The slow death spiral started with pine logging, then tourist developments, followed by the explosion of cats, starlings and house sparrows. Scientists believe climate change and a series of weather catastrophes in the last few decades have finally finished it off.
The Bahama nuthatch, a tiny, critically endangered bird found only on Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas, was down to the single digits before last year’s hurricane that devastated parts of the popular Caribbean vacation destination.
Academy Ornithology Collection Manager Nate Rice and much of the ornithology community believe Sitta pusilla insularis is now extinct.
That makes the Academy’s sole specimen of the 3-inch earth-toned beauty with the high-pitched call all the more special. Not to mention that it was collected by James Bond.
“The real James Bond was a well-known, distinguished scientist here at the Academy. When he collected the bird in 1931 so he could study the species, the species was plentiful and at the peak of its population level,” Rice said.
In his new book, The Real James Bond, Jim Wright details the life of the Philadelphia ornithologist. Bond did ground-breaking research in the Caribbean, including his iconic Birds of the West Indies in 1936.
It was Bond who described the Bahama nuthatch as a new species; previously it was considered a brown-headed nuthatch, and some scientists still maintain the two are the same species.
Today there is only one other Bahama nuthatch specimen in the world, and it’s in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. And that’s another reason the Academy’s specimen — among a cache of 225,000 avian creatures — is so important.
“Conserving biodiversity is what we do. Whether plants or insects or birds, speaking out for that diversity and championing it is an important thing,” Rice said. “Birds are indicators of environmental health, and if we’re losing taxa then the environment is in trouble.”
Nuthatches are common backyard birds, but Bahama nuthatches were super-isolated. Their numbers began to decline after World War II when pine forests were cut down to make way for resorts. Cats brought to the island by people developed an appetite for them. Starlings and house sparrows began to take over their nesting cavities, reducing the habitat for the nuthatches.
And then the series of destructive storms and hurricanes.
“The world is filled with examples like this,” said Rice. “We have to remember, we’re a species living on the planet, and we are not immune to what is happening to the planet. All those things — climate change, loss of habitats, invasive species, weather catastrophes — are also happening to the human species, directly or indirectly.”
By Carolyn Belardo
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In the Academy’s “Spotlight on the Collections” series, we tell stories about specimens chosen by our scientists and also how researchers and others around the world depend on our collections for issues involving climate change, water quality, evolution, and biodiversity and extinction.
To read previous installments in the “Spotlight on the Collections” series, visit: