A rare kingfisher species that has existed only in captivity since 1988 is the focus of a reintroduction project that may one day return it to the island of Guam.
The Sihek (also known as the Guam Kingfisher) is endemic to Guam and declined following the introduction of the predatory brown tree snake to the Pacific island in the 1950s. Currently, Sihek are managed under human care at zoos in the continental U.S. and by the Guam Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources (DAWR).
On Thursday, April 13, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that a “nonessential experimental population” of the species will be established on Palmyra Atoll, a group of small sandy islands co-managed by The Nature Conservancy and FWS. The atoll is located about 3,646 miles southeast of Guam and about 960 miles south of Hawai’i. While it has no permanent residents, scientists and staff from the federal government and nonprofits live and work on the island. Notably, rats have been eradicated and native rainforest is being restored to the atoll.
Under section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act, a population of a threatened or endangered species may be designated as an experimental population prior to its (re)introduction. The nonessential experimental population allows FWS to develop tailored take prohibitions that are necessary and advisable to provide the conservation of the species.
After the rule goes into effect, captive-bred Sihek will be released on Palmyra Atoll to increase the global population of the species and to refine release procedures for eventual reintroduction to Guam. This has been an on-going collaborative effort with Guam DAWR, The Nature Conservancy, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Sedgwick County Zoo, and the Zoological Society of London.
“The designation of an experimental population of Sihek on Palmyra Atoll sets the stage for the introduction of this species to the atoll,” said Megan Laut, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery program manager. “We will learn a lot about the Sihek behavior in the wild, on best practices to release them, and will also increase the number of birds that exist on Earth.”
The brown tree snake still exists on Guam, preventing a reintroduction attempt at this time.
The Sihek is a striking cinnamon-brown bird with bright blue wings and tail. It has a long, heavy bill that indicates its predatory feeding behavior. Sihek feed entirely on animal prey including skinks, geckos, spiders, beetles, and land crabs. They are a “sit and wait predator” that perch motionless on exposed branches and swoop down to capture prey off the ground with their bill. They are socially monogamous, and pairs share responsibilities such as territory defense, incubation, and chick rearing.
The Pacific Daily News notes: “The bird does not thrive in captivity, and according to the National Fish and Wildlife Service plan published in the Federal Register, ‘little forward progress toward a recovery program in the wild has led to few new institutions willing to hold or breed the species, which ultimately limits population growth. The small founding population, as well as the limited ability to increase the population beyond its current size, has serious implications for long-term survival of Sihek.’”
The newspaper adds: “Although we are certainly a long way from being able to bring the Sihek home, this experiment gives us hope that the bird can one day be restored to its natural habitat.”
Extinct-in-the-wild kingfisher hatches at Smithsonian
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