Something to celebrate: Koko bird back from extinction

Thank you San Diego zoo for saving this species of birds.

Late last year, the ko’ko’ was removed from the “extinct in the wild” list, having been reintroduced from these breeding programs to Cocos Island and Rota Island, both adjacent to Guam.”

Koko bird back from extinction

Daily Kos reports

The Guam rail, or ko’ko’, as it is known on Guam
Extinct in the wild for decades, once down to 21 living individuals, the ko’ko’ returns home

I needed a story like this about now.

The beloved ko’ko’, a flightless bird found only on Guam, once literally days away from total extinction, is back — and it’s looking more and more like it’s here to stay.

It might seem strange to celebrate a species being “NOW Critically Endangered!”, but in the late 1980s, the ko’ko’ was down to just 21 living individuals, in captivity only, and was declared “extinct in the wild”. 

These institutions took in the last few birds from Guam and improvised on how to breed them and care for them.  The nosedive toward extinction of the ko’ko’ was so rapid that there had been no time to study their biology or behavior before they had to be rounded up.  The wild population was being eaten by an invasive non-native snake, and it might not have lasted more than a few days if it hadn’t been collected.  So the biologists had to learn as they went.

Once I visited the San Diego Zoo, and even though there were lots of impressive animals there, I left with one distinct memory: a single bird in a cage marked “extinct in the wild”.  Same as all the other cages, just with that little label.  I couldn’t believe I was looking at a live creature of which there were no more on Earth, except a few like the one in this cage.  So I can really appreciate the responsibility and frankly nervousness that everyone working with the ko’ko’ must have felt, charged with being the animal’s last hope.

Well, I’m very pleased to say that their decades of dedication have paid off.  Bigly!  Late last year, the ko’ko’ was removed from the “extinct in the wild” list, having been reintroduced from these breeding programs to Cocos Island and Rota Island, both adjacent to Guam.

Cocos Island, just off Guam
Cocos Island, just off Guam
Rota Island, part of the Northern Mariana Islands, just north of Guam
Rota Island, part of the Northern Mariana Islands, just north of Guam

To this day, Guam is overrun with the predatory brown tree snakes that almost devoured every last ko’ko’.  The snakes were inadvertently brought as stowaways on cargo ships just after World War II, as Guam was being rebuilt.  But its neighboring islands are free of these snakes, and because of that, the ko’ko’ is likely to survive, and quite possibly thrive.

Back home and on the upswing for the first time in many years, the ko’ko’ becomes just the second bird ever to be saved from “extinct in the wild” status, joining the famous California condor.  Now there are more ko’ko’ in the wild (260-280) than there are in captivity (170).

Suzanne Medina, who has worked so hard for over 20 years at the GDA to see this day come, is shown here releasing a ko’ko’ into the wild on Cocos Island with her son:

A ko
A ko’ko’ is released into the wild on Cocos Island, near Guam

How does she feel about all of this?

“We’re walking on cloud nine!  It’s so neat to hear the world talk about ko’ko’ and the California condor in the same sentence,”  she said.  Medina tells the whole story on a recent NPR podcast, about a 10-minute listen.

These days, she says, Guam is much quieter than it used to be.  Not so many birds anymore, but if you walk around in the forest you need to take a stick with you, to swat away all the webs you’ll walk into because the ko’ko’ and other native birds are no longer there to eat the spiders. 

Spider webs dominate Guam forests
Spider webs like this dominate Guam’s forests

And you don’t hear the minute-long ‘kaREE-kaREE-kaREE….’ call of the ko’ko’.  You used to find them on your porch or even in your house sometimes, looking for slugs, snails, spiders, and seeds.  People actually sort of liked those little visits.

In the late ‘80s, when it was clear that the ko’ko’, easy prey for snakes because it does not fly, was about to disappear, people gathered in human chains, with help from military personnel, to corner and scoop up the last 21 birds.  That’s all they could find.  Other native Guam birds had already gone extinct for the same reason, and they didn’t want to let the beloved ko’ko’ slip away, too.

The GDA had to decide quickly what to do with the birds.  Bob Beck, who had organized the roundup, split them up among the mainland U.S. facilities that wanted to cooperate and kept a few at the GDA, in the hopes that at least one of the breeding programs would work before it was too late.

It didn’t go well at first, not at all.  First-generation offspring on Guam would not breed but fought with each other instead.  After much trial and error, the GDA people literally formed a sort of for ko’ko’, trying to pair compatible personalities to get these birds to mate.  And eventually, it worked!

But then the first controlled releases on Rota Island were complete flops.  Those birds were doomed by cat predation, vehicles, and the birds dispersing too widely to find each other to mate.  But more trial and error led to a pineapple ranch — and a parking lot! — where a few of the birds were thriving and breeding for whatever reason, so more learning happened from that, and releases started to become much more effective.

By then all four dating services … er, breeding programs … were doing fairly well, and releases continue to this day on Cocos and Rota.  The populations still need some active management before they can be called self-sustaining, but we are seeing chicks and eggs more frequently, and sometimes even copulating ko’ko’!

Chicks and eggs of the ko
Ko’ko’ egg and chick: sure signs of breeding success!

But the next step, which will begin in the next year or two, is doing releases on Guam.  That can only happen once the brown tree snake is brought under control.

The brown tree snake
The brown tree snake

There are other good reasons to do this, including saving the forest itself.  Without birds and bats to move seeds around, new growth of trees and other plants has suffered immensely, too.  But there’s optimism that the brown tree snake can be brought under control.  Guam is on this.  They’re dropping mouse carcasses spiked with Tylenol (which is deadly to these snakes), they’re teaching residents how to trap and remove them, and yes, they are even circulating snake recipes!

Snake adobo

Snake adobo, anyone?

Anthony Tornito gives hands-on lectures about the ko’ko’ for the GDA, where he invites curious residents to interact with the bird, as Guam natives used to do.

Anthony Tornito, Department of Agriculture biologist, cradles Tåno, one of Guam
Anthony Tornito, Department of Agriculture biologist, cradles Tåno, one of Guam’s critically endangered ko’ko’ birds while at the agency’s facility in Mangilao on Wednesday, May 1, 2019

But one day soon, he and the other residents of Guam are going hear ‘ka-REE ka-REE ka-REE’ in the forest and have their beloved ko’ko’ back again.

I’m so proud of the scientific staff at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh for providing the largest number of birds for release into the wild of any facility and playing such a big role in bringing the ko’ko’ back from the brink of extinction!  What a great save!

We’ve enjoyed having the ko’ko’ at our zoos here in the U.S.  These birds have had very good lives here, and a few will continue to do so and entertain us in the process.  But most will go back to Guam and eventually be released into the wild on Cocos, Rota, and soon Guam itself, because that’s where the ko’ko’ really belongs.

Safe journey home, ko’ko’, and may you thrive once again!