Written By: Sarah Girton
It is a massive loss for Planet Earth when a species goes extinct. And after many beautiful species lost the battle, we have started to take note that our actions have been causing irreparable damage. Humankind is starting to make amends for past actions – and we now see how precious, how delicate, and yet how resilient nature is. That is why, after discussing ten species of birds that we have lost, it is time to switch gears and take a look at a few species of birds who have made a comeback!
So without further ado, here are 6 species of birds that have come back from the brink of extinction! I wanted to keep this list shorter so that I can provide more info on each bird I’m discussing.
North America’s largest native waterfowl, the Trumpeter Swan nearly went extinct in the early 20th century. Original estimates placed them at about 70 individuals that lived near Yellowstone National Park. However, several thousand were discovered in the 50s, giving renewed hope to conservationists. Today there are an estimated 63,000 Trumpet Swans.
This stunning all-white swan can reach a wingspan of over 6 feet, and weigh upwards of 25 pounds. Needless to say these guys require quite the running start for liftoff – about 100 yards! And like most waterfowl, they mate for life. A pair bond forms between two individuals between the ages of three and four years old, and they will raise broods together year after year. The average lifespan for a Trumpeter Swan is about 24 years.
While we’re on the topic of large birds, it’s hard to compete with the California Condor, who can have a wingspan of up to 11 feet! This is the largest native bird in North America. Unfortunately, it became completely extinct in the wild back in the 1980s. But that was due to all 22 remaining birds being captured by scientists in order to place the birds into an extensive breeding program. Thanks to human intervention, there are now an estimated 435 of these magnificent birds.
The number might be much higher were it not for the California Condor’s breeding habits. Only one egg is laid per nesting season, and that chick (provided it survives to maturity) will not breed for 6-8 years. One of the other major threats to this bird is lead poisoning from feeding on the remains of animals that were shot with lead bullets. Thankfully, California outlawed lead ammunition in 2008.
With their long, slender neck, stark black and white plumage, and a ballet-esque mating dance, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more elegant bird than the Whooping Crane. They prefer to live around the water’s edge, particularly areas with lots of vegetation in which to build their nests.
Like every other bird I’ve already discussed, the Whooping Crane became endangered due to habitat loss and overhunting. Official conservation efforts began in the 1960s, with smaller, less successful pursuits taking place before that. The more recent efforts have seen moderate success, but any progress is worth celebrating! The Cornell Lab of Ornithology states: “Thanks to intensive conservation efforts, the population has grown from a low of 21–22 individuals in 1941 to 802 captive and wild individuals in 2021 (with around 136 in captivity), according to the International Crane Foundation.”
Lastly, I wanted to share an impressive behavior from these guys. Their mating ritual involves hopping, dancing, and behavior synchronizations, and it’s so cool to watch!
This parrot, whose name literally means “Night Parrot” in Maori, is native to both islands of New Zealand. It was already extremely rare by the time Europeans arrived in the 1840s; Native Maori tribespeople would use the birds’ plumage in their ceremonial dress. The species hit its lowest count in the 1990s, with a mere ~50 individuals known to exist. Today, thanks to human intervention, there are 252 individuals, who are all named and tagged.
These birds are flightless, which has, historically, made them easy prey for introduced predators like cats and stoats. Thankfully, in 1982 there was an initiative to rid the islands of feral cats, who had been killing 56% of the Kakapo population every year.
So, why don’t Kakapo fly? Before humans arrived in New Zealand, there were very few natural predators. It is typical of island species, especially birds, to develop something called “island syndrome”, where a species undergoes evolutionary changes as a response to the unique ecosystem of islands. And so, over time, the Kakapo lost the ability to fly. Today, most Kakapo exist on smaller islands off the coast of mainland New Zealand that have been cleared of introduced predators.
Javan Green Magpie
This gorgeous green Corvid, native to the island of Java in Indonesia, has hit an estimated 50 wild individuals. There are various breeding programs using the captive individuals that were originally caught for the exotic animal trade. One such program is headed by Cikananga Wildlife Center, near Jakarta in Indonesia. They have had success in breeding this bright green songster, and using special software to track the birds’ genetics they are able to keep the offspring genetically diverse, which is crucial for a species’ long-term survival.
Chester Zoo outside of Liverpool in England is also successfully breeding these birds. They were able to catch some very intimate footage of nesting behavior and even the little chicks hatching from their eggs. You can view this footage here
While the future is still uncertain for the Javan Green Magpie, there are serious efforts to protect it. Conservationists in Indonesia are also giving talks to the school children there, to highlight the importance of keeping these birds in their natural habitat, instead of capturing them for the illegal pet trade. Perhaps, as future generations grow, these remarkable birds will be able to flourish once again.
San Clemente Island Bell’s Sparrow
We can almost consider this one BREAKING NEWS! In a massive win for the planet, the American Bird Conservancy announced on February 10 of this year that the San Clemente Island Bell’s Sparrow, once numbering a mere 34 individuals, has been removed from the Endangered Species List! An approximated 6,000 of these beautiful little gray and white birds are now thriving on the island.
A subspecies of Bell’s Sparrow, this bird lives and nests among the brushy hills of San Clemente Island off the coast of California. They feed primarily on bugs and seeds. The Bell’s Sparrow looks almost identical to the Sage Sparrow, but the Sage Sparrow tends to live more inland, and has slightly paler coloring.
Let’s give three cheers for all the scientists, researchers, and conservationists that have given this bird a fighting chance!
And that concludes our latest blog series! In truth, these topics are touchy, and can be hard to acknowledge. But education is an absolutely vital tool to conservation. In becoming aware of the troubles that many species face, we can make educated decisions going forward about how to approach these issues. We can recognize harmful habits and behaviors that may not have even been recognized as harmful. We can take small steps to help: either by donating, volunteering, or spreading awareness. And we must remember to not get overwhelmed with all of the bad news that circulates. It’s an easy pit to fall into. But when we celebrate the victories, however small, it keeps us going.
Because ensuring that every precious creature gets the chance to experience freedom and the ability to thrive is what it’s all about.