The Unlikely Bird of Paradise

When developers threatened to destroy their modern-day Eden, the people of a remote Australian isle hung their hopes on the short, plump, pigeonlike woodhen

  • Dan Drollette
  • Dec 01, 2005

THE LORD HOWE WOODHEN is found only on its island namesake, which lies almost 400 miles off the east coast of Australia. When local residents launched a plan to save the bird from extinction in the 1980s, fewer than 20 survived.

A TRIO OF WOODHENS was foraging for worms and insects among the leaf litter of Lord Howe Island's stately, native kentia palms. As I edged closer, I found that these rare birds were surprisingly unafraid. When I set my camera down, one boldly pecked at the lens.

More than two decades ago, the Lord Howe woodhen--a flightless bird found only on this two- by seven-mile scrap of land 391 miles east of Australia--nearly died out. But a pioneering conservation program launched by island residents in 1980 rescued the birds at the very last moment, raising their numbers from 17 to nearly 300. In the process of bringing back the woodhen, these dedicated residents also ended up saving several other at-risk species native to Lord Howe. Today the woodhen is the symbol of this far-flung isle, with its russet mug appearing on postcards, posters, maps, travel brochures and stamps.

Frankly, when I first encountered these woodhens during a ten-day visit to Lord Howe--one of the most remote islands in the South Pacific--I struggled to see what all the fuss was about.

There I was, 12,000 miles from my Brooklyn apartment, nearly halfway between the Australian mainland and New Zealand, at the foot of a half-mile-high cliff next to the "Lover's Bay" section of the lagoon. The smell of subtropical flowers hung in the air. Just down the trail, birds with names like golden whistler, fairy martin, white eye, rainbow bee-eater, red-tailed tropic bird and emerald ground dove were moving about under the shade of scalybark trees. The illustrations in my Field Guide to the Birds of Australia resembled something from a Dr. Seuss book.

LORD HOWE ISLAND (right) was created roughly 7 million years ago when a large volcano erupted from the Tasman seafloor. Though erosion has over time reduced the original size of the island, it has left a unique landscape of mountains, cliffs and islets that provide refuge to more than a dozen seabirds, including the red-tailed tropic bird (left).

By comparison, the woodhen's brown plumage looked drab. This bird, a type of Pacific rail, resembled a short, plump, flightless pigeon. Even its calls were rather unattractive: hoarse, harsh squeaks. Naturalists from Sydney's Australian Museum who arrived here in the latter half of the nineteenth century were also apparently unimpressed. The bird's Latin name, Tricholimnas [Gallirallus] sylvestris, means "chicken-rail of the woods." Still, before long, I would come to appreciate the woodhen as the hero of this island paradise.

Making the trip to Lord Howe is no picnic. The island is so far east of the Australian mainland that it has its own time zone, a half hour ahead of Sydney. The specially modified, 32-passenger commercial plane that I flew in on was one of the few machines capable of covering that distance while still coming to a complete stop on the island's short landing strip. The plane held just enough fuel to make two passes at the runway before it would have to return to the mainland. As a precaution, a fully inflated life raft, including oars and life preservers, sat in the center aisle. I had to step over it to get to my seat.

However, the lightly inhabited is-land's dazzling beauty made the trip worthwhile. In a landmass smaller than the size of Manhattan, Lord Howe is home to some 300 year-round residents and crams in one extinct volcano, three mountains, three hills, one lagoon, at least four shipwrecks, five baby islets and Mother Nature only knows how many birds. The bird colonies are so dense that from some lookout points, it's impossible to see the ground. Lord Howe is also home to the world's southernmost coral reef, where tropical fish mix with cold-loving marine life. Ocean upwelling brings rich nutrients to the surface, providing a seafood smorgasbord for some feathered island residents.

IF NOT FOR LOCAL EFFORTS to save the woodhen, other imperiled species on the island, including the masked booby (left) and sooty tern (right), may have suffered from the impact of planned development. Lord Howe remains an important breeding area for such birds.

By chance, Lord Howe's treasures remained undiscovered by humans until February 17, 1788, when the "First Fleet" of convict ships passed by on its way from Britain to found the penal colony of Australia. There's no evidence that any people had ever occupied Lord Howe, or even seen the island, prior to that day. "Lord Howe is located in a funny part of the Pacific, down in the southwest corner," says David Steadman of the Florida Museum of Natural History, whose research into prehistoric birds and extinct species has led him nearly everywhere else in the Pacific, including Pohnpei, Yap and Palau. "Lord Howe somehow slipped through the cracks; no one got there," Steadman says. "It's a backwater. But that's what makes it so special."

People may have overlooked the island, but birds--especially the Pacific rail ancestors of the woodhen--didn't. Nigel Collar, a Cambridge University professor who studies threatened bird species and is the author of several ornithological reference books, suspects there were many reasons why rails were so quick on the mark. These birds dwelled in wetlands that periodically dried up, requiring them to find new habitats; young rails were forced to seek new territories by older, more dominant birds, and these intrepid creatures could swim. What's more, despite the modern woodhen's feeble appearance, its rail ancestors were able to fly long distances, from Siberia to Africa and back again each year.

When they first settled on Lord Howe tens of thousands of years ago, woodhens sustained themselves with small territories, allowing large numbers to survive on a small landmass, and they produced many young per year. Their colonization was aided by the absence of predators during this "Eden-like" era, says Steadman. Even now, the island's atmosphere recalls an earlier time. You can still stand at the foot of the island's Mount Gower, call to the Providence petrels nesting above, and watch the birds glide down to land at your feet.

As the woodhen began to adapt to Lord Howe, its wings shrunk and its breast muscles got smaller. Collar calls this a clever strategy in the evolutionary arms race: "A pair of wings is like a full rucksack. If you really are just going to go round the block, it's not energetically sensible to carry your camping things with you."

Scientists are not sure how long it took for a long-distance flying bird to evolve into today's flightless version, but population biologist Barry Brook of Charles Darwin University in Australia recently made an educated guess. Based on his computer simulations of woodhen numbers on Lord Howe, Brook estimates that it would have taken the birds several thousand generations, or a bit more than 10,000 years, to become flightless--an eye blink when measured on the scale of evolutionary time.

There was a downside, of course. "When man gets to the island that your ancestors reached so long ago, he brings rats and cats and dogs, things that the birds never needed to escape from until then," says Collar. "And of course it's too late to grow your wings back."


THE WOODHEN was a key feature in Lord Howe's designation as a World Heritage Site in 1982, a status that put it on par with Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

The carnage from those early encounters with explorers was awful. An early ship's log describes sailors collecting fresh bird meat on Lord Howe Island by standing amid a flock of woodhens and knocking down "as many as we pleas'd wt a short stick . . . they never make the least attempt to fly away and indeed wd only run a few yards from you and be as quiet and unconcern'd as if nothing happen'd." Such a scene was repeated across the Pacific. In The Song of the Dodo, David Quammen writes that 90 percent of the bird species that disappeared in the last 400 years lived on islands.

The resurgence of native bird populations and other wildlife on Lord Howe hinged on a determined campaign to halt the woodhen's almost certain extinction, a fate that would have been sealed if an Australian mainland tourism conglomerate had realized its dreams for large-scale development on the island in the early 1970s. Among other things, the developer planned to build an airport runway so large that it would have demolished one-quarter of the island's residential property, cut a huge swathe through some ecologically sensitive lowland palm forests and destroyed part of the island's lagoon.

At the same time these plans were bruited about, a survey of woodhens showed that the birds' numbers were sinking fast, with less than 10 breeding pairs left in 1974 from an original population that may have numbered in the thousands. All of the remaining birds were confined to a few spots in the forests at the top of the two tallest and most remote mountains on the island.

The proposed developments and the decline of the island's most potent symbol combined to raise public awareness of the need for a coordinated and comprehensive conservation effort. Environmental groups on the island and on the mainland found themselves rallying around the woodhen. It became the Rocky of birds--maybe not flashy or glamorous, but the one you cheer for when the chips are down. The woodhen was what Aussies call "the battler," or what we Americans call the underdog.

Ultimately, the woodhen became a key feature in the island's successful designation as a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1982, a status that put the tiny island on par with the Great Barrier Reef. Seventy-five percent of Lord Howe is now a protected reserve.

For the Birds

Bird-rich Lord Howe contains only one indigenous mammal--a small, nocturnal bat--and two native reptiles, a gecko and a skink.

Conservation measures came just in time. There were only three breeding pairs of woodhens left when the captive-breeding program began. Fortunately, the woodhen--still unafraid of humans and comfortable in its familiar habitat--responded well to the inevitable tagging and handling that's involved with being captured, fed and bred in captivity. By 1984, researchers were able to release 86 captive-bred woodhens back into the wild. According to a 1997 paper in the journal Biological Conservation by Barry Brook, the four-year woodhen breeding program "has since been described as a classic case for a successful captive breeding and reintroduction program."

At the same time, pigs and feral cats were eradicated, most wild goats were removed, rat numbers were reduced and trees were replanted. Later, tours conducted by island naturalist Ian Hutton raised the awareness of island ecology among visitors, as did a number of guidebooks he published. Many tourists have since assisted in the island's recovery, spending their vacations removing invasive weeds.

In the process, these conservation efforts have helped save another dozen odd, rare endemic bird species on the island. They also helped ensure the protection of Lord Howe's unusual plant and insect life, including the "land lobster." Previously thought extinct, this large, flightless stick insect was rediscovered in 2001 on a rocky islet off the main island.

Lord Howe native Dani Rourke, whose great-great-great-grandparents were among the first settlers on Lord Howe, is quick to remind visitors who deserves credit for the island's wildlife protection: the islanders themselves. "We were greenies long before anyone else," Rourke said during my visit, citing the continuous challenges over the decades.

Today, Lord Howe's revised land-use plans--which emphasize ecotourism, sustainable exports of the island's prized palms, tough conservation laws and strong local controls--have become a model for other Australian landscapes.

And all because of a bird that Rourke's grandmother once said "tastes like pigeon."

Massachusetts journalist Dan Drollette has written extensively about his adventures in Australia and Southeast Asia.

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