Bringing the Millerbird Back to Laysan Island

A project to reintroduce these little brown birds helps protect them from extinction.

In 2011 a rescue mission more than 30 years in the making began to unfold in the Pacific Islands. Scientists were embarking on an expedition to reintroduce the Millerbird to a northwest Hawaiian atoll called Laysan Island. The nondescript little brown bird was last seen there in 1923, after having its habitat destroyed by introduced rabbits and livestock.

The biologists planned to capture birds from a nearby rocky outcrop called Nihoa Island—the Millers’ last stronghold—and transport them nearly 650 miles by boat to Laysan’s shore. The stakes were high: There were only about 800 Millers left, and moving even a small number of them seemed risky. But it was worth it, they decided.

“We believed that if the birds survived the trip, they would flourish,” says Sheldon Plentovich, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service restoration ecologist, who planned the translocation.

The expedition made the three-day voyage twice, carrying a total of 50 birds, which appeared "unflappable,” says Plentovich. “Even in the boat, they were eating the whole time.” In the end, they all survived, and Laysan now supports more than 125 individuals.

“By moving them to Laysan, we were able to increase the population size and range of the birds,” Plentovich says. “We were able to buffer them from extinction.”

This story originally ran in the January-February 2014 issue as "Meet the Millers."

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