The Bermuda petrel is a ‘Lazarus species’ — a species whose extinction was so certain that it seems to have been raised from the dead.
Sunday, May 05, 2019 - 07:00 PM
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.