The Guam Rail

Just for kids


May 10, 1999|By Patricia Chargot

WHAT is a rail? It's a multicolored, flightless bird that stands 12 inches tall. It's the last rail species in the Mariana Islands, a Pacific Ocean island group halfway between Japan and New Guinea. The Guam rail is part of a family of about 260 bird species, most of which are flightless. They evolved from flighted ancestors that invaded various islands, where there were few predators to threaten them on the ground. So they gradually stopped flying.

WHY is it special? The females of most bird species don't reach maturity until they're a year old. But female Guam rails begin breeding at five to six months. And they breed all year long. Their eggs hatch about 20 days after being laid. About 30 days after that, they lay another clutch. Both parents care for the young, but the fathers have to do more because the moms are so busy laying and sitting on eggs.

Why are there so few? Human colonization on the U.S.-owned island took a big toll on flightless birds. They hunted them for food and brought animals that preyed upon them. Only the Guam rail managed to survive -- perhaps because it's so large and aggressive. Once, the 15 islands in the Marianas had two to three unique rail species each.

What's happening now? The Guam rail went extinct in the wild, but zoos continued to raise the birds in captivity. Last year, 26 birds were reintroduced to a 65-acre forested area after workers trapped and removed as many snakes as they could find. The area is surrounded by a chain link fence. It doesn't keep out snakes, but workers are guarding its perimeter. An additional 70 birds have been released on Roti, 50 miles north of Guam, which is snake-free.

Source: Scott Derrickson, curator of ornithology, National Zoo; Derrickson is also a past coordinator of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's species survival program for the Guam rail.

Pub Date: 05/10/99

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