In the western Pacific Ocean - east of the Philippines and north of Papua New Guinea - several thousand small islands dotting the seascape have been grouped together under the banner of Micronesia. Toward the upper regions of this territory, fifteen islands string together in nearly perfect vertical formation to create the Northern Mariana chain, a commonwealth of the United States of America. The lowermost and largest of these islands is Guam, a 212-square kilometer (82-square mile) tropical territory surrounded by coral reefs, the closest land mass to the Mariana Trench - the deepest known region of Earth's oceans. With seaside limestone cliffs, beautiful beaches, dense mangrove swamps, and lush coconut groves, Guam is a tropical paradise.
Generally, the only disturbances to this tranquil peace are natural disasters; given the island's geographic location, typhoons and earthquakes have always been relatively common. Yet, during the early 1940s, Guam's strategic location on the Pacific Front during World War II left it subject to destruction in human form. An American territory at the onset of the war, the Japanese military easily captured the island late in 1941 - just hours before their surprise assault on Pearl Harbor - and remained in control through July 21, 1944.
During their reign over Guam, the Japanese brutally oppressed the local population - torturing the men and raping the women. Thousands of innocent Guamanians lost their lives until American forces liberated the island. With peace came the assurance of safety for Guam's human inhabitants, but the fight to survive for the native bird population was only beginning.
In the years prior to World War II, the Guam Micronesian Kingfisher thrived throughout the island. From riparian forests to roadside trees, the vividly colored bird could be spotted anywhere. All specimens touted cinnamon heads and deep blue bills, wings, and tails. While females and juveniles showed white feathering on their underbellies, males were distinguished by their uniform cinnamon plumage.
A socially complex species, Guam Micronesian Kingfishers displayed a range of intriguing behavioral patterns, especially between mated pairs. Upon reaching sexual maturity after two years, males and females began to engage in flirtatious courtships; the male would invite his desired mate to his nest, and try to impress her with his craftsmanship. If all went well, the two birds joined together in matrimony, intending to remain loyal to one another. Unfortunately, some mated pairs were not meant to have eternal love and effectively divorced years later, splitting up to seek new companions.
The couples that did remain together enjoyed happy lives together in their tropical tranquility. Married partners constructed their homes as a team in preparation to mate during the early months of the year. Seeking arboreal termitaria or soft-wooded trees, the birds jabbed tree trunks repeatedly to create a cavity for nesting. Impressively - unlike woodpeckers, which cling to trees during their excavations - Guam Micronesian Kingfishers accomplished this feat while flying.
When not defending their territory from intruders, Guam Micronesian Kingfishers scoured the island for small crustaceans, shrimp, insects, and lizards. Perched in trees with a birds-eye view of the landscape, these skilled hunters spotted their prey, swooped down for the catch, then flew back up to the branches to enjoy their meal. Some food was eaten live, but lizards were often beaten to death before being consumed.
For a bird of such unassuming stature - measuring an average of 22 centimeters (8.7 inches) with 20-centimeter (7.9-inch) wingspans - the Guam Micronesian Kingfisher compensated for its small size with its large voice. At the same time every morning, as the Sun's first rays began to illuminate the surrounding ocean in the east, individuals across the island started the day with three to five long, loud calls. The bird was so consistent with the timing of its calls throughout the day on a daily basis that human inhabitants could rely on their avian neighbors to tell time.
In the years following World War II, the Guam Micronesian Kingfisher's calls suddenly began to diminish. So did the number of Guam Micronesian Kingfishers. So did the numbers of all the other island's native bird species. While these animals had survived the violence of human combat unscathed, they could not withstand the invasion of the brown tree snake - a species inadvertently introduced to Guam during the war years.
The exact means by which the brown tree snake came to Guam are impossible to know for certain, but it is fair to deduce that the colonizing specimens hitched a ride on a ship from somewhere in Australia, Papua New Guinea, or Melanesia. On Guam - an island historically void of predatory threats to the native bird populations - the brown tree snake reigned supreme atop the food chain. The native Guamanian birds were rendered completely hapless in the face of newfound adversity.
With no ingrained survival instincts, species like the Guam Micronesian Kingfisher could not adapt. Brown tree snakes devoured eggs, hunted defenseless individuals, and decimated the population. As the Guam Micronesian Kingfisher began to disappear, however, human conservationists continually failed to recognize the correlation between the introduction of the snakes and the bird's declining population. In 1981, less than four decades after World War II, only 3,000 individuals remained on the island. Just three years later, the Guam Department of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources was forced to lead an emergency rescue effort for the last 29 Guam Micronesian Kingfishers.
Between 1984 and 1986, conservationists saved Todiramphus cinnamominus cinnamominus from the brink of extinction. All but two of the remaining specimens were brought to the Philadelphia Zoo and a rebreeding program was immediately initiated. The first fifteen years proved problematic at times. When scientists fed mice to the birds, the parents often confused their own blind and naked hatchlings as food, completely hindering any reproduction efforts. Realizing the problem, scientists began to catch anoles in Florida for kingfisher food, but a cold spell in the early 1990s made the small lizards hard to find and eight breeding female birds died.
The future of the Guam Micronesian Kingfisher appeared to remain in jeopardy as the population fluctuated but never exceeded more than 70 birds. Between 2004 and 2009, however, the species made significant strides, nearly doubling in size. While all specimens remain closely monitored in the safety of captivity, it remains hopeful that the Guam Micronesian Kingfisher can one day resettle its homeland and thrive in the wild once again.
This is a reconstruction of what the nest site of a Guam Micronesian Kingfisher might have looked like before all surviving members of this subspecies were captured for captive breeding. An adult bird perches on a branch of a Pisonia grandis tree, which also supports an arboreal termite nest. The Kingfisher was known to excavate a nest hole within the larger termite mound. The scene might yet be observed some day in the future when the Papuan brown snake has been eliminated and some captive birds are returned to the wild on Guam.
Extinct in Wild
Sihek, Micronesian Kingfisher
22 centimeters (8.7 inches)
2-3 ounces (.15 pounds)
20 centimeters (7.9 inches)
Riparian forests, coconut groves, and mangrove swamps on Guam
Insects, crustaceans, and lizards
To threaten intruders, the Guam Micronesian Kingfisher makes itself appear larger by putting its head skyward, its tail downward, and its wings outward.
Both mother and father care for their offspring.
There are two other subspecies of Micronesian Kingfisher in Pohnpei and Palau. Both relatives are slightly smaller than the nominate Guam subspecies, and the Palauan Micronesian Kingfisher is in no threat of endangerment. The Pohnpei subspecies, however, has drastically declined in recent year, but for unknown reasons.
For long distance calls, Guam Micronesian Kingfishers emit a raspy, rattling chattering. For closer communication, the birds make scratchy noises.