A Tenuous Success

     I am happy to report that a bird once thought to be extinct has made a comeback.  

     Bermuda Petrels  once inhabited the Bermuda islands by the tens of thousands.  But when the Spaniards first came to the islands in the early 1500s, they were spooked by the petrels’ haunting, nighttime calls.  Believing the island to be inhabited by devils, the superstitious Spanish sailors never settled there.  Unfortunately, however, they left behind pigs as food for shipwrecked sailors.

     Within 100 years, the pigs had killed off 90% of the petrel population, eating eggs and chicks from the nests the petrels had burrowed into the ground.  When the English arrived in 1609, there were only a few of the petrels surviving on remote islands in the archipelago.  Thanks to predation by animals brought over by the settlers, combined with hunting by the settlers themselves, the Bermuda Petrel (locally called the cahow) was thought to be extinct by the 1620s.

     Then, more than 300 years later, in 1951, 18 nesting pairs of the Bermuda Petrel were spotted on a few tiny, remote, rocky islands of the Bermuda archipelago.   One of the bird’s ‘discoverers’ was then teen-aged David Wingate.   The discovery inspired him to attend Cornell University, where he studied ornithology.  He returned to Bermuda and devoted his entire career to protecting the Bermuda Petrel, which lives nowhere else in the world.

     Wingate and other wildlife managers worked to restore a viable petrel population.  They created artifical nesting burrows that could not be accessed by non-endangered birds known to take over petrel nests. 

     Thanks to the efforts of Wingate and his team, the Bermuda Petrels’ numbers grew, albeit slowly.   But when a hurricane swept through in 2003, many of the nesting burrows on three of the four breeding islands were damaged. Many of the nests were destroyed completely.  

     Scientists responded by creating a new and safer habitat for the fragile petrel population.  A special reserve was created on one of the islands.  Nesting sites were built at a high elevation, to ensure protection from hurricane flooding and erosion.  Native trees were replanted, so that the island today has a closed canopy forest similar to the one under which the birds nested before the English settlers appeared.   

     In 2009 the first live petrel birth in the reserve was documented.  Today there are roughly 200 of the birds in Bermuda.  Scientists are cautiously optimistic about the bird’s future.  But the petrel is a slow breeder, with females laying just a single egg every year or even every other year.  

     Bermuda Petrels spend most of their adult lives on the open seas.  When they are five years old, they return to their original nesting grounds to begin breeding.  Petrels mate for life.–April Moore


photo by Ned Brinkley

photo by Ned Brinkley



2 Responses to “A Tenuous Success”

  1. Joan Brundage Says:

    April, what a fascinating and hopeful story! Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Elizabeth Cottrell Says:

    Let’s celebrate these successes, regardless of how tenuous. Thanks for sharing such an interesting story.

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