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IUCN: Vulnerable

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.
Edward Young

The Wirebird is St Helena’s only surviving endemic bird.

Wirebird
{a}

National Symbols

Other ‘National Symbol’ pages:

• Our Flag

• National Flower

• Our national song, ‘My St Helena Island’

• National Symbols

Below: About our Wirebird • Wirebird census results • Airport Danger • Read More

About our Wirebird

St Helena Badge, showing Wirebird

Wirebird by Nico Van Heerden
{b}

Wirebird stamp
Wirebird stamp{c}

…

RSPB logo
National Trust Logo

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
{d}

Wirebird eggs
Wirebird eggs

Photo Gallery,
St Helena Sentinel 27th July 2017:{e}

Sentinel 20170727_1

Sentinel 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. They can be found around Prosperous Bay Plain, Deadwood Plain and Broad Bottom.

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.

More about Wirebirds here and about their habits and conservation here.

Wirebird chick

Seeing a Wirebird is one of our Top Twenty things to do during a visit to St Helena.

Wirebird on nest
Wirebird on nest

Wirebird census results

Wirebird on nest

Census 2019

The results of the latest Wirebird census are shown in the graph (right). The 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 official count for 2018 was 627 adults, 68 Juveniles 23 chicks and 31 nests, an increase of 55 adults from the previous year.

The 2019 Census reported only 545 adult Wirebirds, a 13% decrease on 2018. Prosperous Bay had 248 birds; Deadwood Plain had only 41 birds - the lowest number since 2007. The Half Tree Hollow area population is almost gone, with only one pair reported at Sundale and none at Cowpath, The Butts or at the Ladder Hill Guns. The census also noted that more that twenty birds have been reported killed on the Airport road. Other more-distant areas showed increases, including Man & Horse, up by 47 birds. The clear picture is that Wirebirds are relocating themselves away from busier areas.

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. The count for 2017 was 572 birds.

Distracting a predator to protect the nest
Distracting a predator to protect the nest{f}

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.{g}

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.

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

Sitting
Sitting{h}

Ground level
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We also have interesting sea birds

St Helena’s birds were shown on the following 2017 stamp issue:

Postage stamps, 2017: St Helena birds

Read More

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.{1}

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.

North-eastern St Helena
North-eastern St Helena

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!

The wirebird, or St Helena plover
The wirebird, or St Helena plover

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.

Caught in the act on a camera trap!
Caught in the act on a camera trap!

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).

Laugh at funny The Wirebird humour - LOL

Credits:
{a} 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{b} Nico Van Heerden{2}{c} St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society (SHATPS){d} Andrew/Peter Neaum{e} South Atlantic Media Services Ltd (SAMS){1}{f} Bird Life{g} St Helena Airport Update #69, 26th November 2015{1}{h} Tourist Office

Footnotes:
{1} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{2} A tourist visiting in 2010.

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