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Journey for Survival: Successful Translocation of the Nation's Rarest Duck
by Ken Foote
Photo Credit: John Klavitte, USFWS
There was a time when sightings of Laysan ducks (Anas Laysanesis) were scarce. Prior to 2004, the species consisted of a single population of about 450 birds found only on Laysan Island in the Pacific Ocean. But now, thanks to the efforts of dedicated wildlife professionals, this endangered species is enjoying a comeback. In fact, Laysan ducks can now be seen strolling in and out of the maintenance buildings, WWII structures, and restored wetlands at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), within the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument in Hawai‘i.
Laysan ducks are between 15 and 17 inches (38 and 43 centimeters) in length and can be identified by their multicolored brown feathers, white eye-ring, and active nocturnal behavior. The ducks are primarily insect feeders, but also feed on leaves and seeds. Pairs can form long-term bonds and the females hide their nests in thick vegetation.
Although it is still the nation’s rarest duck, the population of Laysan ducks has doubled over the last five years. There are now two populations of these once-scarce birds, and recent surveys estimate the Laysan Island population at approximately 475 and the Midway population over 400 individuals.
The journey towards recovery has been a long and tumultuous one for the Laysan duck. Driven to near extinction almost 800 years ago (by introduced rats) – then by a combination of humans (hunters and guano miners) and introduced animals (vegetation-killing rabbits) – the total population reached a low of 11 birds in 1911. The duck was listed as endangered in 1967 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, a precursor to the Endangered Species Act.
With the population of the Laysan duck at risk of extinction, action was taken and the species embarked on the next leg of its journey for survival. Between 2004 and 2005, a total of 42 juveniles and pre-breeding ducks were translocated by boat from Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands NWR to Midway Atoll NWR. Once established on Midway, the ducks flexible habitat use and tremendous breeding effort surpassed everyone’s expectations.
Laysan lies almost 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) northwest of Honolulu while Midway Atoll NWR is located about 1,250 miles (2,011 km) west-northwest of Honolulu. The atoll was chosen as a reintroduction site because it lies within the presumed prehistoric range of the species, is free of predators and provides the logistical feasibility for post-release monitoring.
The creation of this second population at Midway Atoll NWR reduces the species’ risk of extinction from random catastrophes such as hurricanes, disease outbreaks and accidental introductions of nonnative animals such as rats since a disaster is unlikely to hit two distant islands at the same time.
The translocations were a joint project by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office and the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Pacific Island Ecosystem Research Center. Additional assistance was provided by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the State of Hawai‘i Division of Forestry and Wildlife, USGS National Wildlife Health Lab, Midway Atoll NWR, the Hawaiian Islands NWR, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Agency, along with numerous volunteers.
Great strides have been made in the recovery of the Laysan Duck, but their journey to recovery is far from over. The goal for this species is delisting, which requires a total of at least 3,000 potentially breeding adult birds across five or more populations on a combination of predator-free Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and at least two predator-controlled sites in the Main Hawaiian Islands.
Ken Foote, an Information and Education Specialist for the Service's Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office in Honolulu, Hawai'i, can be reached at email@example.com or 808-792-9530.
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