Unique bird colonies at risk on British island

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The Independent Online

Conservationists are calling on Britain to act to save birdlife on a tiny British-owned island in the South Atlantic, which is now home to a quarter of the world's newly endangered birds.

Two species unique to Gough Island, part of the Tristan da Cunha archipelago and the most important seabird colony in the world, yesterday joined the ranks of the world's most critically endangered birds. The Gough bunting and the Tristan albatross are among eight birds added to the revised International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of 190 bird species facing a high or very high risk of extinction.

The RSPB says the British Government must now pay the money needed to save the Gough bunting and Tristan albatross, which have fallen prey to a 19th-century blunder, when house mice were accidentally released on the island, now a Unesco world heritage site. The rodents, which are three times the size of ordinary house mice, prey on the chicks of the Gough bunting and Tristan albatross.

The vulnerable chicks are eaten alive by the mice, which also compete with the adult birds for food. Dr Geoff Hilton, an RSPB scientist researching conservation problems in UK overseas territories, said the problem must be tackled immediately.

"In the presence of house mice, the albatross and the bunting have no chance of survival. Things are getting worse and the only hope for these birds is the complete eradication of the mice," he said.

Government funding has been pledged for a programme to eradicate the mouse population, by dropping poison bait from helicopters. Dr Hilton believes such a scheme could offer the birds the opportunity to thrive again.

"The feasibility study reveals a glimmer of light showing that we might be able to fix this problem," he said.

"The UK government has supported us in discovering our problem ... The big question is whether they will take their international commitments seriously and do what the governments of New Zealand and Australia have done, and provide the big money needed to actually do the mouse eradication".

The two latest species to appear on the red list are not the only birds whose survival is threatened by the island's mice. Gough also supports five other species – the Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, the sooty albatross, the Gough moorhen, the northern rockhopper penguin and the Atlantic petrel – which are at risk of global extinction.

"The world's greatest seabird island is being eaten alive, as the mice are likely to be affecting the fortunes of many seabirds on the island," said Dr Hilton. "Without help, Gough Island will probably lose the majority of seabirds, not just those confined to the island."

Elsewhere in the world, another six birds were added to the critically endangered section of the red list yesterday.

Russia's spoon-billed sandpiper, the Tachira antpitta of Venezuela; the Reunion cuckooshrike of Reunion; the Mariana crow, of the Guam and Northern Mariana islands; the Floreana mockingbird of the Galapagos islands; and the akekee of Hawaii. British birds are also increasingly under threat. The Dartford warbler and the curlew were reclassified as near-threatened.

However, the populations of five species have increased. The gorgeted wood quail, the Marquesan imperial pigeon, the purple-backed sunbeam, the Rondonia bushbird and the Somali thrush have all been taken off the critically endangered list.