Friday, March 9, 2012

The Resilient Seychelles Magpie-Robin

The story of the Seychelles Magpie-Robin is one of heartbreak and hope. This beautiful bird, which is neither a magpie or a robin, was once quite common among the granitic islands of the Seychelles. Just to give you a bit of background, the Seychelles comprises of up to 115 islands, many of which are very small islands that may only be little mounds of sand. And I say up to 115 because depending on water levels, some islands may just not be present at times. Out of all these islands, 41 are granitic, and only some are inhabited or have accommodations for people. And amongst these granitic islands, the Seychelles Magpie-Robin used to be numerous and carefree. 

Seychelles Magpie-Robin

Seychelles Magpie-Robin: All black with white wing patches

However, like many stories you hear about endangered birds, once man settled in, the livelihood of the species declined rapidly. The first human settlers arrived in the Seychelles around 1770, and from that point on, there was destruction of habitat and introduction of predatory mammals (rats, and then cats to control the rats) that caused the decline of the Seychelles Magpie-Robin, along with other avian species of the islands. Furthermore, the Seychelles Magpie-Robin was revered for its beautiful song, and because these birds hadn't had quite enough time to evolve a fear of humans, their tameness made it that much easier for many to people cage them and keep them as pets. And when numbers diminished, it was considered an even greater prize to have rare birds as pets. 

Seychelles Magpie-Robin in a tree

Seychelles Magpie-Robin on the ground

By the late 19th century/ early 20th century, the Seychelles Magpie-Robin had become extinct from most of the granitic islands. By 1990, there were only a mere 21 individuals in the world, and all on one single island, Fr├ęgate . BirdLife then stepped in, and through valiant efforts to control and/or eradicate both mammal and avian predators, provision of nest boxes and translocation, they were able to bring the numbers up to an estimated 154 individuals today. 

Seychelles Magpie-Robin amongst the leaf litter

Seychelles Magpie-Robin

Cousin Island, as mentioned in the White-tailed Tropicbird post, has been the go-to island for translocating and conserving many endemic Seychelles avian species, including the beloved Seychelles Magpie-Robin. Cousin is managed by Nature Seychelles, and through constant monitoring and conservation efforts, the number of individuals of endangered birds are rising. 

View from the shore of Cousin Island

Seychelles Magpie-Robin in its typical foraging posture

So here we have the beginning of a success story of the resilient Seychelles Magpie-Robin. Upon visiting Cousin Island, we were able to see why these birds were so prized as pets and why now there are such strong efforts to conserve them. They are indeed very tame and friendly, coming within just a couple of feet from us. Our tour guide (and conservationist) would go right up to them and they would sing and flit about in delight at his presence as he was rustling the leaf litter, where these magpie-robins find their food. It was fun to watch these playful birds as they hopped about with their semi-erect posture, often with cocked tails, and their black feathers giving off a midnight blue sheen in the sunlight. 

Pair of Seychelles Magpie-Robins sifting through the leaf litter

Pair of Seychelles Magpie-Robins foraging

Seychelles Magpie-Robin showing off its lovely midnight blue sheen in the sunlight

The guide showed us one item they were looking for, a skink. There is a funny relationship between the Seychelles Magpie-Robin and skinks - the bird will prey on the skinks (as well as small invertebrates), but the skinks will also prey on the bird's eggs and chicks. Here you will see that there are two skinks that inhabit Cousin Island: the slender Seychelles Skink, and the thicker Wright's Skink. 

Seychelles Skink in the sun

Seychelles Skink walking through the leaf litter

The slender Seychelles Skink

You may wonder, before humans came along to stir up the yummy foods on the ground, who did the Seychelles Magpie-Robin rely on? Well, giant tortoises, of course! You will see these oh-so-wonderful and majestic creatures on many of the islands of Seychelles. They are adored by many (if not all) who come in contact them. You're amazed by their size and their gentle nature. But more about them later ;-) 

The chunkier Wright's Skink

Wright's Skink amongst the rocks

Wright's Skink climbs some wooden planks

Here you'll see just a couple of the giant tortoises that inhabit Cousin Island that are friends of the magpie-robin. Even in the Seychelles bird field guide, you will find a picture of a Seychelles Magpie-Robin riding on the back of a giant tortoise, just waiting for a morsel to peak through as the gentle giant shuffles through the leaf litter. I, unfortunately, wasn't able to capture such a moment, no matter how hard I wished it. But we were still able to have a wonderful encounter of some lively Seychelles Magpie-Robins. Bravo to the conservationists who have worked so hard to save these birds who were on the brink of extinction!

Giant Tortoise. Don't think he'll fit through there. 

Giant Tortoise rustling up the leaf litter. You can see that he has many bird visitors from the nice presents they left on his shell. =)
Skerritt, A., & Bullock, I. (2001). Birds of the Seychelles. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


  1. Great post Maureen! The Magpie-Robin is a gorgeous bird! I'm glad they have had success reviving the species. It must be amazing to see the Giant Tortoise in the wild.

    1. Thanks, Tammy! It was indeed amazing to see Giant Tortoises in the wild. There are lots of them around in Seychelles. I'll post more about those gentle giants in the not too distant future. =)

  2. Yeah, fantastic post. Of course, Ive never even heard of this bird, but they sound amazing...crazy that there are less than 200. I love the Painted Redstart/Lark Bunting color scheme. The second picture of the Wright's Skink is great too!

    1. Thanks, Steve! And good observation of the color scheme. We haven't seen either of those birds yet.

  3. Bellissimo post!! bellissime le tue fotografie, deve esssere meraviglioso vedere la grande tartaruga nel suo ambiente neturale!! buona giornata....ciao