Smithsonian facility sees spike in births of rare bird

The Guam rail bird is extinct in the wild in its native country of Guam. Courtesy of Roshan Patel/Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal has had a recent surge in births of the Guam rail birds.

Since November, the conservation facility has seen the birth of eight of the flightless birds. During the past four years, the facility has had one or two births of the birds each year, said Erica Royer, an animal keeper at the facility. .

“In the last month, we’ve had quite a lot of rail chicks hatch,” Royer said. “So it’s been very busy.”

Royer said that the change has come as a result of new guidelines from the species survival plan that determines how endangered species should be bred and cared for.

Typically, the facility tries to keep its Guam rail birds away from humans as a way of preparing the animals for release in the wild.

But recently, Royer said, animal keepers have offered the Guam rail chicks food during their first few days so that they can grow to a healthy weight.

“For the first few days of the chicks’ lives, they’re very, very delicate,” Royer said. “You want to make sure that they’re getting the right food items and enough food. And so sometimes the parents have difficulty getting the chicks to eat in those first few days.”

That change has led to a surge in the number of Guam rail chicks that have been born in the past three months. Three chicks were born in the facility in January, in addition to five other chicks that were born there in November or December.

One of those eight birds, a male, will be headed to Guam as an education ambassador.

Royer said that the future education ambassador is being hand-raised so that he becomes used to being near humans. Otherwise, the shy bird will stay away from the people he’s supposed to educate.

“In Guam, they’ll take [the education ambassadors] to schools, they’ll take them to public outreach events,” Royer said.

Royer said the facility only recruits male chicks to the role of education ambassador, as a way of helping to preserve the species.

“The females are more valuable; they’re the ones laying all the eggs,” Royer said. “And so it just makes sense for that reason.”

The remaining seven chicks will head to a breeding center in Guam. Then, eventually, they will make their way to islands near Guam.

But Royer said the chicks will not be headed to the wild in Guam, where the Guam rail birds are native.

That’s because the birds are extinct in the wild in Guam, having been killed off by the brown tree snake.

“We aren’t to a point yet where we can release birds on Guam, because the brown tree snake is still a huge problem,” Royer said.

So for now, the birds are all heading to the nearby islands of Cocos and Rota. Eventually, though, the facility hopes to send the birds to Guam itself.

“The Guam rails were not previously found on Rota,” Royer said. “Guam rails were only endemic to Guam. But because of the brown tree snakes, Rota was found to be a suitable habitat and started as an experimental release program in the hope that one day we can do the same thing on Guam.”

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