THE SOLOMON Islands lie at a crossroads: they connect biologically rich Australia and Asia to the sprawling islands of the South Pacific. Their unique location and extraordinary biological and geological history have made for levels of bird diversity that are famous around the world.
One of the earliest foreign expeditions that came to study birds in the country was in 1904, and was led by a man named Albert Meek. Meek was a British scientist who collected birds throughout the Solomons, and in 1904 on the northwest coast of Choiseul, he captured what is regarded by some as the most remarkable endemic bird of Northern Melanesia: the Kukuvoju, also known as the Choiseul Crested Pigeon, or Microgoura meeki.
Its name reflects how spectacularly unique this bird was; no known relatives existed, so it was named Microgoura, or “small crowned-pigeon” after similar looking crowned pigeons in New Guinea. This large ground-dwelling pigeon, with its strange crest and brightly colored facial skin and bill, most likely lived on Choiseul and nowhere else on earth.
It is believed to have nested on the ground or in low branches in swampy lowland areas and its offspring likely would have left the nest at a very small size to head out into the bush to fend for themselves, searching out the rich crops of fallen fruit and seeds that litter the forest floor in the Solomons. Given its unique characteristics and place in local lore, Kukuvoju must have traveled the rainforest understory beyond all human memory.
Unfortunately, large size, independent young, and ground dwelling habits are a deadly set of traits for an animal to have on an island where cats, rats, and dogs have been introduced.
Kukuvoju likely co-existed with dogs and pigs (which probably arrived with the earliest Melanesians) for millennia, and even lived with cats for several generations. However, the later introduction of rats, continued introduction of cats, and increases in dog numbers all may have increased pressure on the Kukuvoju.
As well as shifts in these introduced species, the collapse of native peoples’ spirituality that followed increased European influence may have made areas of remote forest, which had to that point been protected by kastom, more accessible to humans.
This may have exposed Kukuvoju that were previously protected by their isolation to increased human consumption and the indirect impacts of introduced animals associated with people like cats and rats. In 1927, only about twenty-three years later, the Whitney South Sea Expedition from the American Museum of Natural History, returned to Choiseul to re-survey the birds on the island. Although locals reported having seen the Kukuvoju, none could be found. Jared Diamond, an American ornithologist, returned in 1974, and again no Kukuvoju. More recent efforts to look for Kukuvoju on Choiseul and on other islands have not met with any success - so what happened?
Unfortunately, it seems fairly certain that this iconic bird from Choiseul is now extinct – forever gone from the earth. Although it is impossible to tell for sure, the prevailing theory is that Kukuvoju’s nesting habits and ground-dwelling young made it easy prey for cats, dogs, and people. The best guess seems to be that the continued introduction of European cats was the main driver in its extinction, though it is difficult to rule out the possibility of disease or to quantify the impacts of a changing culture as European influence expanded.
There were six birds and one egg that were collected by Meek in 1904, and five of these specimens are still housed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, USA (the sixth skin and the egg are at the Natural History Museum, Britain).
Recently David Boseto, a scientist from Choiseul who is studying in the United States, dropped by the Museum to work on his freshwater fish research and also to collaborate on an education project that is underway in the Solomon Islands (the Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners; NCEP).
He took the chance to see what are probably some of the last individuals of his island’s extraordinary pigeon. This sad story can serve as a cautionary tale as the Solomon Islands thinks about introducing non-native species for various reasons, and indeed served as the example Mr. Boseto used in talking about the risks to native freshwater fish that would come with the introduction of tilapia as a food fish.
It also demonstrates the value of continued scientific study of the natural world and the role that museum specimens can play in protecting the natural heritage of the Solomon Islands; Kukuvoju may be gone, but it should not be forgotten.
*BRIAN WEEKS is the Pacific Manager for the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History.