Review: Rare Birds, The Extraordinary Tale of the Bermuda Petrel and the Man Who Brought It Back from Extinction

Bermuda petrels, or cahows, were considered extinct for more than three hundred years. But in the 1930s and ‘40s, several fresh cahow carcasses turned up, leading to a 1951 search for living birds. The team of biologists invited 15-year-old David Wingate, already known throughout Bermuda for his knowledge of birds, to join them on the hunt. The discovery of living cahows was a life-changing event for young Wingate, sparking a lifelong obsession with saving the Bermuda petrel from extinction.

Author Elizabeth Gehrman’s new book Rare Birds is an engaging blend of biography and conservation tale about Wingate’s life and efforts.

When the birds were found in 1951, there was no precedent, no scientific literature to point the way on how to preserve any species—conservation biology as a field did not exist when Wingate first began working with cahows, following his graduation from Cornell. He made it up as he went, taking a hands-on approach and sometimes working around the clock. Cahow chicks make their first ocean-going flights at night, and Wingate was usually present to help guarantee a successful takeoff. One chick, having fallen 25 feet down a cliff on its first attempt to fly, couldn’t make it back to its nesting burrow. Wingate collected the exhausted chick at dawn and settled it in his bedroom dresser drawer to sleep while he built it a wooden nest, putting the artificial nest in a less hazardous takeoff spot.

“For the next few nights the chick emerged from the nest and exercised uncertainly, perhaps afraid of repeating its spectacular plunge,” Gehrman writes. “Finally Wingate got tired of waiting and picked the bird up. He held it aloft in one hand, which he slowly pumped up and down a few times before suddenly letting it drop. When the bird found itself hanging in midair, Wile E. Coyote style, it shot up a hundred feet and headed out to sea.”

By the time of their rediscovery, cahow numbers had plummeted after centuries of onslaught from introduced pigs, stowaway rats, hungry humans, white-tailed tropicbirds, and DDT. Cahows, which don't begin reproducing until they are several years old, only lay one egg per nesting season. Unfortunately, white-tailed tropicbirds are competing for the same severely limited supply of nesting burrows, and will destroy any cahow egg or chick found in a desirable burrow. Thanks to the first-known conservation law passed in the New World, cahows were protected from human depredation from 1616 onward, but dealing with the other problems involved, often, shotguns and poison. Through trial and error, it was discovered that constructing a simple baffle for burrow openings kept tropicbirds out, without hindering cahows’ access to their homes. The baffles, along with the creation of artificial burrows, greatly improved nesting success rates, but at one offspring per year, recovery for the species is not a speedy process.

Wingate, an Audubon member, was so intent on bringing back the cahow that he moved his young family onto a small, barren Bermuda island—Nonsuch—where they were the only human inhabitants. At 15 acres in size and 40 feet above sea level, Nonsuch offered a much safer opportunity for cahow nesting than the low-lying, eroding rocky islets the cahows were using. Wingate launched himself into restoring Nonsuch to its natural habitat to provide a site ideal for cahow nesting. This involved hand-pulling non-native plant species, planting thousands of tree saplings, reintroducing an endemic vireo, and creating a freshwater pond. His efforts transformed an island of scrub back into a natural-looking wilderness. Following a translocation effort, cahows are successfully nesting on Nonsuch, to the tune of 57 chicks for the 2012 nesting season.

Gehrman's access to Wingate's detailed diaries helps supplement her tale with often-humorous anecdotes, providing great insight into the obsession of the man who made saving the cahow the focus of his existence. A man so completely bird-focused that, on the day of his wedding, his diary entry recorded at great length the day's avian doings, but devoted only seven words to his nuptials. How fortuitous for both the Bermuda petrel and David Wingate that they found each other.

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