A small but determined group of Cook Islanders are on the brink of a remarkable achievement – eradicating the Indian Mynah from the island of Atiu.
Since the decision was made to rid the island of Mynahs five years ago, over 30,000 of these pest birds have been eradicated by this dedicated team. The project is now in its final stages, with the latest estimate putting the number of birds left as less than fifty, and maybe as few as twenty.
The project is being led by Gerald McCormack, Director of the Natural Heritage Trust. He says it all started when 27 native Kura lorikeets were re-introduced to Atiu in 2007 from the island of Rimatara in French Polynesia.
These small birds have bright green and red feathers, a purple crest and yellow tail. It was the demand for their red feathers that wiped them out of all the region’s islands, except Rimatara.
When Mynah birds were observed attacking the young lorikeet fledglings a year later, the decision was made to reduce Mynah numbers, but then the aim changed to total eradication, an outrageously difficult and costly task according to Gerald. Funding from Conservation International, an American organisation, got the project underway with a count of the island’s Mynahs estimated at around 6,000.
Local identity George Mateariki aka Birdman George began a poisoning campaign with rice and Starlicide which reduced the island population in five months from 6,000 to 2,000. However after the next breeding season, half of what was gained was lost; not enough progress was being made. A local trapping competition with teams and prizes was started and 500 birds were caught in two months, but then the birds got trap shy and wary, and it became obvious this wasn’t going to be the answer.
By 2010, 1300 birds had been removed by locals, and George’s tally was 6,000, but there were still 2,000 Mynahs on the island. They decided to introduce a local sharp shooter, Jason Tuara, who shot up to 120 a day. He’s become an expert on sighting Mynahs and has shot 10,000 of them in the past three and a half years. Other local shooters were also taking out a few, but annual breeding was still keeping numbers at around 1000.
The Kura lorikeet - a small bird with its distinctive and vibrant green, red, purple, and yellow colours – has been having a rough go on the island of Atiu, but it looks like tough times may be a thing of the past.
The birds were re-introduced to the island of Atiu in 2007; however young lorikeet fledging’s were being attacked by pesky and aggressive mynah birds.
Thanks to a project led by Gerald McCormack, Director of the Natural Heritage Trust, the kura lorikeets now have a fighting chance as 30,000 mynahs have been eradicated by a dedicated team of bird hunters.
In late 2012, Gerald met up with guru bird trapper Susana Saavedra, who was trapping Mynahs in Tahiti. She has rid her home country of Canary Islands of Mynahs and is an expert on their behaviour and habits.
Gerald borrowed her special trap design, changed the position of the four drop doors and moved the decoy bird into the centre with a perch and shade. By 2013 George was catching over 200 birds a month, and trapped a total of 2000 in twelve months.
He has been the mainstay of the on ground work, checking and resetting the traps every night for about 18 months. He says the Mynahs damaged everyone’s fruit and crops and it’s great to get rid of them and see more of the native lorikeets.
Numbers continued to decrease in 2013 with combined trapping and shooting, and a new estimate put the number of birds left on the island at less than 50. It was time for a final push on the remaining birds.
Gerald financed a return visit by Susana to boost the team effort, and she started putting poison around and on the traps. Jason continued picked off any hanging around the traps as well, but he says it’s much harder now locating the few remaining birds. “They are very trap shy, don’t make much noise and hide in remote areas away from human activity.”
A strong local supporter of the project is Atiu resident Roger Malcolm, who’s provided thousands of dollars of free accommodation for shooters and trappers at his Atiu Villas. He’s watched the numbers decline and loves the peace and quiet of a Mynah free island. He says they’ve never been this close to success and the good news is that breeding pairs are not being seen.
They are widely scattered and disturbed by the presence of Jason, so the hope is that this time the breeding potential of the Mynahs has been destroyed. Another major supporter is Ewan Smith of Air Rarotonga, which has given thousands of dollars of free flights to and from the island for all the team. Gerald says its crunch time for this long and difficult project which is now on a very tight budget.
“Around $150,000 has been spent on the project, which is now in a crucial phase. It’s time to get the people of Atiu to join us in this final push to get rid of the few remaining birds,” he says.
“This requires another change of strategy, one of getting local information and using local shooters to track down the remaining birds. We are so close to winning this battle, and to being the first Pacific island to get rid of this invasive species.”
He and the team are hoping that all the support, time, money and effort is finally going to see the end of Mynahs on Atiu.