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Sedgwick County Zoo part of project to save endangered birds

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, June 9, 2013, at 8:15 p.m.

It’s not every bird that gets to stay in a hotel suite on a tropical island.

But the birds of the Mariana Avifauna Conservation Project are not just any birds.

They’re critically endangered, and the Sedgwick County Zoo is helping to increase their numbers on the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which are in the western Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the Philippines.

The zoo’s curator of birds, Scott Newland, recently returned from field work on the islands as part of a project involving several zoos that are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

“It’s amazing,” he said of the field work. “You can see the immediate impact of the work we’re doing.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began studying local birds on the islands in the 1990s.

“When they got done with their census work, they discovered that not every species of bird was on every island. There was no rhyme or reason,” Newland said.

The culprit turned out to be a brown tree snake introduced to the islands during World War II, when the military brought in equipment that had been stored in Australia and New Guinea.

“They think the snake was a stowaway,” Newland said. “The local population saw the birds were tanking.”

The snake was feasting on the islands’ birds. Nine of the original 13 species of birds native to Guam were wiped out.

The snake hadn’t made it to the island of Rota, north of Guam. Snake-sniffing dogs are still used today to ensure that snakes don’t leave Guam and travel up the chain of islands.

Members of the conservation project are transporting birds from the southern islands to the northern islands to try to ensure their survival if the snake ever were to make its way north.

The project did its first field work in 2004, conducting a census and research to make sure moving the birds wouldn’t cause them harm.

In 2006, the first group of bridled white-eye birds were moved from Rota to the island of Sarigan.

“Sarigan is where we have concentrated our efforts,” said Newland, who joined the project in 2011.

“These are essentially U.S. birds,” he said.

Guam is a territory of the United States. The rest of the islands form a commonwealth.

In 2011, the project moved golden white-eye birds to Sarigan from Saipan. And last year, it moved the Marianas fruit dove from Saipan to Sarigan.

This year, the group moved the fruit dove and Rufous fantails.

The project relocates birds in small numbers. For example, the team moves 30 to 40 golden white-eyes and 20 to 30 doves at a time.

The team uses mist nets, made of fine nylon, to catch the birds and then keeps them in transport boxes.

“We have a (hotel) room we rent just for the birds,” Newland said.

Summer Holiday, a locally owned hotel in Garapan, Saipan, has supported the project since 2004, Newland said.

“In any given year, we could have up to 100 birds in the bird room,” he said.

Catching the birds is the easy part, he said.

Maintaining them and keeping them healthy until a helicopter can move them is the real challenge, he said.

“It takes four trips of a helicopter to get ready for the birds,” Newland said.

The helicopter crew has to store fuel on Sarigan. Then it transports the field equipment, followed by the biologists and then the birds.

The birds are weighed upon capture and have to maintain or gain weight before they can be transported north.

For the fruit doves, which Newland said “are not fast learners,” that means tube feeding three times a day. The team moved 26 of the doves this year.

The bridled and golden white-eyes eat fruit such as papaya and mango as well as insects like mealworms.

Feeding the fantails is a bit more involved. They are flycatchers, and “this year, all the flies we ordered arrived dead,” Newland said.

The team bought fish at a market and left it out to rot to attract flies. Team members then trapped the flies, put them in petri dishes and slid them into the transport boxes to feed the fantails.

“It takes some finesse,” Newland said.

Fish and Wildlife employees stay 10 to 12 days after the birds are relocated to monitor them.

“We’re already seeing a very marked increase in the number of birds,” Newland said.

The team released 100 bridled white-eyes in 2008 and 2009, and the fall census last year estimated there were between 1,800 and 3,200 of the birds.

“And they’ve seen the Rufous fantails building nests,” Newland said.

In any given year, there are about 15 to 18 members of the field team. Zoos that send members have to agree to pay their way and their salaries. The commitment is $4,000 per person.

The Sedgwick County Zoo used money from its Quarters for Conservation program to send Newland.

The zoo has been a member of the project since 2006.

“I’m excited that Sedgwick County Zoo is included in an endeavor with (Fish and Wildlife) that is important in establishing an insurance population of these unique bird species,” zoo director Mark Reed said in an e-mail.

The project also brings some birds back to the United States to learn more about them in captivity. The Sedgwick County Zoo has the Marianas fruit dove on exhibit in its jungle. The bridled white-eye and golden white-eye are off exhibit.

While on the islands, the team also conducts education programs for the public and for students.

All of the birds have a cultural tie. A man interested in dating a woman prepares and presents a fruit dove to the woman’s mother, Newland said. The Rufous fantail is said to lead people astray. The birds fly only as far as they need to. If you approach one, it will fly a few feet away, and then another few feet.

Legend has it that men out fishing or hunting who didn’t get home on time would blame their tardiness on the bird, saying the Rufous led them astray. Women who suspect their husbands are cheating on them will call the mistress a “chicharika,” the native word for the fantail.

Reach Deb Gruver at 268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com.

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