Shooting of birds in Caribbean stirs flap over hunting

Machi and Goshen the whimbrels were born in the Arctic, vacationed in Virginia and died this week in the Caribbean – killed by hunters and mourned by the scientists who tracked them, Diane Tennant reports in The Virginian-Pilot.

Their deaths sparked outrage around the world and led to calls for strengthening lax hunting laws that allow birds protected in the United States to be slaughtered while on migration.

The long-billed wading birds are known for making nonstop flights of up to 3,400 miles – thanks to the satellite tracking program at the College of William and Mary. They breed in Canada and Alaska, winter in the Caribbean and South America, and stop on Virginia’s Eastern Shore for about three weeks each spring and fall to rest and fatten up for the long flights.

Machi had flown through Tropical Storm Maria during fall migration, headed from Virginia to Brazil. Goshen had flown through Hurricane Irene. Neither had ever landed on the island of Guadeloupe before, but the storms forced them to stop for rest and food. Both were killed by recreational hunters soon after arrival.

The French-owned islands of the West Indies have weak to nonexistent hunting laws, said Barry Truitt, chief conservation scientist for The Nature Conservancy on the Eastern Shore.

“It’s a six-month season,” he said. “They can shoot as many birds as they want.”

The independent island of Barbados allows man-made “shooting swamps,” or artificial wetlands, but hunters there recently have voluntarily set bag limits. Conservation organizations estimate that tens of thousands of shorebirds and others are shot each fall as they migrate. The deaths of Machi and Goshen, whose travels were documented on a website, could aid efforts to improve hunting laws in the Caribbean.

“This news has spread like wildfire,” said Lisa Sorenson of Boston University, president of the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds. “It’s a shame that these two birds were shot, but we see this as an excellent opportunity to push for change.”

Truitt agreed. “The fact that they had names and people around the world were following them on the Internet will, I think, make a difference this time,” he said. “The birds belong to everybody throughout the range, not just the people who have a gun and ammunition and can go shoot them when a hurricane brings them in.”

The number of whimbrels has declined by 50 percent since 1995, said Bryan D. Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, a joint program of the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University. Center scientists tagged Machi and Goshen in 2009 and 2010 on Nature Conservancy preserves near Machipongo in an attempt to find and preserve their most important habitat.

Satellite tagging a single whimbrel costs about $10,000.

“We have only two now that are alive and active,” Watts said. “It was four last week.”

The center has tracked 17 whimbrels. One of those birds, named Winnie, astounded scientists by flying from Virginia to Alaska to breed. Prior to the tagging study, it was assumed that the West Coast and East Coast populations of whimbrels never met.

Another bird, Hope, flew 14,170 miles in 11 months. BirdLife International, a global partnership of conservation groups, said in a news release that Machi and Goshen were the first tagged whimbrels to land on Guadeloupe.

“Both were lost within hours of arriving, suggesting that hunting pressure on this island is extremely high,” the statement said.

Goshen’s transmitter is still signaling, but has not moved since Monday, possibly indicating that the hunter did not collect the bird after shooting it.

The number of birds shot and killed each year in the Caribbean is unknown, because harvest data are not collected, Sorenson said. The deaths of the satellite-tagged birds indicate that overhunting there may play a role in the decline of whimbrels and other Virginia shorebirds, Watts said.

“We have species that are moving between countries and we need agreement between countries to protect the population,” he said. “The United States and Canada and others have ongoing efforts to conserve these populations, and then you have some holdouts that are kind of undermining those efforts.”

In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act outlawed unrestricted hunting of birds in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. Mexico, Russia and Japan have also signed on. The French West Indies are not part of that treaty. In 1963, the last known Eskimo curlew, another type of shorebird, was shot and killed on Barbados.

Hunters must be part of the solution, conservationists say, in much the same way that duck hunters in the United States help fund habitat protection for waterfowl.

The deaths of Machi and Goshen have focused world attention on the issue, Sorenson said.

“When you have two marked birds like this, they have a history, they have names,” she said. “Something like this, with a marked bird, was able to get the attention of the international community. It could be a blessing in disguise.”

For the original report go to

Photo by Bob Gress from

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