The Last of the Marquesan Kingfisher Birds
ENDANGERED SPECIES ESSAY
We must safeguard the web of life and care about the other living species that we share this planet with. Pygmy tarsiers eat and host bugs that we’ve seen at home — insects, spiders, lizards, bedbugs, lice, fleas, roundworms, and tapeworms. The vaquitas are preyed upon by large sharks and killer whales, keeping them away from us. But only 10 vaquitas are left and in their absence, the diet of sharks and whales may change. A tiger in the wild indicates that the forest it inhabits is healthy and diverse. As of now, there are 3,900 tigers in the wild globally, and more than twice as many (8,000) in captivity. By protecting the web of life, we build a kinder world for everyone.
How do you write about a special bird with a blue to black stripe that masks its eyes, extending to its nape, like Zorro? For starters, you can say that little is known about them by scientists.
The Marquesan Kingfisher, also called T. godeffroyi, may have originally inhabited five Marquesan Islands in French Polynesia, but scientists aren’t certain.
Kingfisher birds have strong legs from spending most of their time standing on trees. Perhaps it’s true, too, of the T. godeffroyi, since they’re presumably sedentary, but scientists don’t know for sure.
Today, the T. godeffroyi only inhabits Tuamotu island in French Polynesia. But how many birds are there? Scientists have estimates, but they aren’t certain.
Some nests of the T. godeffroyi have been found in the forest and in plantations. But are these nests new or very old? Were they ever actually used? Scientists don’t know for sure.
What is the behavior of these mysterious birds? They’ve been captured on video holding small lizards by their necks, but not eating them. Instead, they fly off with their prey. Where do they go? Scientists don’t know.
Two T. godeffroyi were captured together on video, seemingly sending a chirp to other birds of their kind in the forest. What are they saying? Scientists aren’t sure.
What scientists know
These island groups are the Austral Islands, the Society Islands (which includes Tahiti and Bora Bora), the Gambier Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, and the Marquesas Islands, where the T. godeffroyi live. People only inhabit 67 French Polynesian islands.
The T. godeffroyi might have once inhabited five Marquesas islands, namely, Fatu Hiva, Mohotani, Ua Pou, Hiva Oa, and Tahuata island, but scientists will only confirm that they inhabited the last two mentioned islands, and went extinct in Hiva Oa in the 1980s.
Today, the T. godeffroyi only inhabits the volcanic island Tahuata, Marquesan for “sunrise” or “the enlightening home” at God’s house. It’s the smallest Marquesan island of all. Scientists are sure of this.
They are unsure about the strength of this bird’s legs, but we can be more certain of their color, having scanned Google images of the T. godeffroyi. Most kingfishers’ legs are orange, but this bird has brown to black legs, for sure.
The population of T. godeffroyi is estimated at 350. But scientists are sure that their numbers have been diminishing for the last 14 years. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) ranked the T. godeffroyi as Critically Endangered in 2009, four years after they went extinct on Hiva Oa island in 2005.
As for their nests, Kevin Cook, author, Endangered Wildlife and Plants of the World, said T. godeffroyis prefer to nest in the trunks of trees that are in a state of decay, are very old, or may have had its crown chopped off. They prefer injured or dying trees that often have suitable holes in their trunks that make good nests for them. Trees they nest in include mango, Eugenia cuminii, and Casuarina trees. Thierry Autai et. al. said the T. godeffroyi’s favorite tree for nesting is the Pandanus tectorius. This is certain.
As for behavior, Autai et. al. said T. godeffroyi are usually seen alone, and some of them have spunk. If they notice a human observing them, they may aggressively fly directly at the human, shrilling loudly to warn other birds. Others are peaceful. In the same situation, they’ll fly away, crying out a warning to their kind. Scientists are sure.
More information about T. godeffroyi
Its contrasting hue makes it arresting, ranging from pale blue to bright blue, green-blue, or aqua blue on its wings, lower back, rump, and tail.
The T. godeffroyi’s voice has been compared to a shrill whistle. To hear it, go here, and on the far right side, click the fourth box that says “listen.”
Although T. godeffroyis are usually seen alone, sometimes they’re spotted as a couple. It’s believed that usually, the two are looking for a nesting place. In one instance, a couple had a young one with them.
One screw-pine tree trunk had a nest with two entrances, and another nest was in a dead coconut tree stump. But these were found in Hiva Oa, where the T. godeffroyi is now extinct.
Ornithologists have seen some nests of the T. godeffroyi in Tahuata, but they don’t know if these nests are new or very old. As for their “zorro mask”, many animals have dark marks beneath their eyes to reduce the sun’s glare, and athletes sometimes dab black grease strips under their eyes before a game for the same reason. Maybe it’s also true of the T. godeffroyi, but one isn’t sure.
The T. godeffroyi’s habitat
Tahuata has charming dolphins and rays that swim beside boats, spinning dolphins, and the occasional group of wild horses that roam the island. Its beautiful mountainsides, white sand beaches, and waterfalls seem to be an idyllic home, but one doesn’t know, as these birds are hard to study and are only seen recorded by camera traps.
Tahuata has a population of some 640 humans as of 2012. They earn from selling copra, handicrafts, and tourism. T. godeffroyi prefer lowland to mid-latitude ranges of primary forests thick with vegetation, humidity, and near streams, rivers, creeks, or waterfalls.
Habitat deterioration is taking its toll on T. godeffroyi. Their falling numbers in Tahuata are a consequence of it. A bird can’t breed without a nest, yet forests must give way to humans breeding introduced animals like feral cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and pigs. Humans build farms and plantations on land once owned by forest-felled trees.
The T. godeffroyi is the prey of introduced animals as well, such as the house rat (Rattus rattus), feral cats, and the great horned owl (when they still existed on Hiva Oa).
A 2012 study by Thierry Autai et. al. tried to learn whether introduced species that prey on T. godeffroyi are present in Tahuata, and how many there are.
They set traps that captured rats. They were identified, measured at the ears, body, and tail, weighed, recorded, then set free. Wild cats were tracked by studying their feces on the road. Visual sightings were also recorded, and both animals are confirmed present in Tahuata.
The great horned owl’s presence remains unconfirmed, even in a follow-up study on 2013-2014. The common myna bird, which was introduced from 1920 to 1922, was confirmed present on Tahuata. It was brought to French Polynesia to fight fire wasps, but this aggressive bird, which is listed among the 100 most invasive species on the planet, displaced the T. godeffroyi from its nests, inhibiting breeding. French Polynesia has classified the common myna bird as a threat to biodiversity.
The first recorded inhabitants of the Marquesas, namely Polynesians, came from 100 to 600 A.D. The Spanish followed in 1595. Other Europeans followed, discovering an island or two, such as the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. The French wrested control in 1847, making all 118 islands into French Polynesia first as a protectorate, then in 1880, as a colony. Today it is an autonomous French territory.
Forests were converted into coffee or tea plantations and planted other crops intended for an international market, further destroying the T. godeffroyi habitat.
What is being done?
The environmental program of the French Polynesian government categorized the T. godeffroyi as a protected species. The mayor met with locals to talk about the need to preserve this bird, and how caring for it benefits locals.
This made locals more eager to learn the breeding habits and behavior of T. godeffroyi to save them from extinction. Children aged 3 to 10 are learning about this bird and the need to increase its numbers. They’ll be the next generation responsible for this bird’s care.
The mayor met the local guide, a community leader who continues to highlight the importance of T. godeffroyi to islanders. To raise chances of visually seeing the T. godeffroyi, future projects will raise point-counts time from 10 minutes to one hour. Traps will be used to control feral cats, and scientists will continue to check whether the Great Horned Owl is on Tahuata island.
Further plans include poster making in the Marquesan, Tahitian, and French languages, for distribution to schools and to the public. Also, local art events in painting, handicrafts and dances with T. godeffroyi as its theme are being planned.
Kevin Cook, the author of Endangered Wildlife and Plants of the World, stressed that forests must be replanted, and non-native wildlife should no longer be introduced to the island.
Data is needed regarding the T. godeffroyis’ nests, they must be restored to further breeding. If they see this bird alive, they may band them so they can count them.
To help locals earn money by protecting the T. godeffroyi, the Polynesian Ornithological Society Manu (SOP Manu) will train a local guide about the T. godeffroyi to promote ornithological tourism. Hopefully, locals will agree to make the T. godeffroyi the symbol of Tahuata Island.
Ecological importance of the Marquesan Kingfisher
The T. godeffroyi eats small lizards. insects, (especially beetles), grasshoppers, small vertebrates, and possibly fish, contributing to the balance of these populations.
Because they nest in the trunks of old, decaying trees and decayed hollows of pine trees, T. godeffroyis remind us of the value of deadwood, also called “coarse woody debris” which shouldn’t be cut or burned, but left on the forest floor.
In doing so, soil erosion is reduced, and moss, bacteria, lichens, and fungi are fed. Nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur are given to the soil, making it a rich environment for new plants to grow. True, the fallen trees are dead. But its entangled, dead branches protect new seedlings from herbivores, allowing new plant and tree growth to replenish the woods.
T. godeffroyi have been filmed perching on a tree branch, then plummeting downwards. Is it headed for an insect on the ground or a fish in the river? Scientists don’t know. But for the sake of the ecosystems in Tahuata Island, we hope that they will come to know all that they need to know very soon.