The Laysan Rail was a tiny inhabitant of the North West Hawaiian atoll of Laysan. This small island was and still is an important seabird colony, and sustained a number of endemic species, including the rail. It became extinct due to habitat loss, feral rats, and the Second World War.
Habitat and Description
Laysan is considered on of the most important seabird colonies in the United States. It has thousands of Black-footed Albatross, Laysan Albatross as well as shearwaters and terns. The island also held 5 unique landbirds, including the Laysan Rail. It was a small (15 cm) bird, flightless member of the rail family, an opportunist that would feed on invertebrates and the eggs of seabirds. It was an aggressive feeder that would fight off other species, particularly the Laysan Finch. It was endemic to the Laysan, though some authors have noted that there were records on other Hawaiian islands.
The extinction of the Laysan Rail is particularly unfortunate as it could have easily been avoided. The rail was initially threatened when rabbits were introduced to Laysan. With no predators to control their numbers the rabbits soon ate the entire vegetation cover on the island. This turned the island into a barren dust bowl, sending the Laysan Millerbird and the Laysan Honeycreeper (both subspecies endemic to the island) to extinction. The Laysan Finch and Laysan Duck both survived by eating shore flies and scavenging bird eggs and carrion. The rail is believed to have become extinct on Laysan in the 1920s.
The story did not end there, however. The rail had been introduced to Midway Atoll in 1891, and had thrived on the island. Once the rail had become extinct on Laysan moves were made to both re-introduce the rail to its old home and take some to the main islands of Hawaii, along with Laysan Finches, to form a experimental population. This would have safeguarded the species. Rails were collected for this, however the idea was held up by red-tape, some people in the United States Biological Survey were concerned that the Laysan Finch, if it escaped on the main islands, would become a serious pest. The move of some of the birds to safety was therefore held up because of concerns about the finch.
The population on Midway survived until the Second World War, when in 1943 a landing craft accidentally broke free during a battle and rats were introduced on to the island. Within two years the species was extinct. A final irony was that the last man to see a Laysan Rail alive was warden Ed Caum, the man who had refused their export to Honolulu.
The scientific name honours Henry Palmer, who collected in the Hawaiian Islands for Walter Rothschild.
- Extinct Birds; Errol Fuller, ISBN 0-8160-1833-2
- Illustration from Rothschild's Avifauna of Laysan (http://web4.si.edu/sil/rothschild/page-browse-reading_plates.cfm?start=12)