

Laid in burrows or under mounds, megapode eggs are incubated by the warmth of the sun, rotting vegetation, or volcanic vents. The main drawback is that few sites are suitable for the job, so eggs tend to get grouped together. This makes them relatively easy for humans and other predators to find.

Ornithologists believe this is why the malau has become so scarce.

Confined to the Kingdom of Tonga, the bird is the most threatened of 22 megapode species. It's classed as "critically endangered" by the World Conservation Union, which means it faces "an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future."

Continued on Next Page >>


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