One of the world’s most endangered birds has finally been coaxed into laying eggs in captivity for the first time. The little spoon-billed sandpipers are currently balancing on the brink of extinction, but now they may have new hope.
“For the last two years – ever since all the spoonies came into maturity – we’ve been doing everything short of playing Barry White to get these birds in the mood for love,” explains Nigel Jarrett, the head of Conservation Breeding at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust. “And for two years we’ve come up scratching our heads and feeling a bit deflated.” Now, however, it seems that they have cracked it.
Currently, there are only around 200 breeding pairs of the plucky little birds left in the wild, and the future is not looking so great for the creatures. They’ve been facing a 25 percent decline year on year since 2002, prompting a warning that they could be extinct within a decade. The birds traditionally make a massive 16,000-kilometer (10,000-mile) migration from the tundra of northern Siberia where they breed, down along the Pacific coast into Southeast Asia where they feed, and back again.
The lighter-colored eggs are dummy eggs placed in the nest to replace the real darker-colored eggs, which are removed and placed in an incubator. T.Gribbs/WWF
What has resulted in this shock decline is probably a mixture of things. The destruction of their habitat is inevitably involved, as countries such as China and South Korea have been reclaiming the wetlands and mudflats that act as stopping-off points to sustain them during their migration. Coupled with the destruction of their breeding groups in Russia before they became protected and it was already not looking great. But now a third threat has also been identified, as it is thought that traditional bird trappers in Burma may have been the primary cause of the sandpipers’ decline.
The dramatic drop in numbers led conservationists to set up a captive breeding population as a back-up in case the wild birds continue to decline. In 2011, just over a dozen spoon-billed sandpiper eggs were removed from the wild, and the birds that hatched were sent to the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust reserve in Slimbridge. But they have faced problems in trying to get them to breed, mainly because they don’t know exactly what it is in nature that gets them in the mood.
“In the wild they migrate from tropical Asia to Arctic Russia to breed, experiencing huge differences in temperature, habitats and daylight along the way,” says Jarrett. “Each of those factors could play a part in getting the birds’ hormones surging, so we’ve done our best to recreate that experience in aviaries in Gloucestershire.” Whatever happened, they cracked it, and now they have seven precious eggs to show.
Main image: ken/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0