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Birds

Masters of the air

Curiously enough the famous naturalist [Darwin] did not see, or failed to recognize, the wirebird as a native, for he does not mention it but stated his belief that all the birds of the island had been introduced within recent years.
Philip Gosse’s ‘St Helena 1502-1938’

We have an eclectic collection of birds

This page is in indexes: Island Activity, Island Nature, Island Detail

Birds Saint Helena Island Info

Below: On other pagesOur eclectic collectionVisitorsDomesticated FowlFailed IntroductionsExtinct EndemicsRead More

Anyone interested in the birds of St Helena should obtain a copy of ‘A Guide to the Birds of St Helena and Ascension Island’, by Neil McCulloch, published by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, ISBN 1 901930 46 7. Much of the material presented here is sourced from this book.

On other pages

Wirebird Saint Helena Island Info Birds
Wirebird{a}

‘Seabird’ Saint Helena Island Info Birds
‘Seabird’

Our most internationally-famous bird is the Wirebirdcharadrius sanctaehelenae(left), which is also our only endemic bird and therefore merits a page of its own. And unsurprisingly, given that St Helena is the only dry land for hundreds of miles in any direction, we are home to a variety of sea birds, including one which we call a ‘Seabird’ (right), so they too get a page of their own.

Our eclectic collection

Our many other birds are all introduced species. They were brought here mostly either to serve specific environmental purposes, or for game, or as caged-birds which escaped into the wild. They are listed below in alphabetic order of their island name.

Below: CanaryCardinalJava SparrowMoorhenMynah BirdPartridgePeaceful DovePheasantPigeonWaxbill

Canary

The Yellow Canaryserinus flaviventris is thought to have been introduced as a caged bird in the late 18th Century. 12cm long, it is a seed-eater and probably the best songster of all our birds. They associate in groups of up to 50 birds and can be seen (and heard!) island-wide, including in Jamestown.

Yellow Canary Saint Helena Island Info Birds
Yellow Canary{b}

Cardinal

The Madagascar Fodyfoudia madagascariensis, locally known as a Cardinal, Robin or simply Red Bird because of the male’s distinctive red plumage, is thought to have been introduced as a caged bird in the late 17th Century. 13cm long, it is a seed-eater that will also take nectar and insects, it is another good songster. Groups of up to 100 birds are not uncommon. They frequent up-country areas (Longwood; Blue Hill) and are only occasionally seen in Jamestown.

1875: A common field-bird, where it may be seen associating with crithagra butyracea{1}, and in all probability breeds with it. It is not plentiful, but maybe seen occasionally in flights of a hundred or more when the corn is being reaped. It is caught by the natives and sold to passengers on board ship. It changes its plumage regularly from red to brown every year. This bird has a habit of frequenting those parts of the Island where the common flag antholyza atthiopica grows; it will sit perched on the long flower-stalk enjoying the honey, sucking it through an aperture which it bites at the bottom of each long tubular flower.{c}

You will not be surprised to be told than they are no longer sold to tourists!

Cardinal Saint Helena Island Info Birds
Cardinal{b}

Java Sparrow

The Java Sparrowpadda oryzivora is thought to have been introduced as a caged bird in the late 18th Century due to its attractive appearance, though its song is not paricularly interesting. 15cm long, it eats seeds and because of its powerful bill can tackle larger seeds than others, and commonly invades chicken coops to eat the chicken feed, often in large groups. Its spread is island-wide, including Jamestown.

1875: A tolerably abundant bird, inhabiting the low rocky lands on the northern side of the Island. These birds are frequently seen hopping about in pairs, and also in flights in the interior when the corn is ripening. It is not many years since they were introduced, and they appear to thrive well and to be increasing in numbers.{c}

According to the Records, in March 1795 it was ordered that nobody is to kill a Java Sparrow for one year on penalty of whipping (for a child) or a fine. It is not clear why this was imposed but it may have been to get the population established, soon after their introduction.

Java Sparrows Saint Helena Island Info Birds
Java Sparrows{d}

Moorhen

The Moorhengallinula chloropus is locally known as a Water Bird or Water Duck. The first record of their existence here is from 1670 but it is unclear if it was introduced intentionally (and for what reason?) or arrived as a stowaway on a ship. 32cm long and eating plant matter and small animals, its range seems to be confined to Sandy Bay and Fisher’s Valley, though some seem to live in the Heart Shaped Waterfall area. Most island residents will not recall ever having seen a Moorhen.

Mynah Bird

The Myna or Common Mynahacridotheres tristis, also locally known as the Miner Bird or Indian Myna[h], is ubiquitous on St Helena and is likely to be the first bird you see. 26cm long and with striking yellow legs, the species is thought to have been introduced in 1829{2} to control cattle ticks, but these birds apparently did not become established and the current population is thought to descend from escaped caged birds kept by Miss Phoebe Moss at The Briars from 1885. Mynahs eat just about anything; they are energetic raiders of garbage bags and are considered a pest. They can be found island-wide. In Jamestown they roost in the Duke of Edinburgh Playground and in Castle Gardens and create much noise at dawn and at dusk.

1875: This bird was introduced in the year 1829, and has not multiplied to any extent. It is still to be found inhabiting the Peepul treesficw terebrata in Jamestown, but is rare.{c}

In 1975 the Ivyletts presented a Pantomime entitled ‘The Blue Mynah Bird of Happiness’. Local drivers tend to attemp to run them over, rarely successfully.

It has been claimed that Mynahs take Wirebird eggs, but no conclusive evidence has ever been found.

Mynah Bird Saint Helena Island Info Birds
Mynah Bird

Partridge

The Chukar Partridgealectoris chukar, like the Pheasant are thought to have been introduced by the Portuguese soon after the island’s discovery. About 33cm long, they appear in groups of 20 or so, usually in semi-desert areas, feeding on seeds, plant-shoots and insects.

Peaceful Dove

Peaceful Doves Saint Helena Island Info Birds

Peaceful Dovesgeopelia striata are also known as Turtle Doves, Zebra Doves or just simply Doves. 24cm long, they were introduced in the 18th Century from Mauritius and were probably not caged but introduced as wild birds. They eat seeds and tend to inhabit the warmer, wetter parts of the island, though there is a large population in Jamestown. They are noted for their gentle Coo Coo sound and are generally tame, readily accepting scraps at open-air restaurants and cafés.

Pheasant

The Ring-Necked Pheasantphasianus colchicus may have been introduced by the Portuguese soon after the island’s discovery; they are reported to have been part of the diet of Fernão Lopez. At 53-89cm long they are our largest non-domesticated bird and are thought to be present in significant numbers, but are rarely seen. They are mostly found in more wooded areas or in flax plantations, feeding on seeds, plant shoots and insects.

Pigeon

Pigeonscolumba livia are widespread on St Helena and are thought to have been introduced by the Portuguese; they are first recorded in 1578. 33cm long and eating almost anything, they flock in most settled areas, including Jamestown. Like the Mynah they raid garbage bags and are considered a pest.

Waxbill

The Common Waxbillestrilda astrild is often mistaken for a Java Sparrow, though the latter’s tail is shorter. 13cm long, it is thought to have been introduced as a caged bird in the late 18th Century, and eats mostly grass seeds, giving it a wide range across the island - they are particularly common on Deadwood Plain and the nearby Longwood Golf Course where they appear in groups of 10-20 birds.

Waxbill Saint Helena Island Info Birds
Waxbill

Visitors

Cattle Egret Saint Helena Island Info Birds
Cattle Egret

Cattle Egretsbubulcus ibis(right), locally known as the Cattle Bird, visit our cattle pastures most summers to eat the ticks and other parasites and also feed on other insects and even frogs and small mammals, but do not breed on St Helena. Other wind-blown visitors are also occasionally reported; the Records for August 1880 report that A pair of Storks are sighted. One is shot dead; the other dies anyway. An Allen’s Gallinuleporphyrula alleni was found in the Run in May 2001, and apparently (according to the St Helena News) the Records contain eight other sightings of the same species, mostly all young birds that are presumably more easily wind-blown. A juvenile Dwarf Bittern was identified in November 2011.

Domesticated Fowl

Cockerel Saint Helena Island Info Birds
‘Herbert’{3}

St Helena does, of course, have domesticated fowl: chickens, ducks and sometimes geese. These are usually of breeds selected for egg production rather than eating.

Failed Introductions

It seems specimens of the Common or House Sparrowpasser domesticus were released at Plantation House in 1869 in the hope of controlling the growing Termite population but without success - the birds did not thrive (probably losing out to the established Java Sparrows) and also made no dent in the Termite numbers.

Other failed introductions include: Skylarksalauda arvensis in 1715; Blackbirdsturdus merula, Song Thrushesturdus philomelos, Chaffinchesfringilla coelebs and Robinserithacus rubecula in 1824 (presumably by the English trying to make the island more like home); Ostrichstruthio camelus from South Africa, for food in 1879; and Owlsspecies unknown in 1930, presumably to control mice and rats.

Extinct Endemics

In addition to the Wirebird St Helena used to have other endemic birds, most of which were lost after the island was discovered in 1502 due to habitat changes caused by the invasion of goats, pigs and rats brought by the Portuguese and the English Settlers. We list these unfortunates below. Images of what they might have looked like can be found in the book Birds of St Helena and Ascension Island (p82).

Land

St Helena Crake

porzana astrictocarpus

Small and flightless; possibly evolved from Baillon’s Crakeporzana pusilla

St Helena Cuckoo

nannococcyx psix

Either non-parasitic{4}, or parisitizing an as-yet unknown species

St Helena Hoopoe

upapa antaios

10-20% larger than its African ancestors; probably flightless; likely descended from the old world Hoopoeupupa epops

St Helena Pigeon

dysmoropelia dekarchiskos

Sometimes called the St Helena Dove; probably ground-dwelling; larger than the current pigeon; possibly flightless; may already have been extinct when St Helena was discovered{5}

St Helena Rail

atlantisia podarces

Almost certainly flightless; probably an omnivore; one of the largest known rails

Sea

St Helena Bulweria Petrel

bulweria bifax

One of the island’s most numerous species until 1502, centred in Sandy Bay

St Helena Gadfly Petrel

pterodroma rupinarum

Another formerly prolific species until 1502.

Read More

Below: BooksArticle: “Cattle Egrets Re-visit”

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

Books

General Interest

‘A Guide to the Birds of St Helena and Ascension Island’, by Neil McCulloch, published by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, ISBN 1 901930 46 7.

More scientific

‘St Helena and Ascension Island: A Natural History’, by Philip & Myrtle Ashmole, published by Anthony Nelson 2000, ISBN 0 904614 61 1.

Article: “Cattle Egrets Re-visit”

Published in the St Helena Herald 24th February 2012{6}

St Helena was honoured with a re-visit from some travellers who have frequently visited the island before. Almost every year a small number of Cattle Egrets are seen, sometimes in Castle Gardens, often at Bottom Woods, and today enjoying the sprinklers on the grass in the Mule Yard in Jamestown.

Cattle Egrets in the Mule Yard Saint Helena Island Info Birds
Cattle Egrets in the Mule Yard

They are residents of Africa and Asia, but have been known to wander much further afield - to Europe where they now breed, and to far flung offshore locations such as St Helena and Diego Garcia.

They are very adaptable birds, and are often very tame due to their living close to man and his activities. They are called Cattle Egrets because they will feed amongst grazing cattle, sheep and goats, hunting down the insects these animals disturb as they walk through the grass, and even perching on the animal’s backs to get a better view. They will also frequent road verges and townships with poor rubbish control, landfills, and golf courses, as well as freshly dug or harvested agricultural areas.

They are members of the heron family, and like most of the herons can be quite varied in their diet - insects, frogs, fish, scraps, offal and the like. The male birds of some egret species in breeding season sport long feathers on the back of the head which were once much sought after to adorn women’s hats in the Victorian era. The adult Cattle Egrets show a gingery colour on the head and breast, which can be seen on one of the birds in Jamestown today, suggesting the other two might be immature.

The birds being here are an indication that some species can travel long distances, perhaps trapped in high altitude jet streams. Imagine their relief at finding land beneath them, with water, an abundance of insect life, and even friendly people. Far too few cattle for their liking however! So enjoy these ‘tourists’ who make few demands on the island and its economy. They recognise no boundaries, are neither racialist nor religious, they ask for nothing more than to be left alone, and who knows - one day they too might be seeking permission to stay rather than having to make the long flight there and back each year. They can also hitch rides on ships, but although the RMS arrived from the Cape yesterday I have heard no rumours of their being stowaways in the rigging!

Dr Chris Hillman
Wirebird Programme Manager
St Helena National Trust

Closing Humour Saint Helena Island Info Birds

Laugh at funny Birds humour LOL Saint Helena Island Info


Credits:

{a} Bird Life

{b} Neil Fantom

{c} From ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island, including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology’, by John Melliss, published in 1875.

{d} Tourist Office



Footnotes:

{1} We cannot identify the species to which he refers here, and think it may be a misprint or an old classification no longer in use.

{2} Some say 1815, and possibly a different species: the Common Hill Mynah gracula religiosa.

{3} When the author and family lived in Blue Hill we kept chickens, ruled over by Herbert. Sadly, in time he began to view the hen-house as his exclusive territory, and started attacking us when we went to collect the eggs. So we ate him. Problem solved.

{4} Cuckoos normally lay their eggs in another, smaller, bird’s nest, the larger chick easily out-competing the host’s young for nourishment.

{5} The only fossils found are much older than years.

{6} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.



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