Open Spaces: Leaving the nest: Millerbird Chick Flies into History

Leaving the nest: Millerbird Chick Flies into History

A child leaving home is always a big deal to the parents, but in this case it’s a big deal to an entire species.

The species in question is the tiny endangered Hawaiian songbird known as the “Millerbird.” And the “big deal”? The fledgling of a Millerbird on Laysan Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

You see, until this past September, no one had seen a Millerbird on Laysan Island in almost a century. Rabbits and other introduced grazing animals had devastated the island’s vegetation, destroying Millerbird habitat and by 1923 effectively wiping out the Millerbird population.

MillerbirdA millerbird looks at home on Laysan Island. Photo: R. Kohley/American Bird Conservancy & USFWS

Luckily there was a second population 650 miles away on the 170-acre (about a quarter square mile) island of Nihoa. This population, which now numbers about 775 birds, was all that stood between the Millerbird species and extinction. And as we know all too well from what happened on Laysan, a population concentrated in such a small area is always at risk of disappearing from a single extreme event. 

In an effort to cut that risk and to return the bird to part of its historic range, in the autumn of 2011, 24 Millerbirds were caught on Nihoa and released on Laysan Island.

For the past 20 years we’d been getting their old home ready for their return, eliminating exotic foraging species and restoring the native low shrubs and bunch-grasses where Millerbirds forage for insects. 

MillerbirdThe first Millerbird chick fledged on Laysan Island in nearly 100 years. Photo: R. Kohley/American Bird Conservancy 

At least 21 of the 24 birds survived the winter storm season on Laysan. And now, with evidence that the birds are nesting and successfully rearing young, it looks like we’ve turned a corner on both restoration of the island and long-term survival of the Millerbird. 

Biologists have been stationed on Laysan Island for six months after the release. You can get their fascinating notes from the field at: http://www.fws.gov/pacificislands/nihoamillerbird.html and http://abcbirds.wordpress.com/.

The reintroduction effort is a cooperative venture between the American Bird Conservancy and the Service, resulting from many years of research and detailed planning by biologists and resource managers. Both Laysan and Nihoa Islands are within the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

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Last updated: June 21, 2012