Bird Extinction (Part 2)

Written By: Sarah Girton

Last week we took a close look at 5 species of birds who have gone extinct in the last few hundred years. This week we will look at 5 more, before switching to feel-good stories about birds who almost went extinct but were brought back to large, sustained breeding populations thanks to the efforts of thousands of selfless individuals.

  1. Laughing Owl
Laughing Owl photographed by Henry Charles Clarke Wright in the late 19th century

The Laughing Owl was endemic to New Zealand, with a subspecies on the north island, and a subspecies on the south island. This owl belonged to the genus Ninox which comprises 37 owl species living in Asia and Australia. A fascinating behavior that Laughing Owls possessed was their preference for hunting on the ground. Instead of swooping down on the wing to catch prey, they chased it on foot. They would prey on lizards, fish, bats, and even beetles. 

The Laughing Owl was named for its unusual call, which has been described as loud and frequent shrieks. Captive specimens were observed making a variety of other vocalizations.

The biggest contributor to its demise was predation by introduced species like domestic cats and stoats. The last known Laughing Owl was found deceased in Canterbury, NZ in July of 1914.

  1. Ivory Billed Woodpecker
Photo by Arthur A. Allen in 1935 of two Ivory Billed Woodpeckers at their nesting site

This bird has not been officially declared extinct, although there has not been an accepted sighting since 1944. There are dozens of unofficial sightings, but no photographic evidence. 

These woodpeckers are one of the largest such birds in the world, with a wingspan of approximately 30 inches, and a length of about 20 inches from head to tail. They mostly reside (or resided) in the southeastern United States, as well as Cuba. As such, there are two subspecies of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker: The American and the Cuban.

These birds are thought to mate for life, and they also share all of the duties that come with raising a brood. Both the male and the female work to excavate a nesting cavity in a tree, and they take turns with feeding and incubation duties. 

The biggest contributor to this birds possible extinction was logging and hunting. Even the rare specimens that were found alive were killed for private collections and taxidermy.

A man named Mike Collins has reported several sightings of the woodpecker in Louisiana. He published his findings in scientific journals such as Heliyon. I managed to find one of his videos showing possible evidence of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, filmed in 2007. Take a look and see what you think:

  1. Huia
From WL Buller’s A History of the Birds of New Zealand, 1888

This fascinating bird was another New Zealand native, belonging to the New Zealand Wattlebird family. This bird possessed the most sexually dimorphic bill shape of any bird species. The hypothesis behind this dramatic difference is that the bills either allowed the males and females to utilize different food sources, or that the male used his more pronounced bill to attract a mate. 

Because of the unique bills this bird had, they were able to have an incredibly varied diet that included insects, fruit, and plants. One of its favorite foods was the larvae of the Huhu Beetle.

They mostly inhabited hilly, forested areas, and were originally found all over the North Island. This bird was not terribly adept at flying, instead preferring to hop around the trees with its long legs. They were quiet, and not much is known about their vocalizations.

The Maori of New Zealand revered this bird. High ranking individuals often used the plumage in their dress.

Deforestation and overhunting by European settlers led to the Huia’s extinction around 1907, with unverified reports occurring for a few decades afterwards. 

  1. Bachman’s Warbler
By Louis Agassiz Fuertes, 1907

This is another bird that is most likely extinct, as there has not been a confirmed sighting since the 1960s. The Bachman’s Warbler was a migrant bird, summering in the southeastern United States and wintering in Cuba. It was named for its discoverer for the Old World, Reverend John Bachman, who studied the species back in 1832.

Like many birds, this species is sexually dimorphic, showing color and pattern differences between the male and female. As seen above, the male has richer pigmentation, and a black bib, while the female is more muted in color, but is still a beautiful mix of pale yellow and olive. Their favorite foods were insects and other small arthropods like spiders.

It’s disappearance was largely due to over-logging, and by the 1930s it was an incredibly rare sight. A handful of confirmed sightings were recorded through the 40s through the 70s, with a few unconfirmed sightings in the 80s.

  1. Hawaii Mamo
Taxidermized specimen, Bishop Museum, Honolulu

A Hawaiian Honeycreeper, the Mamo possessed a long, curved beak that was used for extracting nectar from flowers – sort of the Hawaiian equivalent to our Hummingbirds. 

This bird was highly prized by native Hawaiians for its beautiful yellow plumage. King Kamehameha I possessed a cloak made from the feathers of an estimated 80,000 of the birds. But once European settlers arrived, they introduced a host of non-native species, including 6 species of mosquitoes, mongoose, and cattle…who ate mass amounts of undergrowth in the Hawaiian forests, taking away native flowers that served as food sources to many local bird populations.

The first two parts of the blog series have been very difficult for me to write. It’s been especially difficult to learn about the habits, behaviors, and songs of birds that will never again be able to exist on this earth. But there is so much good news in light of these tragedies. As birds have continued to be studied, we have learned just how severe of an impact that humans have played in the destruction of species, concepts that weren’t very understood just a hundred years ago. Extinction was not really something that the people of that time had any reason to think about, because most people didn’t think it was possible. They did the best with the knowledge they had, though unfortunately it meant massive losses for hundreds of species throughout the world. But as early as the 1800s, scientists and bird enthusiasts were making groundbreaking discoveries, and standing helplessly by as species after species were disappearing from their respective ecosystems.

Because of what these early scientists and researchers have contributed to the cause, and for the sacrifices that they have made, we now have the tools, data, and means to ensure that as few bird species as possible suffer the same fate. For this reason I am going to finish off the series with a look at how animal conservation has brought many bird species back from the brink of extinction. There are countless organizations that have contributed to the cause, and we will never stop doing everything we can to give these beautiful, amazing creatures the best fighting chance they could possibly have.

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