When I first heard the news about the rediscovery of Beck’s Petrel, the bird’s name sent a little shiver down my spine. The man for whom it was named, Rollo Beck, was an ornithological collector who, on December 1, 1900, may have unwittingly (?) finished off another bird species, the Guadalupe Caracara or Quelili, Polyborus lutosus.
The caracara was one of a variety of fauna and flora endemic to Guadalupe Island, approximately 150 miles off the west coast of Baja California. The island’s relative isolation led to the development of species and populations of animals and plants distinct from their counterparts on the mainland. Its original avifauna included:
- Guadalupe Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma macrodactyla)
- Guadalupe Flicker (Colaptes cafer rufipileus)
- Guadalupe Bewick’s Wren (Thryomanes bewickii brevicauda)
- Guadalupe Rock Wren (Salpinctes obsoletus guadalupensis)
- Guadalupe Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus consobrinus)
- Guadalupe Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula obscurus)
- Guadalupe House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus amplus)
- Guadalupe Junco (Junco insularis)
- and of course the Guadalupe Caracara (Polyborus lutosus).
The Bewick’s Wren and towhee apparently disappeared before Beck’s infamous visit in 1900, while the storm-petrel and flicker had vanished by 1910 (the flicker was later replaced by colonists of the nominate subspecies from the mainland). The kinglet clung to existence for decades but was presumed extinct after surveys in 2000 failed to find any. The Rock Wren, House Finch, and junco persist, but the junco lost most of its forest habitat to the voracious goats. (Also resident on Guadalupe is a population of Anna’s Hummingbird that is considered morphologically indistinguishable from the mainland form but whose males sing simpler songs than their continental counterparts. Hmmm…)
The beginning of the end for the caracara and its ill-fated neighbors was when seafarers dropped off goats in the early 19th century. This was a common practice, intended to provide a reliable source of fresh meat for crews of whaling and sealing ships on extended voyages. The goats proceeded to eat Isla Guadalupe down to rocks and dirt, devouring plants that had evolved for untold millennia in the absence of large herbivores. With the loss of chaparral vegetation that once provided ample condensation surfaces for sea fog, the island became more arid. The loss of habitat for the island’s fauna was compounded in the 1870s by the introduction of cats, which preyed on birds, especially the smaller species, and were major contributors to their extinctions.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the island’s unique and increasingly rare birds attracted the attention of ornithological collectors. In those days, it was common for private citizens to maintain their own collections of natural history specimens, often through trade or purchase, so the market for bird skins and eggs went far beyond museums and universities. Some collectors, such as A.W. Anthony (1901) and Thayer and Bangs (1908) wrote of scouring the island for the last remaining specimens of now-extinct species, presumably operating under the philosophy that shooting them for collections was better than letting them “go to waste” on the increasingly inhospitable island.
The significance of these ornithological visitors wasn’t lost on island residents. The same people who persecuted the caracara for its occasional depredations on kid goats soon realized that the species’ increasing rarity could be exploited. Live specimens were brought to San Diego and offered for sale, often for a king’s ransom by the standards of the time. Clinton Abbott’s obituary for the species (1933) reconstructs the heartbreaking stories of these unfortunate birds, including one killed in a Tripp-esque fit of pique when its captor failed to get his asking price. Daniel Cleveland, a charter member of the San Diego Society of Natural History, wrote to Abbot about a fisherman who brought six caracaras to San Diego in 1897. No one was willing to meet his asking price of $150, and the birds all died within a month. Cleveland remarked that “…the man’s greed resulted in our failure to rear some of these birds in captivity….” As much as I disapprove of rewarding such exploitation, had someone been willing to pay these poor birds’ ransom, we might be celebrating the successful reintroduction of the caracara to its island home instead of grieving its extinction.
On December 1, 1900, Rollo Beck encountered a flock of 11 caracaras. They were very tame and approachable, as island species with no land-based predators often are. He shot them all, but two managed to escape. By his own account he did not realize until later how rare they were and that he may well have been the last person to see one alive.
At the risk of raising the ire of some of my respected museum colleagues, I have serious doubts about this profession of ignorance. According to Abbot’s correspondence with various players in this tragedy, the caracara was acknowledged to be “a rare bird in process of extinction” as early as 1875, a quarter century before Beck’s fateful visit. It’s hard to imagine that such a well-connected character as Beck was so out of the loop that he was completely unaware of the increasing rarity of this species. Wasn’t the promise of rare specimens precisely what lured ornithological collectors to Isla Guadalupe?
If you thought that this sad story would change the attitudes of the collectors who followed and the institutions who employed them, you’d be wrong. The birds of Guadalupe Island were hunted by ornithologists at least as late as the 1950s, though hopefully with somewhat more restraint than shown by Beck.
This wasn’t the only time Beck helped hasten a critically endangered species toward extinction. In 1906, on an expedition to the Galapagos Islands for the California Academy of Sciences, he collected three male Pinta Giant Tortoises, Geochelone [nigra] abingdonii, out of only four known survivors at the time. Again, Beck was simply one nail in the coffin, the others being relentless exploitation of the tortoises for meat and habitat destruction by introduced goats (a familiar pattern). The species was thought lost until 1971, when a lone male was discovered roaming the Pinta backcountry. Dubbed “Lonesome George” for his dismal romantic prospects, the tortoise was moved to the Charles Darwin Research Station for safekeeping and study. He has so far lived up to his name by failing to produce any hybrid progeny with females from the Wolf Volcano (Isabela Island) species–which, like the rediscovered petrel, bears Beck’s name (Geochelone becki).
Possible rays of hope from these tragic stories:
- Guadalupe Island, which was originally declared a nature preserve way back in 1928, is now a biosphere reserve where goats are ungulata non grata. Seacology, a nonprofit organization whose mission is the preservation of endangered island biodiversity throughout the world, contributed to the recovery of what’s left of Guadalupe’s fauna and flora by funding another group, Island Conservation, to erect goat exclosures within which native plants could find refuge. The Mexican government funded a major goat removal program, and with the hooved locusts almost gone the vegetation is beginning to recover. Survey teams have even rediscovered several plant species presumed extinct, but only in a conservationist’s wildest fantasies could we hope for the rediscovery of Isla Guadalupe’s lost caracara, towhee, wren, flicker, or petrel.
- A research team working in the Galapagos has identified a male giant tortoise on Isabela Island as a first-generation hybrid between the Isabela and Pinta species. Another male doesn’t do Lonesome George much good, but the team is optimistic about finding a female with pure Pinta DNA among the 2000-odd tortoises on Isabela (maybe the hybrid’s mom?).
- Speaking of DNA, skins of the Quelili and the other extinct birds of Isla Guadalupe can be found in various collections in the Americas and Europe. If DNA could be extracted from them, might it be possible one day to resurrect these lost birds by implanting eggs of their closest relatives with cloned embryos?
On a much lighter note, this brings to mind a song about Lonesome George that some friends and I (one of whom, Alan Tennant, has gone on to vastly bigger and better things) wrote in a tequila-fueled fit of whimsy. The melody is long gone, and I can only remember a few of the lyrics, which were from George’s POV:
…the keepers here are nice but they’re fast
and love for me has to last…and last…and last…
…I dream at night of her leathery face
and making love at a tortoise pace…
(Note: The misleadingly named Guadalupe Island Conservation Fund appears to be entirely devoted to shark research and conservation; the island itself apparently serves only as its base of field operations.)