This article was also published on The News Hub, where I write about science and the environment.
We’re half way through the sixteenth year of the 21st century, and the latest casualty in mankind’s war on wildlife has just hit the news. With a 90% decline since the 1980s, the yellow-breasted bunting has almost disappeared from eastern Europe, Japan and Russia. Once abundant in China, the lemon-feathered bird has been zealously pursued by hunters to be sold on the black market, despite the government enforcing a hunting ban to protect the species in 1997. Conservationists are urging citizens to educate themselves on the importance of local wildlife and choose their groceries from sustainable sources, but while many residents appreciate the plight of the bunting, demand is still high. Could the little songbird join this list of recent avian extinctions from the last century?
Atitlán Grebe, 1989
The decline of this Guatemalan water bird was documented for 25 years by American ecologist Anne LaBastille. When an invasive bass species was released into their habitat at Lake Atitlán, they reduced the population of crabs and other fish that the grebes were feeding on. After a devastating decline LaBastille brought them back from the brink through a conservation programme, but in 1976 an earthquake fractured the lake bed and it leaked. Unable to cope with the reduced water level, the last surviving birds have not been seen since 1989.
Turquoise-Throated Puffleg, 1976
This Latin American hummingbird was so named for the white puffballs of downy feather around each leg, but has not been spotted since an unconfirmed sighting in 1976. A victim of deforestation, it is presumed that all original habitat has now been destroyed in the agricultural village of Guayllabamba in Ecuador. Based on the few known specimens, it was just 10cm long.
Passenger Pigeon, 1914
A species of historical significance, passenger pigeons were once one of the most abundant birds in north America, flying across the land in enormous, mile-long flocks. They were so numerous that they accounted for more than a quarter of all birds in north America, but their numbers soon dwindled through habitat loss and mass hunting for cheap pigeon meat, which was used to feed slaves in the 19th century. The last passenger pigeon, Martha, died alone in Cincinnati Zoo in September 1914.
Sulu Bleeding-Heart, 1891
With a tangerine patch blossoming on its breast, nobody knows whether the Sulu bleeding-heart still survives. Any living population is likely to be small, and would be continuously threatened by uncontrolled logging and unregulated hunting. The Sulu Archipelago is a chain of beautiful islands in the Pacific Ocean, but there are unfortunately no protected areas to ensure the survival of its wildlife. Other than two initiatives in the 1990s, any remaining population of Sulu bleeding-hearts has been left to survive alone.
Paradise Parrot, 1927
Native to the woodlands of eastern Australia, the paradise parrot was a bright, colourful bird which had become increasingly rare by the end of the 19th century. Its decline was abrupt, and could have been due to overgrazing, land clearing, hunting by bird collectors and predation from cats and dogs. Famed for extravagant plumage, its colouring was vibrant even by parrot standards, with a mixture of turquoise, scarlet, black, brown and blue. A small number of individuals were discovered after searches in the 1920s, but the last confirmed sighting was in 1927.
Laughing Owl, 1914
Just 69 years after a scientific description of the laughing owl was published, it was deemed completely extinct in its native New Zealand. Known for its intriguing vocals, calls have been described as loud, dismal and frequently repeated. Others described it as ‘like the barking of a young dog’ or ‘a melancholy hooting note’, but bird-lovers today could not hope to hear it for themselves. Although abundant when European settlers arrived, theories claim that predation was the likely cause of this species’ decline due to its unwary and gentle nature.
Eskimo Curlew, 1963
Once one of the most common shorebirds in the north American tundra, this slender-billed species was known as a ‘New World’ bird, one of the those discovered on Captain Cook’s second voyage in 1772. By the end of the 19th century millions were being killed each year, until the last confirmed sighting was recorded in Barbados in 1963. The plight of this species was the subject of Fred Bodsworth’s 1954 novel Last of the Curlews, which follows the bird through its migration to South America.
White-Eyed River Martin, 1980
Although its habitat at the Bueng Boraphet lake in Thailand has been declared a non-hunting area, surveys to find this bird have been unsuccessful. Other factors in the martin’s decline include the disturbance of sand bars and the construction of dams in the river, as well as deforestation and intensive agriculture. Despite its absence, the bird has attracted sufficient interest in Thai culture to be featured on both a postage stamp and gold coin.
Imperial Woodpecker, 1956
The world’s largest woodpecker species, the decline of this Mexican bird is a truly grim tale. In the 1950s, logging companies convinced local people that imperial woodpeckers were destroying valuable timber, and encouraged them to kill the birds by smearing poison on the trees. Their numbers plummeted dramatically, and it is not known whether any populations still exist. With sad irony the loggers’ efforts were for nothing, as imperial woodpeckers did not forage on, nest in or damage live trees.
Black-Lored Waxbill, 1950
A small, dun-coloured finch, nobody really knows what the wild black-lored waxbill sounds like. Most of the population was known to reside in the Upemba National Park in Congo, but as with much of the wildlife in this area, it is unknown whether it is protected in any way. This is due to the fact that the park is continuously threatened by poachers, pollution and the militia. While the bird has not been spotted since 1950 the species could still exist, although it remains too dangerous for conservationists to carry out any surveys in depth.