In 1515, not too far from Bermuda, aboard a sea-going vessel bound for San Domingo, an anxious 37 year old fellow paced up and down the deck. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés wanted very much to make landfall. The nearby island fascinated Oviedo. Before 1505, no one in Europe had even known of its existence. The isle was so close. Yet, Oviedo’s ship was held at bay by less than accommodating winds. To pass the the time constructively, he observed a peculiar species of bird that was adept at feasting upon flying fishes.
The avian object that pleasantly distracted Oviedo’s is now known as the cahow (Pterodroma cahow or Bermuda petrel). In the year Oviedo observed the species, the birds most likely probably numbered well over a million. Though fun to watch, the birds were a source of an eerie nocturnal cries that spooked early Spanish seafarers. Owing to superstition–the sailors thought the isles were inhabited by devils–the Spanish steadfastly refused to colonize the islands. This turn of events bought the cahow a little time.
The respite was very brief.
The English had no problem settling down in the area. What followed was bad news for cahows. The birds and their eggs were easy prey for British inhabitants and the invasive dogs, cats, and rats that were brought over with settlers. So many birds were lost to predation that, by 1615, they were thought to be completely extinct.
But then, something remarkable happened.
In 1945 a full-grown cahow washed up on the beach at Cooper’s Island, Bermuda. The event prompted a noted ornithologist named Dr. Robert Cushman Murphy of the American Museum of Natural History to mount and lead an expedition to search for evidence of the bird’s existence. Being an amiable fellow, Murphy invited a thoughtful, adventure-seeking boy to come along. On January 8, 1951, that 15 year old boy helped Cushman re-discover the bird. The event was so moving to young David Wingate that he dedicated his life to bringing the cahow back from the edge of destruction.
The story is related in Lucinda Spurling’s moving 2006 documentary Rare Bird. The exciting documentary tells how a species of bird and a determine boy teach the world about the power of perseverance. Despite invasive species, the poisonous pesticide DDT, and unbridled development and the looming threat of climate change, the cahow and its champion refuse to give up.
- Official site for the Rare Bird documentary
- Audubon works to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity.
- ARKive has an amazing collection of organisms from all over the earth, including the cahow