Bird Watcher's General Store

No Birds in Guam - 10/07/05


Dear Bird Folks,

Here on the island of Guam, the only birds that I get on my feeder are House Sparrows and pigeons. I enjoy the sparrows, but the pigeons hog all the food and make a big mess. Do you have any suggestions as to how I can feed the sparrows and not the pigeons?

-Brenda, Guam

So Many Topics Brenda,

I know your question was simple and straight forward, but there are several items that we need to address first. To begin with, not all of us are Guam-savvy. Some people may not know where it is or what it is. Guam sounds like it could be an ingredient in some kind of new-age beverage. "I'll have a mango and guam spritzer please." Also, why are sparrows and pigeons the only two birds on the island? I'll help you with your pigeon issue Brenda, but first I have to explain a little about Guam and why it is more than a spritzer.

Guam is a pleasant tropical island in the south Pacific, just north of New Guinea, which is just north of Australia, which is just north of Antarctica and all those fun penguins. The Spanish occupied Guam for several hundred years until 1898, when they handed it over to the United States for some reason. The U.S. kept it until 1941 when the Japanese moved in. Three years after that the U.S. military decided that they wanted it back. Heated words were exchanged, plus several assorted bombs, and Guam was once again part of the USA.

Guam is not a huge island; only about thirty miles long and around seven miles wide on average, but it did have enough habitat to support a nice assortment of endemic birds. There was the flightless Guam Rail, the handsome Micronesian Kingfisher, and the interesting sounding Cardinal Honeyeater. These birds and many more were Guam specialties. Today these birds are either extinct or extirpated from the island. Nearly 100% of the native bird population of Guam has vanished in the past fifty years.

What happened to the birds? As you can imagine W.W.II didn't do them any favors. The massive bombings were bad enough, but in addition, most of the islands forests were set ablaze in an effort to root out any remaining bad guys. The destroyed forests were eventually replanted, except for some crazy reason the U.S. military replaced it with nonnative trees. Don't ask me why. Next came the DDT and we all know how non-bird friendly DDT is. Through all of this, most of the local birds somehow survived. They beat the bombs, the fire, the inappropriate vegetation and the DDT. But what came next they had no chance against. And believe it or not, it wasn't something stupid us humans did, at least not on purpose.

Somehow, during the reconstruction of Guam, the Brown Tree Snake arrived. Although it is not deadly poisonous, the Brown Tree Snake, which can grow to over eight feet long, is a serious predator. No one knows for sure how these aggressive snakes got there. They probably arrived in a load of lumber from the Solomon Islands or perhaps came hidden in the fanny pack of an early tourist.

Isolated Guam never had any real snakes. Its only native snake is a laughable, tiny, worm-sized snake, that can't even see. Thus the local birds never evolved any anti-snake defenses and quickly became easy meals. Also, the island didn't have any native predators to keep the tree snakes in check, so their population quickly exploded across the island. At a creepy 14,000 snakes per square mile, Guam has the highest density of snakes in the world. In fifty short years the Brown Tree Snake has done what bombs and fire couldn't, it has shockingly wiped out nearly every native bird. The only birds left on this tropical island are the introduced sparrows and pigeons and those birds have had to struggle to survive.

The concern now is that a snake like this could find it's way to other islands. An invasion in places like Hawaii would be an environmental nightmare. Electric fences have been set around airports and imports are inspected. Still, you never know what could be hiding in one of the tourist's fanny packs. It could be something even more insidious than those treacherous nail clippers.

Guess what Brenda, the dreaded Brown Tree Snake has claimed yet another victim, the answer your question. I've run out of room before I could address your pigeon problem. I promise I'll get to it next week, if I don't have too many snaky dreams between now and then. I'm not saying that I'm afraid of snakes, but for the next few nights thereีs a good chance that I'll be sleeping with a statue of Saint Patrick and a live mongoose.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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