Fragile Lives

Reflections on extinction

Bronwen Scott

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Buff-banded Rail posing for the camera. Atherton Tablelands, Far North Queensland. © Bronwen Scott

As I write this, I can hear a bird call. It’s an insistent, high-pitched ‘peep’, which could belong to any bird except that it comes from a thicket of weeds along the fence line. Not many birds would hide in such a tangle. This is where the snakes live.

It could belong to any bird, but close up the call reveals its weirdness. The ‘peep’ is accompanied by a deep percussive ‘whoop’. The sounds occur at the same time.

This piccolo-and-bass-drum bird is a Buff-banded Rail, a species that occurs from the Philippines and Borneo to Tuvalu and Niue in the western Pacific. Each island or island group has a variation. In Australia (subspecies mellori), the rail occurs mostly around the continent’s edge, rarely wandering far inland. It is a bird of swampy sedges and overgrown gardens…and snake-infested thickets.

Although described as ‘sneaky’ by eBird, Buff-banded Rail can be tame and confiding in some locations, especially islands where there are fewer predators. But the pair in my garden are cautious. They don’t tarry on the lawn where they could fall prey to Brown Goshawks. Instead, they scuttle between the dense trees on one side and the dense weeds on the other. A cluster of Golden Cane Palms in the middle of the garden provide cover on the way. I hear the birds more often than I see them. What eBird calls sneaky is a way of surviving as a ground-dwelling bird in a hostile world.

And the world is hostile.

The largest living species of rail is the flightless South Island Takahē from New Zealand. A charismatic Incredible Hulk of a gallinule, the South Island Takahē was considered extinct at the end of the 19th century. In 1948, a small population was discovered in the remote Murchison Mountains of the far southwest of South Island. Bolstered by a captive breeding program, Takahē are being reintroduced into areas from which the species had been extirpated.

Many other rails have not been as lucky — pushed into extinction with no last minute rescue, no chance of survival.

South Island Takahē. Photo by Timo Volz on Unsplash

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Bronwen Scott

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland. She/her. Website: bronwenscott.com