A ring around a Magpie


08-July-2013

Magpies wear coloured rings for identification


I gently grip the end of a long, thin, “transparent” piece of fishing line in my fingers while I peak through a slight gap in the dense fern cover at my partner who is similarly positioned about 10 metres away. His hand is all that is visible to me while I sit hidden from view of a small bird trap. When his hand gives the signal, I pull with all my might and hope that the little piece of wood propping the trap comes out swiftly and triggers the spring.

I am waiting for a bird, and a very important one at that -- the Seychelles magpie robin, a great symbol of conservation success and a lot of hard work.

The Seychelles magpie robin population on Cousin Island Special Reserve has bloomed to about 45 birds since it was introduced and the overall bird population, that was once frighteningly low at 23 birds, has recovered to about 360 birds on five islands. Still intensively managed, the magpie robin is the focus of a great deal of continued conservation efforts and monitoring on Cousin and the other islands which form the Nature Seychelles' coordinated Seychelles Magpie Recovery Team (SMART).

In an effort to track the island's birds and monitor their behaviour and relationship patterns, they have two coloured rings on each leg that allows for identification of the individual, their gender, age, dominance, and expected territory. But, birds being birds, what were once brightly colored red and pink and green and purple rings tend to fade into an indecipherable, muddled brown color, difficult to identify from monitoring distances.

And that, my friends, is how I find myself here, sitting in the dirt, huddled under a large, lazy, leaning fern, fingers poised to catch an unsuspecting bird in the midst of stuffing himself with termites. This particular bird has managed to shed one of his two coloured rings, leaving behind just one bright yellow ring, and masquerading as every other yellow-ringed bird in the area.

Eventually, I see my partner’s hand give a silent "okay" and I tug, successfully catching our one-ringed friend. We rush over and remove the bird from the trap quickly. Then, after confirming his identification ring number on our monitoring sheet, we add a new green ring to the lone yellow one and quickly send him on his way to continue stuffing himself with termites. After releasing the bird, we move on to another territory in the hopes of surprising a few other birds. The difficulty with the Seychelles magpie robin is that their memory is shockingly good, so this is not an activity for the impatient or faint of heart. After about four hours, we are thrilled to return to the office leaving behind three birds with bright new rings. Another successful day on Cousin.

Contributed by Nature Seychelles and Liz Martin

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