Channel Islands Dialed into Conservation
Just off the coast of the teeming world of automobiles, freeways, and urban sprawl that is Southern California, lies a glorious chain of eight islands, the Channel Islands. Often obscured by sea mist and a marine layer, the average commuter may not even know they exist. Yet, there is evidence that humans have been visiting, living, fishing, and ranching these islands for almost 13,000 years.
The four northern islands, Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz Island are close to each other and to the coast, and the four southern islands, Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara, San Nicolas, and San Clemente Island are scattered further out to sea. When sea levels were lower, the northern islands formed one island, known as Santarosae, which was very close to the mainland. The islands were colonized by the unusual animals and plants of the coastal Mediterranean ecosystem of prehistoric Southern California; one of the five places on earth where this endangered ecosystem occurs. Following the last ice age, rising sea levels divided the islands from each other and the mainland, and this isolation led to myriad species and subspecies that are found no where else.
The four northern islands and little Santa Barbara Island and the oceans that surround them make up the Channel Islands National Park and marine reserve. Santa Catalina is the most populated and undoubtedly the best known. San Nicolas and San Clemente Islands are owned by the U.S. Navy and are the center for training for Navy ships and planes, and for the sailors, marines, and Navy Seals that make up their crews. The U.S. Navy is a diligent steward of the natural resources, including the flora, fauna, and archaeological sites on these islands, and strives to protect and preserve them.
The Institute for Conservation Research has had a long and successful collaboration with the U.S. Navy and other conservation groups to preserve and recover one of these unique Channel Island subspecies, the San Clemente loggerhead shrike. This small, critically endangered songbird is found only on San Clemente Island, and as recently at 1998, the wild population was only 14 birds. A captive-breeding program was initiated in 1992.
Techniques to artificially incubate and hand-rear small songbirds were perfected, behavioral monitoring programs to assess mate compatibility and track breeding activities were conducted, and careful release methodologies were developed. In 1999, our efforts with those of our close collaborators, Navy biologists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Institute for Wildlife Studies, and PRBO Conservation Science, led to the first captive-hatched released shrike to survive and breed in the wild.
Since this success, more released shrikes have also joined the wild, and they and their descendants have grown the wild population to as many as 70 breeding pairs producing 100’s of offspring each year. The San Clemente loggerhead shrike, once the most critically endangered North American songbird, now represents one of the most successful release and recovery projects on the planet.