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The Wirebird

St Helena Plover Charadrius Sanctaehelenae

Like birds, whose beauties languish half concealed, Till, mounted on the wing, their glossy plumes, Expanded, shine with azure, green and gold; How blessings brighten as they take their flight.{j}

Our only surviving endemic bird

SEE ALSO: Our other pages featuring birds are: ⋅ Birds ⋅ Seabirds

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. The earlier book ‘The Birds of St Helena’, compiled by Beau Rowlands in 1998 is, apparently, also worth reading.

About our Wirebird

St Helena Badge, showing Wirebird

Wirebird stamp
Wirebird stamp{1}{k}


RSPB logo
National Trust Logo

IUCN: Vulnerable

Formally the Saint Helena Plover charadrius sanctaehelenae it is known here as the ‘Wirebird’ due to its long, thin, wiry legs. The upperparts are dark brown, with pale buff fringes, while the under-parts are white with variable amounts of buff on the flanks. The head is distinctively marked with a black band running across the fore-crown and around the eyes, with a white stripe immediately above that encircles the head.

Wirebird eggs
Wirebird eggs

Photo Gallery,
The Sentinel 27th July 2017{l}:
Sentinel 20170727_1Sentinel 20170727_2

First recorded in 1638 (but, curiously, not observed by Charles Darwin during his visit in July 1836) it is featured on St Helena’s flag (extract, right) and coat of arms and is held in great affection by island residents. 5 pence coins issued prior to 1998 have the Wirebird on the reverse; the more recent ones feature Jonathan the tortoise.

The Wirebird was first given official protection in the Game Law of 1894 (now under the Birds Protection Ordinance, 1996). Early in the 21st Century it was officially classed as ‘critically endangered’, with only around 200 individuals reported in the 2005/6 survey. It was later established that changes in grazing patterns may have been a significant factor. Predation of eggs and chicks by rats and feral cats was also likely. As a result of improved management, recent census results have been more encouraging and the Wirebird is now classed only as ‘Vulnerable’.

Wirebirds feed on ground-living insects, especially beetles and caterpillars, which they catch using a ‘run and grab’ technique. Foraging typically accounts for around 60% of daytime activity and is most intensive in the early morning and late afternoon. Wirebirds will occasionally continue to feed after dark, at least on bright moonlit nights.

They nest on the ground. The nest is a simple scrape in the soil with a thin lining of dry grass stems and rootlets. This lining is used to cover the eggs when an incubating adult leaves the nest in response to disturbance, thus making the nest extremely difficult to find. They defend their nests by luring predators away, initially by running at speed as soon as the threat is detected, and then by doing a ‘broken wing display’ - the bird acts as if it is injured to gain the attention of the predator and draw it away from the nest. The clutch is, almost invariably, of two eggs and both sexes share incubation. The incubation period is approximately four weeks. Chicks normally leave the nest within 36 hours of hatching and are led to feeding areas by the parents. Young Wirebirds fledge when 5-6 weeks old, but may stay within their birth territory for some time afterwards. Wirebirds in their first year tend to range much farther than adults.

The areas most favoured by Wirebirds can be categorised as having grass swards less than 10cm tall (typically dominated by Kikuyu Grass pennisetum clandestinum), of relatively low stem density and mixed with broad-leaved weeds and patches of bare earth. Good Wirebird sites generally have shallow gradients and annual rainfall within the range 300-500mm.

Based on the 2020 Wirebird Census data, the best place to go to see a Wirebird is Deadwood Plain (near the Wind Farm). Next best is Prosperous Bay Plain, away from the Airport.

There are currently projects underway led by the RSPB and the St Helena National Trust to monitor the birds and strengthen the population.

Unofficially the Wirebird is our ‘National Bird’, alongside our National Song, National Flower, …

It is known that St Helena supported at least six endemic land bird species and three endemic seabirds in the past. It is likely that at least seven of these were present at the time of first human colonisation of the island. Of these, only the Wirebird remains, and thus it is the only endemic vertebrate remaining on the island.

The ancestors of our Wirebird probably came from Africa. Genetic studies have concluded that the Wirebird’s closest living relative is Kittlitz’s Plover Charadrius pecuarius, which is found throughout the drier parts of Africa. Storms could easily have blown here enough of these - or some common ancestral form - to form a breeding colony{2}.

More about Wirebirds here and on the St Helena National Trust website. You can also read the 2011 Species Action Plan.

Wirebird Gallery

Wirebird census results

Wirebird Census results since 2007

The Wirebird census is carried out in January each year (since 1988), mid-breeding season so most birds will be ‘tied’ to their nest territory and unlikely to move very far away. This gives some confidence that the census is counting most of the adult birds and avoiding counting the same bird more than once. The results of counts since 2007 are shown in the graph (right).

The most recent official count (with previous years shown for comparison) was:













































Net Birds






















Wirebird areas
Wirebird areas

The St Helena National Trust writes:

The 2024 Wirebird Census counts saw an increase in adult numbers for the third year running with a total of 639 adults counted, an 8% increase from 2023 count and surpassing our highest ever count in 2018, which was 627, the highest number of adults recorded. The number of adults found would have been greater if we had not lost 20 birds on the Haul Road due to road kill.

You can read the full press release.

IUCN: Vulnerable

In December 2016 it was announced that the Wirebird had been downgraded in the IUCN’s annual Redlist of Species-at-risk, from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable. This follows a doubling of Wirebird numbers since 2006.

Airport Danger

Prosperous Bay Plain, where St Helena Airport is situated, is also a Wirebird nesting site. This caused issues during airport construction:

Airport Wirebird Warning Sign

We unfortunately have to report that a dead Wirebird chick was found on the Access Road near the Millennium Forest on Sunday 15th November 2015. This is the second Wirebird killed in an incident involving a moving vehicle in the last month.

Wirebird warning signs (see opposite) have been installed advising drivers that they are travelling through an area where Wirebirds are common. This is particularly relevant at the moment as we are in the main breeding season for these protected endemic birds. The breeding season runs from October through to March. As a result there will be an increased number of young birds around, many of whom will be unable to move out of the way of a fast-moving vehicle in time. Drivers are reminded of the importance of keeping within road speed limits. We therefore ask that everyone reduces their speed when seeing these signs and thank you in advance for your understanding and cooperation. The endemic Wirebird is unique to St Helena, and over the last 15 years, the average count on St Helena (and consequently in the world) is just 368 birds. They are an integral part of St Helena’s natural heritage and a protected species.

The public is also reminded that the wider Horse Point area is a significant nesting location for Wirebirds and that any vehicles, including quads and motorcycles, should be driven on the established track, and not off-road. This is for the protection of St Helena’s endemic natural heritage.{m}

It should be noted that flying Wirebirds could also suffer from encounters with aircraft, and vice-versa. A bird strike incident is unlikely to bring down a commercial jetliner, but smaller craft might have more significant problems. Most accidents occur when there is a collision involving a bird and the windscreen or a bird is sucked into the engines of mechanical aircraft. The majority of bird strikes cause little damage to the aircraft, and Wirebirds are small so very unlikely to pose any danger to the plane, but obviously the bird itself is unlikely to survive. Fortunately Wirebirds rarely fly more than a few feet above the ground, so the danger of a bird-strike is not great.

At present it appears there is no plan to relocate the Wirebird population to anywhere further from the airport.

2.5% of the poulation killed

In August 2023 the St Helena National Trust reported that 13 adult and one juvenile Wirebird had been killed by traffic in the preceding three months, mostly on the airport road which runs through an important Wirebird habitat. The St Helena National Trust commented there are fatalities yearly, but this year is extremely high already. No explanation was offered as to why the numbers were so high in 2023. Wirebirds like to bathe in puddles, which form on the island’s roads during the Winter season, and this makes them vulnerable to traffic, particularly on the Airport road where the island speed limit is widely ignored.


Below: NestingWirebird Shopping BagsOther birds


Around November the St Helena National Trust publicises a warning not to disturn nesting wirebirds. The following is from November 2022:

Wirebird Shopping Bags

Wirebird shopping bag

In 2023 Solomons, as part of its campaign the reduce plastic use, stopped issuing plastic bags to its shop customers. Instead it had re-useable canvas shopping bags printed, featuring (initially) Wirebirds and Whale Sharks. See the example of these bags (right) and read this article.

Other birds

See also the Tourist Information Office brochure on St Helena Bird-watching.

We also have interesting sea birds

St Helena’s birds (both Birds and Seabirds) were shown on the following 2017 stamp issue:

Read More

Below: Article: St Helena - saving the Wirebird from untimely ingestionArticle: New Home for a Wirebird

Article: St Helena - saving the Wirebird from untimely ingestion

By Ian Fisher, RSPB 1st Feb 2012; Posted on behalf of Steffen Oppel, Senior Conservation Scientist overseeing research on St Helena.{3}

If you had to find a place that is ‘at the end of the world’, St Helena would fit the bill quite nicely. In the middle of the South Atlantic, this rocky island is more than 1,000 miles from both Africa and South America, and until the 15th century it was a paradise for millions of seabirds and a wide range of peculiar species that existed nowhere else on earth.

Unfortunately, once sailors had discovered and colonised the island, they brought rats, goats, cats, and other animals from their home countries, and the native flora and fauna of St Helena rapidly disappeared. Of the 9 bird species that were originally endemic only one survives today - the St Helena plover, or ‘Wirebird’ as it is known locally - but even this is rare, with only about 350 birds surviving today. The Wirebirds live in open grassy and desert areas, and nest on the ground, like most plover species the world over. Since humans introduced cats and rats to St Helena, the business of breeding has become a lot more challenging - and today more than 80% of nests are destroyed by these predators!

Cats are the main culprits. Both feral and domestic cats roam the habitats where the plovers nest, and they take a large number of eggs and chicks every year. The feral cats are often the result of domestic cat ‘liaisons’, more kittens, and people being unable or unwilling to care for more and more cats in their homes. They are set free to fend for themselves, and while it is not necessarily a happy or healthy existence for the cat, it is truly devastating for the national bird of the island of St Helena.

In 2011 we started a large conservation project to increase the number of Wirebirds that are successfully raised every year. Because cats are the main predators of nests and chicks, we will attempt to capture as many cats in nesting areas as we can. Removing these predators from the pastures and semi-desert should enable the plovers to raise their young more successfully.

More Wirebird conservation stories at the RSPB website (use the ‘search’ facility).

Article: New Home for a Wirebird

Published in the St Helena Herald, 4th January 2008.{3}

Wirebird, Mike Stripp
Wirebird, Mike Stripp

The Museum of St Helena was presented with another exhibit recently. On a recent visit to the Island world famous South African sculptor, Mike Stripp, donated his carving of a Wirebird to the St Helena National Trust. The Trust decided the best place for this magnificent carving is in the Museum so that everyone can see it.

Mike Stripp has gained a reputation for being South Africa’s finest carver of birds. His work is exhibited in many public and private collections. Among his many exhibits are several species of eagles and owls as well as doves, yellow bull bulls and now the Wirebird.

Mike has a great interest in St Helena, having visited on three occasions before his visit in 2006. During his fourth visit he decided to study the bird and take home photographs of it. His intention was to make a carving of the Wirebird and return to the Island to present it to the National Trust. Mike came back again at the end of 2007 and duly kept his word.

This fine example of Mike’s work is now prominently displayed in the Museum. All Mike’s carvings capture the feathery texture of plumage, the shiny hardness of the beak and claws and a life-like expression in the eyes. His carving of a Wirebird has all these qualities.


{a} Andrew / Peter Neaum{b} Tourist Information Office{c} St Helena National Trust{d} Copyright © South Atlantic Media Services Ltd. (SAMS), used with permission.{e} Bird Life{f} Nico Van Heerden{4}{g} From ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island{5}{h} Emma Weaver{i} St Helena National Trust{j} Edward Young{k} St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society (‘SHATPS’){l} Copyright © South Atlantic Media Services Ltd. (SAMS), used with permission.{m} St Helena Airport Update #69, 26th November 2015{3}


{1} Note, if you look closely, the legend reads ‘WIRE BIRD’ - it is usually written without the space.{2} African birds are still sometimes blown here today - see the article ‘Cattle Egrets Re-visit’ on our page Birds. This was even more likely in the past - the strength of the south-east Trade Winds is known to have been greater then.{3} @@RepDis@@{4} A tourist visiting in 2010.{5} …including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology, by John Melliss, published in 1875.