Feds announce plans to release rare kingfisher


A rare species of kingfisher that has only existed in captivity since 1988 is the subject of a reintroduction project that could one day bring it back to the island of Guam.

The Sihek (also known as the Guam Kingfisher) is endemic to Guam and declined following the introduction of the predatory brown snake to the Pacific island in the 1950s. Currently, the Sihek are managed under human care in zoos in the continental United States and by the Guam Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources (DAWR).

On Thursday, April 13, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that a “non-core experimental population” of the species will be established on Palmyra Atoll, a group of small sandy islands co-managed by The Nature Conservancy and FWS. The atoll is located about 3,646 miles southeast of Guam and about 960 miles south of Hawai’i. Although there are no permanent residents, scientists and staff from the federal government and non-profit organizations live and work on the island. Notably, rats have been eradicated and native rainforest is being restored to the atoll.

Under Section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act, a population of a threatened or endangered species may be designated as an experimental population prior to its (re)introduction. The non-essential experimental population allows FWS to develop tailored collection bans that are necessary and advisable to ensure the conservation of the species.

After the rule takes effect, captive-bred Sihek will be released on Palmyra Atoll to increase the species’ global population and refine release procedures for possible reintroduction to Guam. This is an ongoing collaborative effort with Guam DAWR, The Nature Conservancy, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Sedgwick County Zoo and Zoological Society of London.

“The designation of an experimental population of Sihek on Palmyra Atoll paves the way for the introduction of this species to the atoll,” said Megan Laut, recovery program manager for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “We will learn a lot about how Sihek behave in the wild, best practices for releasing them, and also increase the number of birds that exist on Earth.”

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The brown tree snake still exists on Guam, preventing a reintroduction attempt at this time.

The Sihek is a striking cinnamon-brown bird with bright blue wings and tail. It has a long, heavy beak which indicates its predatory feeding behavior. Sihek feed entirely on animal prey, including skinks, geckos, spiders, beetles, and land crabs. It is a “sit and wait predator” that perches motionless on exposed branches and dives to capture prey on the ground with their beaks. They are socially monogamous, and pairs share responsibilities such as defending territory, incubating, and rearing chicks.

THE Pacific Daily News note: “The bird does not thrive in captivity, and according to the National Fish and Wildlife Service plan published in the Federal Register, ‘little progress toward a program of recovery in the wild has led to few new institutions willing to hold or to breed the species, which ultimately limits population growth.The small founding population, along with the limited ability to increase the population beyond its current size, has serious implications for the long-term survival of Sihek .

The newspaper adds: “While we are certainly a long way from being able to bring the Sihek home, this experience gives us hope that the bird can one day be restored to its natural habitat.”

Extinct-in-the-wild kingfishers hatch at Smithsonian