A rare Guam kingfisher has hatched at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal.
Guam kingfishers are extinct in the wild and are critically endangered. The bird, which hatched around 3 p.m. April 22, is one of about 140 in human care around the world.
There are four Guam kingfishers at the institute that, according to a news release announcing the new arrival, plays a leading role in the Smithsonian’s global efforts to save wildlife species from extinction and train future generations of conservationists.
“It’s really exciting,” said Smithsonian animal keeper Erica Royer.
“They’re very difficult to breed. The birds in general are very territorial, so it can be hard to find pairs that are compatible.”
Even in the case of the new bird, the institute in Front Royal used an incubator to hatch the egg because the parents weren’t properly caring for it.
In spite of initial challenges with the bird, “it’s growing quickly,” Royer said. Born without feathers, Guam kingfishers start showing their plumage after 10 days, and after a few months will acquire their orange, blue and white adult features.
Right now, “It’s kind of punky looking and spiky,” Royer said.
Guam kingfishers were eradicated close to extinction after an accidental introduction of the brown tree snake in Guam shortly after World War II. The snakes aren’t indigenous to Guam, so they had few natural predators there to keep their population in check, Royer said.
The snakes quickly wiped out nine of the 12 species of forest birds in Guam, she said, and continues to present problems on the island, such as by shorting out transformers and causing power outages that she said amount to millions in repair costs each year.
All existing Guam kingfishers descend from 29 individuals taken from the wild into human care in the 1980s to create a breeding program to save the species from extinction, a Smithsonian news release states.
Since the institute’s Guam Kingfisher Species Survival Plan began in 1985, 20 chicks have hatched at the institute.
Royer said the institute’s goal is to release the kingfishers back into the wild but that a location hasn’t been chosen yet.
“At this point, they wouldn’t go back to Guam because of the snakes,” she said.
Other islands might eventually present a suitable home, she said, such as Rota, an island northeast of Guam, and Cocos Island, west of Colombia, where the Smithsonian has released two small populations of Guam rail birds.
In the meantime, kingfishers enjoy an enclosure to themselves in Front Royal, where the aggressive birds are both safe and can’t threaten other animals. From there they can see Guam rails in the next enclosure.
The new chick has mirrors in its incubator and recordings of Guam kingfisher vocalizations to help it get used to being with other birds of its species.
To help prevent it from imprinting on humans and increase its chances of being able to raise chicks of its own, animal keepers will restrict their interactions with the chick as much as possible.
“Just in general, there is hope for the species,” Royer said. “And while there’s only 140 in human care right now, we’ve done releases with the Guam rails and we’re hoping to do the same with the Guam kingfishers.”
For the moment, she said, “It’s very exciting to have another little one here.”