Endangered Species Day - Celebrate the brave little Pi Santez

On Endangered Species Day, celebrated on 19 May, we look at the front of a 25 Seychelles rupees note where the Seychelles Magpie Robin holds pride of place and marvel at how far this bird has come.

On Cousin Island Special Reserve, Seychelles Magpie Robins (Pi Santez, Copsychus sechellarum) are often seen killing centipedes.
Just this weekend, volunteers watched in awe as one pecked at a centipede for a solid ten minutes - only pausing to scare away a Seychelles skink trying to get in on the action - before killing it and flying off to enjoy its meal.

The endemic birds primarily feed on the ground and eat insects and invertebrates from leaf litter and soil. They follow larger animals that stir up insects and invertebrates when they walk, such as Aldabra giant tortoises, and humans who turn over rocks and expose tasty morsels, which they quickly take.

Killing centipedes is not the reason we think these birds are brave

Killing centipedes is not the reason we think these birds are brave

However, killing the often-dreaded centipedes is not the reason we think these birds are brave.

They are the ultimate survivors and have defied all odds to be alive today.

In the 1990s, the magpie population was at the edge of extinction, with just over 20 individuals remaining on Frégate Island, an impossible situation that meant the species would soon disappear forever.

Although historically present on several islands, their population declined as a result of human settlement and the subsequent clearing of habitats on which they depend, as well as the presence of introduced cats and rats.

Their status only began to improve when BirdLife International and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds stepped in to save the bird by initiating the ambitious and highly successful Mapgie Robin Recovery Programme.

On Frégate, intensive habitat rehabilitation and predator eradication, supplementary feeding, nest boxes, and habitat restoration was initiated.

They follow larger animals that stir up insects

They follow larger animals that stir up insects

As numbers increased, BirdLife successfully transferred individuals to Cousin in 1994 and to Cousine in 1995. In 1998, Nature Seychelles, which took over the program, received a large grant from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and began extensive habitat restoration, particularly on Denis. In 2002, birds were taken to Aride, and in 2008, to Denis.

By 2005, so improved was the outlook for the bird that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) down-listed it from Critically Endangered to Endangered, making it the poster child of successful conservation in Seychelles and the world.

Today, the population is 500 birds on 5 islands!

On Cousin Island where 5 Seychelles Magpie Robins were introduced, the number has grown to 69.

The Seychelles Magpie Robin has come a long way

The Seychelles Magpie Robin has come a long way

But despite the turnaround, the bird is still highly managed and monitoring programs are in place to check on the population.

Birds are ringed at the nest to identify them. Behaviours such as collecting nest materials, fighting, and chasing are recorded. Nest boxes and cavities are checked for nesting evidence and invertebrate surveys are carried out to determine food availability.

Nature Seychelles, which manages Cousin Island, set up and facilitates a local stakeholder group called the Seychelles Magpie Robin Recovery Team (SMART), which takes conservation actions and makes management decisions for the bird. It is made up of managers and conservation officers from Cousin, Cousine, Aride, Denis, and Frégate, as well as the Ministry of Environment.

Individual islands have overall management responsibilities for their bird population. Nature Seychelles holds twice-a-year meetings, maintains the species database for which islands submit data, and acts as a focal point for the collation of blood samples for molecular sexing of the bird and for troubleshooting challenges faced by the species.

The Magpie Robin was drinking at the Last Chance Saloon when the BirdLife partnership stepped in. It is proof that we can save species in our lifetime. Conservation works. But it needs leadership, money, and stamina,” says Dr. Nirmal Shah, the CEO of Nature Seychelles, who personally sank in thousands of hours into the Magpie Robin Recovery Programme.

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