Update: Birdwatch UK is reporting that neither of the two sandpiper chicks survived after hatching. A statement from the trust said, "This is obviously very upsetting for the team. We’re absolutely devastated, but we’re trying to keep in mind that this has still been a positive step towards establishing a viable breeding population of Spoon-billed Sandpipers for conservation.”
Getting animals to breed in captivity can be a tricky feat. Take giant pandas, for instance: They typically need a lot of persuasion, forcing conservationists to get creative by giving them treats and toys and even showing them videos of other pandas mating to try to get them in the mood. But as scientists learn more about the behaviors of endangered species, they’re perfecting their baby-making abilities. Now, they’ve gotten one of the rarest shorebirds on Earth to breed successfully—a task that seemed near impossible just six years ago.
Last week at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) in Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, a pair of female Spoon-billed Sandpipers laid seven eggs—the first clutches ever borne by the species in captivity. The birds are part of the only flock of captive Spoon-bills in the world, which was established at the trust’s outdoor reserve in 2011 and includes a total of 23 individuals. The oldest birds reached breeding age in 2014, and ever since, WWT experts have been focused on getting them to lay eggs.
Two of the resulting eggs are fertile, and are due to hatch later next week. They’re currently being kept in an artificial incubator, where they're being watched over by WWT experts. If all goes well and they hatch successfully (the keepers are confident they will), they could provide a huge boost to the global Spoon-bill population. The squash-beaked bird has seen its numbers nose-dive in recent decades: There were an estimated 2,000 to 2,800 pairs in the ‘70s, but by 2005, the count had fallen to as few as 350 pairs. The population then continued to crash; by 2010, there were only 120 to 200 pairs and about 100 juveniles left in the world.
The species has always been uncommon, partly because it relies on highly specialized breeding grounds on the Russian tundra. The sites need to contain certain vegetation, such as dwarf birch and crowberry-lichen, and must be close to estuaries or mudflats where adults can feed. Beyond the habitat limitations, the threats the birds face are three-pronged, says John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The first is climate change: The Russian Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. An early spring may cause insects to hatch on the tundra before the Spoon-bills’ arrival, leaving them without food after a treacherous migration.
In the fall, the birds migrate south past Japan, China, and North and South Korea to reach their wintering habitat in Southeast Asia. But the tidal flats where they stop to rest and refuel are being developed into coastal real estate. “This is reducing the chances for these birds to, so to say, fill up their gas tanks,” Fitzpatrick says. As a final blow, the Spoon-bills are threatened by illegal hunting on their rural wintering grounds.
That’s why these two eggs are so important to the species’ future—and why experts at WWT are painstakingly recreating the birds’ breeding conditions. “There’s no manual for Spoon-billed Sandpipers, unfortunately,” Mark Simpson, national PR manager for conservation at WWT, wrote in an email. Knowing that habitat is integral to success, the team focused on making the landscape, day length, and proximity to other birds comparable to what the species would experience in the wild.
“Spoon-billed Sandpipers spend their summers right on the edge of the Arctic, where there’s 20-plus hours of daylight. That’s difficult to recreate in a static aviary in Gloucestershire,” Simpson says. WWT scientists used artificial lighting to make sure the birds were getting the right amount of “sun” at the right time each day. They’ve also worked hard to mimic the detailed topography of northeastern Russia.
“Once on the tundra, the males set up territories and start singing to attract their mates. We’ve done all we can to recreate the terrain, using golf course sand and grass and even building the little mounds that they like to sing from in the wild,” Simpson says.
The effort is still ongoing. If these eggs hatch and are raised to maturity, it’ll mean that over the years, the flock’s size will grow and more embryos will be laid. It’s the “ultimate insurance policy” against the birds’ extinction, Simpson says, adding that WWT has successfully reared nestlings from the wild through a process called headstarting.
Still, more needs to be done for sandpipers in their natural habitats, Fitzpatrick says. “We need to educate communities in rural parts of Asia in the value of leaving these birds alive.” Every Spoon-bill is priceless, and the anxious, doting staff at WWT can certainly agree.