An endangered Waved Albatross chick, photo by Brian Merchant
The Galapagos Islands are brimming with avian life—some of the world's most famous birds call them home. From the Blue-Footed Boobies to the famed Darwin's finches, the world's only penguin that lives in tropical climes, there's no doubt that the archipelago is a top destination for birders around the world. What is in doubt, however, is whether some of these birds will survive the increasingly severe threats to the Galapagos.
Here are three of the most beloved birds found only on the Galapagos that might soon be found only in back issues of Audubon Society's field guides.
The Waved Albatross – Critically Endangered
Also called the Galapagos Albatross, this unique bird is sort of a majestic version of a seagull—its wingspan can get up to 7.5 feet in length, and they can live to be a whopping 70 years old. But the bird that cursed the Ancient Mariner has recently seemed cursed itself. They're getting caught in as by-catch in long-line fishing operations, they're choking on glittery ocean waste like lighters, and they're actually being hunted themselves. They go south to feed off the coast of Peru, and the poor locals there have devised a way to "fish" for the birds by casting a hook out into the air. They then cook and eat the endangered bird. Efforts have been made to quell the growing long line fishing operations, and a group called the Albatross Task Force continues to fight to protect the birds on every front.
The Galapagos Penguin – Endangered
This bird is the only penguin in the world that lives in the tropics—and there are precious few of them scattered around the Galapagos archipelago. A recent survey of their population found only around 1,100 pairs of the penguins in the wild. Non-native cats and dogs eat their nests, oil pollution is increasingly hazardous to their home environs, and they're accidently snagged as by-catch by local fishermen. Naturalists now fear gravely for their safety, as a particularly bad El Nino year could remove their food supply and wipe out the fragile population. Or, if a dangerous avian malaria that's already been introduced to some parts of the archipelago were to hit, it could decimate their numbers. Thankfully, development of a captive breeding program has been accelerated, and could help support the warm weather penguins.
The Flightless Cormorant – Endangered
These strange and beautiful birds evolved in a habitat free of predators—conditions were so safe, that over time they lost the ability to fly. They have absolutely no fear of humans or other predators, which is bad news for the birds, since non-native feral dogs, cats, and pigs have now been unleashed on their home islands. The intrusive species wreaked havoc on the population, and now there are a scant 1,500 birds in existence. A rise in net fishing has also seen the birds get caught on accident. With numbers so low, like the penguins, a severe El Nino or an oil spill could decimate the tiny population.
30 of the top teachers in the US are making a trek from the Florida Everglades to the Galapagos Islands in order to engage a series of global conservation issues in the Toyota International Teacher Program. I'm traveling alongside the educators to report on what we discover about the wondrous, severely threatened modern day Galapagos.
For more on my trek with the teachers through the Galapagos:
Teaching by Example: The Road to Galapagos
Anticipating Education in Modern Day Galapagos (Part One)