In focus: Bahama Oriole

The splitting of the Greater Antillean Oriole Icterus dominicensis into four separate species, as detailed in a recent paper by Melissa Price and Bill Hayes, has formally been accepted by the American Ornithologists' Union. This taxonomic revision results in the “creation” of four new island endemics, the Bahama (I. northropi), Cuban (I. melanopsis), Hispaniolan (I. dominicensis) and Puerto Rican (I. portoricensis) orioles. New species are always a source of excitement, but in this case the intrigue is overshadowed by a sense of alarm and urgency.

The Bahama Oriole has entered the role call of species as one of the rarest birds in the Caribbean. It used to be found on the Bahamian islands of Abaco and Andros. However, the Abaco population was extirpated during the early 1990s (for reasons unknown) and there is strong evidence that the Andros population is in decline. Recent survey work on North Andros, Mangrove Cay and South Andros suggests a population of between 127 and 254 individuals. During a 1997 survey only one individual in juvenile plumage was seen, indicating a dramatically low reproductive output. The orioles live in mature coppice woodland, and nest in endemic thatch palm and non-native coconut palms. Lethal yellowing disease of the coconut palm has wiped out this nesting tree is parts of North Andros, such as at Staniard Creek where the oriole was previously common but is now absent. Lethal yellowing appears not to have reached South Andros or Mangrove Cay, and in 2009 both had very healthy palm populations, and higher densities of orioles than North Andros. However, apart from losing nesting habitat, the oriole is also threatened by the recent arrival of the Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis, a brood parasite that targets Icterus species.

So, with a declining population of less than 250 individuals, the Bahama Oriole qualifies as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. It would join a list of 14 other Caribbean bird species that are perilously close to extinction and in urgent need of conservation action.

Currently the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) in partnership with Birdlife International is working with researchers to;
  1. Study habitat use by the species throughout the year and in relation to its life history
  2. Carry out further survey work to confirm the population size
  3. Monitor population trends
  4. Initiate a citizen science programme focused on the species and involving local schools.
  5. Protect coppiced habitats and encourage the practice to increase the extent of such habitats
  6. Plant disease-resistant cultivars of coconut palm on North Andros to replace those already lost.
Persons interested in supporting Bahama Oriole research and conservation should contact the BNT at bnt@bnt.bs.