Threatened with Extinction, Rare Birds Get Flight Upgrade at PIT

Guam kingfisher chicks catch Delta flight, prepare for reentry into wild thanks to National Aviary

By Rick Wills

Published July 8, 2024

Read Time: 4 mins


Carry-on luggage can sometimes be complicated, often because it’s too bulky. Or maybe because something is fragile.

No carry-on is more fragile than the two Guam kingfisher chicks that a bird expert recently carried on a Delta flight out of Pittsburgh International Airport.

Extinct in the wild for 40 years, there are fewer than 150 kingfishers on the planet – all in Association of Zoos and Aquarium-accredited facilities across the United States.

“You’re aware that what you’re carrying is important,” said Brianna Crane, senior aviculturist at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, who transported the birds.

The chicks, raised at the National Aviary, fit into an incubator about the size of lunch cooler.

“We pre-boarded the plane to avoid the crowd. [Delta] was wonderful helping us plan the trip, making special arrangements,” Crane said.

The plane’s crew and nearby passengers were intrigued by Crane’s unusual carry-on, two rare, Robin-sized birds.

Crane kept the unobtrusive incubator on her lap during the six hours of travel to Kansas, via Atlanta.

Brianna Crane, senior aviculturist at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, helped transport the Guam kingfisher chicks contained in a specialized incubator from Pittsburgh to Wichita via Delta. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Kansas first, then the Pacific

Crane’s destination was the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, site of a federally approved facility where the birds will be prepared to eventually travel to Palmyra Atoll, a 4.2-square-mile island owned by the Nature Conservancy, the largest conversation organization in the Americas.

Palmyra Atoll is located between Hawaii and American Samoa. There, the birds will be readied for an introduction into the wild.

The Guam kingfisher has been extinct in the wild for 40 years, the result of the arrival on Guam of the invasive and predatory Brown Tree Snake, which has destroyed many of the native birds of the island. The snake likely arrived on the island on a military ship after World War II.

Known as sihek by the indigenous Chamoru people, the colorful birds once flourished on Guam.

Palmyra Atoll is one of only a few places in the world that is viable for wild introductions because it is protected and predator-free, according to the conservancy.

“One of the reasons this project is happening at Palmyra Atoll is that it provides suitable habitat that is free from key invasive predators,” said Katie Franklin, island conservation strategy leader with The Nature Conservancy.

Over the last two decades, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and many conservation and science partners have safeguarded Palmyra Atoll by removing invasive rats and restoring native habitat, she said.

Extinct in the wild for 40 years, fewer than 150 Guam kingfishers exist worldwide with all located in Association of Zoos and Aquarium-accredited facilities across the U.S. (Courtesy of National Aviary)

Back to Guam – someday

The introduction of sihek to Palmyra Atoll will give the birds a chance to breed in the wild and grow their population. It will also give the project team an opportunity to learn how the species behaves in the wild. Palmyra will act as a temporary home to build their numbers until they can be hopefully reintroduced to a snake-free Guam.

Once at the atoll, the birds will be raised in aviaries, overseen by the conservancy. They eventually will be released. This process will be repeated annually until 20 sihek breeding pairs have been successfully established.

“Siheks deserve a chance to flourish in the wild once again — and it’s well worth taking our time to get it right,” says Professor John Ewen, ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and Sihek Recovery Program.

There are about 10,000 bird species in the world, often with populations than have come and gone.

One of the most famous restoration projects involved the Bald eagle, whose population had withered by the mid-1960s due to pesticides like DDT.

In 1963, estimates revealed only about 417 pairs of the eagles were nesting in the lower 48 states, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

When the Endangered Species Act was adopted in 1973, the Bald eagle was a charter member of the first endangered species list. The last strongholds of the national bird were Alaska and parts of Canada.

The Bald eagle population has flourished since, growing to more than 71,400 nesting pairs.

According to scientists from the service’s Migratory Bird Program, the Bald eagle population climbed to an estimated 316,700 individual bald eagles in the lower 48 states.

The Bald eagle was taken off the endangered species list in 2007.

The public can see the Guam Kingfisher pair, whose chicks are now part of this exciting journey, in a public-facing habitat at the National Aviary on Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhood.

Go to Top