Back from the dead: The Bermuda petrel was thought extinct for nearly 400 years

The Bermuda petrel is a ‘Lazarus species’ — a species whose extinction was so certain that it seems to have been raised from the dead.

The amazing tale of the Bermuda petrel, a seabird thought extinct for nearly 400 years, has lessons for Ireland’s blasé approach to conservation, West Cork bird expert Paul Connaughton tells Ellie O’Byrne

There aren’t many good news stories in conservation, not to mention ones as dramatic as that of the Bermuda petrel.

The Bermuda petrel, or cahow as it is sometimes known, is what’s called a “Lazarus species” — a species whose extinction was so certain that it seems to have been raised from the dead.

Like the dodo, the Bermuda petrel was an island-dwelling bird whose existence was threatened by man. When Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, it’s thought there were up to a million of the nocturnal seabirds on the then-uninhabited Bermuda Islands.

In the 1500s, passing Spanish sailors, and the rats and pigs they brought with them, feasted freely on the birds and their eggs during pitstops on the North Atlantic islands. In the 1600s, just 20 years after British settlement on Bermuda, the Bermuda petrel was declared extinct.

As dead as the dodo, or so it was thought.

Almost 400 years later, in 1951, Bermudan teenager David Wingate was one of a party of naturalists who rediscovered 17 nesting pairs of the grey and white bird, clinging to life on four rocky islets close to Bermuda’s Castle Harbour. He became Bermuda’s first conservation officer and worked tirelessly to support the petrel’s re-establishment until his retirement; now in his eighties, he still visits the seabirds he dedicated his life’s work to.

West Cork bird expert Paul Connaughton travelled to Bermuda and spent time in the company of David Wingate and some of the estimated 300 Bermuda petrels alive today. For Paul, the chairman of Birdwatch Ireland’s West Cork branch, getting so close to the miracle birds was awe-inspiring.

“It was incredible,” he says. “I was part of a group of ten organised by one of the world’s leading seabird experts, Bob Flood, to go and see the birds at their breeding grounds in November when the adults are returning to their burrows. I helped with the ringing project, but not everyone is allowed handle the birds, so I was photographing and documenting them. But one did touch me, when we went out to the colony at night.”

Bermuda petrels are nocturnal and prey on squid, shrimp, and small fish. Pairs mate for life and nest in deep burrows in the ground, rearing just one fluffy grey chick per year, a factor that made them particularly vulnerable to habitat loss and predation and almost led to extinction, explains Paul.

Conservation efforts to save the bird have been extensive, including a five-year translocation exercise in the 2000s to settle chicks on Nonsuch Island, the nature reserve Paul visited.

“The conservation team took chicks to Nonsuch, so they’d imprint on the island and return to nest there,” he says.

“They risked translocating these birds, and it paid off: They have a much bigger island to live on.”

Paul’s 10-day visit to Bermuda gave him enormous regard for the hardy seabirds, whose far-flung homing instincts alone are a wonder of nature. “When a cahow leaves the nest and flies out to sea, they may not come back to breed for three to five years,” he says.

“During that time, they hardly land. While they’re at sea, they sleep on the wing, by shutting down half of their brain at a time to rest it. When they come back, they land within a few feet of the burrow that they left. Isn’t that mind-blowing?”

The battle for the Bermuda petrel isn’t over; global warming has made violent storms more frequent on the islands, and a few years ago 13 birds drowned in their burrows during a storm. Conservationists have to fend off predation from rats and from other bird species.

Chairman of Birdwatch Ireland’s West Cork Branch Paul Connaughton, left, with David Wingate, who rediscovered the Bermuda Petrel.

“Even though it’s a success, it’s been 70 years and they’ve only managed to bring it up from 17 pairs to 120,” he says.

“It’s not a project that can be left to run its own course; it’s got to be constantly monitored.”

Paul says the time and resources used to protect the return of the Bermuda petrel are a worthy cause. “The reason they were headed for extinction is because of man,” he says.

We’re becoming aware that a lot of the extinctions are because of us. They can have a chance of survival, even if it’s not in the numbers they used to exist in. It’s a chance to put something back.

A Bermuda petrel was spotted off the coast of Ireland in 2014, an inspiration to Paul, who runs Shearwater Wildlife Tours in Clonakilty and who has been birdwatching since the age of seven.

The recent news that the curlew, once one of Ireland’s most commonly seen waders, could soon be lost as a breeding species on our shores, having seen a 96% population decline since the 1980s, is a sharp wake-up call to Ireland that we need to pay more attention to conserving habitats and biodiversity.

Paul says Ireland needs to take a page out of Bermuda’s book regarding the amount of effort and resources put into protecting native species.

“The European Habitats directive is having no impact in this country,” says Paul.

“There’s grants there for farmers to clear land, they’re allowed to burn the uplands; it’s depressing, to be honest.”

“Social media is bringing more awareness to people, which is great, but the only way things can really change is by introducing our kids to nature and teaching them to love and protect it.

“Biodiversity is not a food chain, it’s a web; a world-wide web. We have to protect it everywhere.”

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