Twelve of the world’s rarest bird species live in the Seychelles. One of these, the Seychelles Magpie Robin, almost became extinct in the last century. Luckily, BirdLife International started a programme in 1990 to save these exotic birds. This won acclaim as one of the most successful bird conservation schemes in the world. The population of the Seychelles magpie robin is now steadily increasing.
The sight of the attractive magpie robins attracts many bird-lovers to the beautiful Seychelles islands. They have a distinctive appearance with glossy black plumage and long legs, and large white bars are visible on each wing. Many bird-lovers also like the birds because they are friendly and playful. The birds have even been known to go into people’s houses, because of their trusting nature.
The magpie robin originally lived in woodlands on most of the granitic Seychelles islands. . The birds followed giant tortoises, because the tortoises uncovered their prey. However, the birds began to live on plantations and vegetable gardens after the European settlers cleared the woodland to create farms. The birds like to eat insects, especially Indian cockroaches, and a small amount of fruit.
Once there was a large population of magpie robins in the Seychelles. Unfortunately, their numbers declined heavily in recent decades. By the late 1980s, the dwindling population only existed on Frégate Island. Sadly, only about 20 birds survived.
There were several reasons for the shrinking of the magpie robin population. In the 19th century, the bird hunters killed the magpie robins. According to one story, a Frenchman shot 24 of the birds on the island of Aride. People began to keep the fascinating birds as pets, and they placed them in cages. People liked to keep the birds because of their rarity, and their beautiful singing was also admired. Bird collectors also stole and traded the Seychelles magpie robins.
Animals introduced to the Seychelles by the Europeans such as Norway rats and cats preyed on the birds. Other predators included native skinks, Indian mynah birds and snakes. Household pesticides were another problem for the birds. This was because the birds ate dead cockroaches, so they were often killed by these poisonous substances.
The birds had difficulty avoiding being killed by the cats and rats. Native skinks took their food. Indian mynah birds ate the eggs of the magpie robins, and snakes ate their eggs and their chicks. The cats were eradicated on Frégate Island, but the population didn’t increase, because the birds struggled to fight off the other predators.
Concerned about the decreasing population of the Seychelles magpie robins, BirdLife International decided to launch their intensive recovery programme in 1990. First of all, several of the birds were removed to other Seychelles islands that were free of rats and cats. These islands included Aride, Cousin and Cousine Islands. However, these islands are much smaller than Frégate Island, and the birds preferred the larger island.
The team also planted native trees and cleared scrub, in order to improve the habitat of the magpie robins. The birds like to build their nests in the trees, so nest boxes were placed in the trees.
The birds were ringed with specific colours to enable the team to easily identify and monitor them. The team also took blood samples from the chicks in order to determine their sex, because it is difficult to differentiate the males from the females. This helped the volunteers monitor the breeding of the magpie robins. The females breed through the year, but they only lay one egg at a time. The chicks take a few months to become independent, so breeding is very slow. A database was also kept that contained information about the breeding and behaviour of the magpie robins.
The BirdLife International team also provided the magpie robins with extra food and water every day. The food and water was laid out on skink-proof tables, and the food included specially-formulated bird pellets. Breeding females were also fed Indian cockroaches. Even though Indian cockroaches are an alien species in the Seychelles, they have helped preserve the native magpie robin population.
BirdLife International also took other actions to conserve the magpie robins. Household pesticides were banned. Steps were taken to control the Indian mynah bird population.
The organisation distributed information leaflets to the residents of Frégate Island. These leaflets warned the people about the dangers to the birds, and they also made them aware of the rarity and importance of the magpie robins.
The recovery programme was eventually taken over by Nature Seychelles. This organisation continued to feed and monitor the birds.
There are now over 200 magpie robins in the Seychelles. The most important population still lives on Frégate Island, because the magpie robins prefer the spacious landscape and vegetation of this island. Frégate Island is much larger than most of the other islands. BirdLife International and Nature Seychelles certainly deserve praise for their wonderful conservation of the magpie robins.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has changed the status of the birds from Critically Endangered to Endangered. Seychellois and bird-lovers around the world hope that these delightful birds can look forward to a bright future.