Sep 07 2010

Rare Bird: rediscovering the Cahow

Published by at 7:45 am under Books & Events,Water and Shore


Third in WQED’s lineup on Things With Wings Sunday, September 26, is the story of a bird thought to be extinct for more than 300 years.

Rare Bird is about the Bermuda petrel (Pterodroma cahow) which nests in only one place on earth — the islands of Bermuda.  Locally it is called the cahow because of its eerie voice, a voice so odd that when the Spanish discovered Bermuda in 1505 they refused to settle there because they thought the islands were haunted by hundreds of thousands of devils that called “cahow” in the night. 

In 1609 a British ship wrecked at Bermuda and in 1612 British settlers came to stay.  Soon their crops failed and they ate the cahows — all of them.  Within four years cahows were impossible to find and by 1620 they were presumed extinct.

Miraculously a remnant population survived, hidden from man because the birds spend most of their lives on the open sea, visit land only on dark nights during the nesting season, and nest deep in burrows on small inaccessible islands. 

Storms both revealed and threatened the cahow’s existence.  In 1935 a mystery bird was found dead below St. David’s lighthouse after a violent summer storm.  Sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, it was identified as a cahow.  In 1945 another mysterious dead bird was found on the beach and again it was a cahow. 

These discoveries spurred young David B. Wingate to look for the bird and at age 15 he joined the official search to find it.  In January 1951 he was one of the three who first saw the bird that was missing for 330 years.  It was almost too late.  There were only 18 nesting pairs left.

Nearly 60 years later, the cahow is now the national bird of Bermuda and, thanks to David Wingate’s leadership, it is protected and more numerous.  Even so there are only about 250 individuals in this species.  It is still quite rare.

Watch the beautiful program, Rare Bird, on WQED on Sunday September 26 at 4:00pm and learn about the cahow’s mysterious life and miraculous survival. 

(photo of a cahow from Wikipedia. Click on the photo to see the original)

One response so far

One Response to “Rare Bird: rediscovering the Cahow”

  1. SueGon 26 Sep 2010 at 7:57 pm

    This was a fascinating story!

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