Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Pioneering flight to dove island

THE wings of a rare dove that died out in the wild are to flutter again over its natural habitat, thanks to the help of Scottish zoologists.

The Socorro Dove became extinct more than 30 years ago in its home in a remote Pacific island chain known as Mexico's Galapagos.

Fewer than 100 adult birds now exist in captivity around the world. But in 2007 it is to be reintroduced to Socorro, 600 miles west of the Mexican coast, following a successful breeding programme involving Edinburgh Zoo.

The zoo has already agreed to send staff out to the island to take part in the reintroduction programme.

If successful, it will pave the way for other species that only exist in captivity to be returned to the wild.

Around 20 of the small brown doves will be released first into specially constructed aviaries to adapt to island conditions. Once acclimatised they will be set free to attempt to form a new breeding colony.

Colin Oulton, the head of the bird collection at Edinburgh Zoo, said: "It is important to reintroduce them back into the wild because they do not exist anywhere except in zoos.

"Were it not for the fact that some were kept in captivity then they would already be lost forever. There has not been much concern about them, probably because they look so familiar.

"Species like tigers attract a lot of attention because they are spectacular, but there are far more tigers living in the wild than there are Socorro Doves."

The uninhabited island was discovered in the 16th century by Spanish explorers, but the dove was first described by a 19th-century American naturalist, Andrew Jackson Grayson, at work in the Pacific about 20 years after Charles Darwin began logging the unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands, which is thousands of miles to the south.

The bird was spread across the 157-square-mile island, but flocks of sheep introduced in 1869 started destroying the natural habitat of the ground-nesting species.

Then, in 1957, the Mexican Navy moved in, setting up a base and building an airstrip. The 250 personnel brought their families and pet cats, which bred and spread into the wild.

The last sighting of a Socorro Dove was by a scientific expedition in 1972. It was declared extinct in the early 1980s.

Oulton explained: "Sheep grazed out the habitats of these ground-nesting birds and then, as there were no natural predators on the island, the doves were easy targets for feral cats.

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