New Avian Database to Help in Bird Species Survival

July 24, 2003

The large egg moved in the incubator at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary in Hickory Corners, Michigan. A crack appeared, growing slowly until a pink beak and then a wet, silvery-grey head emerged—a trumpeter swan cygnet.

This hatchling is just one of hundreds of its kind that have been incubated and raised in captivity for release into North America's wetlands. Most trumpeter swans disappeared from the continent by the turn of the 20th century, hunted for meat and their coveted feathers, which were highly prized for women's hats and pillows.

Reintroduction efforts for these stunning white swans—North America's largest waterfowl—is a huge success story. Since the mid-1980s, 1,903 swans have been released in the Midwest and Canada, swelling the region's population from less than 200 twenty years ago to about 3,500 today.

But back in the 1970s when biologists and wildlife managers struggled to save the nearly-extinct birds, they didn't know how to begin. "We're missing a lot of the basic information on the biology of most animals," said George Amato, director of conservation and science programs at the Bronx-based Wildlife Conservation Society. Scientists know even less about the often-subtle interdependence of ecosystem residents.

The need for that information is urgent. Among birds worldwide, one in eight species is facing extinction because of habitat loss, hunting, pollution and other threats. To reverse this trend, conservationists are breeding certain species and releasing them back into their native neighborhoods.

Creating an Avian Database

But some reintroduction programs are more successful than others. Each attempt involves trial and error and little data on previous reintroductions are available. But now the Avian Reintroduction Database, in development at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, will help conservationists design future programs based on the lessons of the past by cataloguing information on bird biology, release methods and ecosystems.

Joanne Earnhardt, LPZ's director of conservation biology is spearheading the project. The idea grew out of an effort to save highly endangered Micronesian kingfishers in Guam, where many bird species had been decimated by a brown snake invasion. Earnhardt's colleagues rescued 29 birds off the island, bred and raised them—but now wrestle over how to release them. Two pairs at a time? Five pairs? Or just five males first to see if they survive?

"That's when we decided we wanted to synthesize this information into something people could use," Earnhardt says. A team from the Lincoln Park Zoo began brainstorming the database in 2001, eventually joining forces with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"This is an attempt to create a more scientific approach to reintroduction," said Eric Vanderwerf, Hawaiian bird recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who advises on the database's design.

After combing the scientific literature for papers detailing bird reintroductions, the team searched websites and unearthed unpublished data. They've identified 105 different reintroduced bird species—from New World parrots, the California condor, and the palila (a type of Hawaiian honeycreeper), to Griffon vultures in Europe, the toutouwa (also known as the New Zealand robin) and the Bali starling.

Logging species in at a rate of about 10 per month, the data should be compiled by the end of the year. The database will ultimately be posted on the Web.

Continued on Next Page >>


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