Howard Youth is senior editor at American Bird Conservancy.
Birds are bellwethers for the environmental health of the world’s ecosystems, and while island birds have adapted over the millennia to severe weather, storms are becoming more frequent and more intense — just as climate experts have warned. Birds on islands, such as the Bahama nuthatch, face this risk along with many other threats, most of which were brought on unwittingly by humans. These include introduced predators such as cats and mongooses, overhunting, habitat loss and introduced disease. When you consider that island species often evolve into distinct populations, vulnerable in their isolation, and add up all these threats, it’s little wonder that most of the world’s bird extinctions have happened on islands.
James Bond, a pioneering American ornithologist writing in the early to mid-20th century, described the Bahama nuthatch as a bird of the pine barrens, where it could be seen “creeping, mouse-like, around the trunks and along the branches of the trees” on Grand Bahama island. At the time, this bird was thought to be an outlying population of the brown-headed nuthatch, a bird found in the southeastern United States. Then, in a 2004 paper published in the Bahamas Journal of Science, four biologists presented a persuasive argument to acknowledge “Grand Bahama’s brown-headed nuthatch” as a distinct and endangered species. Now, recognized internationally as a unique species found only on one island, this charismatic bird might be gone.
Three years ago, in October 2016, Hurricane Matthew slammed into Grand Bahama — and many feared the bird was lost forever. American Bird Conservancy and Bahamas National Trust partnered for a search, as did a team from the University of East Anglia in Britain. In a dramatic and galvanizing moment, the teams were successful, finding perhaps five individuals all told. A small number, admittedly, but the species survived. Searches in spring this year, undertaken by Bahamas National Trust staff and university teams, with some ABC support, found no nuthatches. And now this.
Is there any hope that a handful of individual nuthatches survived the epic onslaught of Hurricane Dorian? Or did prior storms and other factors result in an unsustainably small population that recently fizzled out? We at American Bird Conservancy and our Bahamian partners plan to search again for the birds once normal travel resumes. And we recognize the need to redouble our efforts to help this island nation save its natural heritage.
In addition to the Bahama Nuthatch, the Bahamas are home to other rare resident birds such as the Bahama oriole and Bahama swallow. The Bahamas are also critically important to North American breeding birds that winter there, including the Kirtland's warbler, a highly localized species that winters almost exclusively in the Bahamas and which will soon be removed from the endangered species list. These and other species, and the Bahamas' beautiful national parks, draw many international visitors, contributing to the island nation's vital tourism industry.
The people of the Bahamas deserve all the help we can provide at this critical time. So do their birds. As we at American Bird Conservancy always say, every bird species is worth saving. Even if few individuals are known, there can be hope. We need look no further than the Kirtland’s warbler. In the 1980s, only about 160 singing males were thought to remain. Years of careful conservation followed, and today there are at least 2,300 pairs — a great reminder of why we all should work together in efforts to bring species back from the brink.