How Plastic Birds Are Bringing Crested Terns Back From the Brink

One man, 300 decoys, and a pair of speakers on a barren island in the East China Sea may just save this critically endangered bird.

Tiedun Dao, a tiny, barren island off the coast of eastern China, isn’t the sort of place you’d want to be during a typhoon—the island doesn’t have so much as a shack for shelter. But in the summer of 2014, when Simba Chan found himself on Tiedun Dao as a storm bore down, he couldn’t bring himself to leave. Chan, a senior conservation officer with BirdLife International, had important charges to protect: a newly established colony of critically endangered Chinese Crested Terns.

For more than 40 years the Chinese Crested Tern was believed to be extinct, a victim of rampant egg poaching. Then, in the early 2000s, two small colonies were discovered. “This was like rediscovering the Ivory-billed Woodpecker,” says Steve Kress, Audubon’s vice president for bird conservation, who in the 1970s spearheaded the revival of an Atlantic Puffin colony off the coast of Maine. “And what do you do when you rediscover something? You have to be really careful, and have a plan to reduce the risks while you rebuild the population.”

In 2011 a coalition of conservationists from BirdLife, the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History, and several other organizations got together to devise a plan for providing the seabirds with a safe place to breed. The terns needed a new colony, somewhere isolated, and Tiedun Dao was perfect. But first the scientists had to get the birds to land. So they turned to a conservation technique that Kress pioneered back in the 1970s called “social attraction,” which lures birds by using fake breeding colonies—in this case, 300 plastic terns and canned tern calls broadcast from speakers. It didn’t take long for the real birds to show up—19 Chinese Crested Terns settled in during the first season, in 2013. Chan became their warden, camping out in a tent and relying on shipments of food and water as he braved that typhoon (all the chicks survived), scared off a would-be egg poacher (he was picked up by authorities while fleeing), and studied the chicks as they grew.

Two years in, the scientists have seen the Crested Tern population on Tiedun Dao swell to more than 50 birds, with more chicks every year—a record-breaking 16 hatchlings survived this breeding season. Now the scientists are hoping to drum up enthusiasm for protecting the terns in their suspected wintering ground of Indonesia, and they’re considering establishing additional colonies.

As for Chan, he doesn’t know if he’ll be back next season. But if he does hand over stewardship of the island, he may end up leaving a legacy for those who come after him: He’s lobbying for a hut.