In the final months of 2017, an eruption on the island of Tinakula in the Solomon Islands had bird conservationists fearing the worst for the poorly known, yet endangered Santa Cruz ground dove.

Thought to be extinct from Vanuatu, and with the stronghold of remaining doves found on Tinakula, conservationists were worried that this was the end for the population. Thankfully, if ironically, a small number of these rare doves had recently been confiscated from wildlife dealers by the Solomon’s government, and these 110 birds, needed expert care to ensure their, and perhaps the species’, future. The team of international bird conservationists supporting the Solomon’s government reached out for assistance in the region and with the support of the Auckland Zoo, bird keeper Dean Jakings stepped up, giving up his Christmas break to help save the species.

The Santa Cruz ground dove came to its endangered status the same way many others do – predation from introduced invasive, species; habitat loss caused by land clearing and sadly, hunting. For a bird that prefers to escape from predators by hiding in undergrowth rather than flying, Tinakula had been a haven for the dove, which was free of rats, cats and feral pigs, and only seasonally inhabited. The Santa Cruz ground dove, like all other species, plays an important role in the ecosystem, feeding on fruits and subsequently dispersing the seeds throughout the forest.

For Auckland Zoo and Dean, it was an easy decision to help. Upon Dean’s arrival, things were already moving thanks to some passionate locals and another knowledgeable aviculturist who had made good progress with establishing aviaries and a basic husbandry regime. The government had assisted with building a netted enclosure with aviaries inside it, a diet was in place, and the birds were sexed – around 70 males and 40 females – which was considered a good split for future breeding purposes.


It's feeding time for the Santa Cruz doves!

These female doves are feeding on a mix of cooked rice, soaked popping corn, fresh corn cut off the cob, greens, poultry pellets, mashed boiled egg, kumera and paw paw.

Little is known about the species in the wild or how to care for them in captivity – Dean had never even heard of this dove species before, but prior experience with many other dove species meant that he was well placed to figure out how to best care for them. When Dean arrived in the Solomon Islands and assessed the doves, it was quickly evident from the bird’s condition, and the consistency and smell of their droppings that the diet needed a little bit of development. A trip around the markets revealed that popping-corn was hugely popular and readily available. Corn is cheap, easy to store, lasts a long time, and is great to soak and mix with other foods to encourage the doves onto a softer, more appropriate diet. With the addition of some poultry pellets and a reduction in fruit, their poos soon started looking like a bird poo should!

Dean’s trip was just a few weeks long, but he worked alongside and helped train a local bird enthusiast to care for the doves in the future, until a long-term conservation and breeding programme is planned and initiated.

Since the eruption, conservation groups have made their way back to Tinakula and were both surprised and elated to see that the Santa Cruz ground dove had survived. However, with just a handful of sightings it will be a long road to recovery for this tiny, fragile population. Until then, the 110 birds Dean helped establish in captivity will likely become an invaluable breeding programme to guarantee the species survival and perhaps provide offspring for future reintroductions to parts of the dove’s former range where it has been lost. There is therefore, still great hope for this ‘almost extinct’ little dove.

Auckland Zoo is a not-for-profit conservation organisation, and exists to build a brighter future for wildlife and wild places, and to inspire people to make a difference for future generations.