It may seem to some like the human equivalent of eating a gorgonzola sandwich with a fork, and he may eat real human babies, and maybe he lives in the middle of nowhere and sometimes is particularly brutal with fellow captive birds. But what if there’s a scientific excuse?
Researchers are so deeply convinced that the Great Egret is indeed endangered that they’ve just released videos showing one of its hunting craniums, along with wild photographs of the predator’s prey. The finding—the first genuine census of the rare species, which was last seen in the wild in 1979—will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Ethology. The researchers used GPS co-ordinates and time-lapse photography to trace the Great Egret’s daily movements from spring into summer, in six years’ time, near the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Egrets are a cold, hungry bird and an instant favorite for hunters. Their range is a relatively narrow forest floor—more than 10 miles, up to a forest wall—while the bulk of their prey is pea beetles, grouse, ferrets, and other deer- and lizard-loving creatures. Hunting giants, like the great white shark and big bluefin tuna, is out of the question. The Great Egret has long been the most feared grouse on Maui, where gulls, crows, eagles, and other species also flock to snarl at the massive birds. “As long as we’ve been around, the Great Egret has been called the beast of Maui,” said Lei Lattin, a research associate at Hawaii’s Haleakala National Park.
The researchers discovered that the Great Egret, which possesses a phenomenal vision, specifically gathered gizzard to try to catch turtles, as well as a small loon—a hefty feat for any predator. But they didn’t predict that the bird would consume other large specimens, like dinner-party fare, like roe pate. Even its prey itself wasn’t expected to get a taste: the turkey gizzard, which the researchers figured was worthless for any bird.
In fact, the Egret appeared to accumulate the entirety of its prey’s stomach contents, which is a kind of test for predators like coyotes and armadillos, which feast on humans when they die. “It’s a good biomarker,” Lattin said. “It makes sense for the Great Egret.”
The researchers found that this roaming nature may be the reason the Great Egret, which isn’t covered by the Endangered Species Act, wasn’t known to have survived the 1980s, when it was last observed. That compares to other smaller populations of wild goats, jackals, and deer, which are often followed in year-round surveys. The population of wild goats in Maui has grown considerably over the past few decades.
The researchers hope their survey will galvanize conservation efforts, which are long overdue, to help the Great Egret survive another 40 years of survival. “In the more progressive parts of the U.S., like Hawaii, species aren’t preserved at all,” Lattin said. “They end up everywhere at once. We have a limited amount of time to save an animal like the Great Egret.”
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