In a competition for the world’s unluckiest bird, the spoon–billed sandpiper would undoubtedly be a leading contender for 1st prize. However, a last ditch breeding programme might be just enough to bring this species back from the edge of extinction.
From a distance the brown and white markings of the spoon–billed sandpiper make it seem like any of the other 200 or so species of wading bird found worldwide. Yet, closer inspection reveals that in fact, this is no ordinary wading bird. This is primarily due to its unique spatula shaped bill.
The breeding ground of the sandpiper is along the coast of Chukotka province in eastern Russia where predators, flooding and snow may prevent successful reproduction occurring in the short window of time available.
Any chicks that survive this ordeal then travel 8,000km (5,000 miles) to their wintering grounds in Myanmar and Bangladesh on a journey that is possibly the most perilous of any migratory bird. During this journey they pass through the world’s largest industrial powers – Japan, China and South Korea where coastal development (particularly in wetland areas) is proceeding at an exponential rate. To top it all off, if the sandpipers do reach their wintering grounds, they then become targets for poor local communities intent on trapping them for food.
The population size of sandpipers has never been large. In the late 1970s they were estimated at 2,400 breeding pairs but by 2000 numbers had declined to 1,000 pairs. Currently scientists estimate that only 100 breeding pairs are left in the wild suggesting a 90% drop in the last decade. Unless a radical solution is found, the extinction of this species in the wild is inevitable within the next 10 years.
Thankfully, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) along with conservation partners including the RSPB and BirdLife International Russia, have made the controversial decision to take spoon billed sandpiper chicks from the wild and raise them in captivity. However, although captive breeding works in long lived species, it is much more challenging in small migratory waders such as the sandpiper. Many also argue that the limited financial resources available would be better spent on preserving wetland habitats for species that are more likely to survive in the long term.
The view of WWT, RSPB and BirdLife International however, is that these extraordinary birds should be given a chance to succeed before they join others such as the dodo in the history books.
By Anthony Kubale