The Bird Man of Midway Atoll

Jimmy Breeden i i

Biologist Jimmy Breeden stands next to a fairy tern, which is sitting on its nest. Animals aren't afraid of people on Midway Atoll, so people have to watch out not to harm them. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
Jimmy Breeden

Biologist Jimmy Breeden stands next to a fairy tern, which is sitting on its nest. Animals aren't afraid of people on Midway Atoll, so people have to watch out not to harm them.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
Laysan Duck

A Laysan Duck floats in a wetland that biologists created on Midway Atoll. Breeden helped transplant the ducks from Laysan and monitors them on Midway. Courtesy Jimmy Breeden hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Jimmy Breeden
A Great Frigatebird prepares to take flight. i i

A Great Frigatebird prepares to take flight. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
A Great Frigatebird prepares to take flight.

A Great Frigatebird prepares to take flight.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
Red-footed Boobies i i

Red-footed Boobies are one of the many feathered inhabitants of the Midway Islands. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
Red-footed Boobies

Red-footed Boobies are one of the many feathered inhabitants of the Midway Islands.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR

You know those little kids who are always bringing home turtles or tadpoles? What happens when they grow up? At least some of them end up in places like Eastern Island, one of the islets that make up the Midway Atoll in the middle of the Pacific.

Midway is a small, treeless place that's chock-full of birds. Red-footed boobies with iridescent blue beaks and snow-white feathers sit on nests in bushes. Hundreds of thousands of sooty terns fill the sky with a squawking that recalls the classic horror movie The Birds.

Goose-sized Laysan Albatross chicks snap their long, sharp bills as field biologist Jimmy Breeden walks past.

"Sometimes they get a good pinch on you and break the skin. I have had them run into me at about 35 miles per hour—flying into me. And that feels like somebody were to take a feather pillow and hit you as hard as they could. It will take you down to one knee," Breeden says with a chuckle.

Breeden, 31, has unruly auburn hair, tons of freckles and a contagious smile. For the past two years, he has been helping an extremely endangered species. It's a small, brown duck with a white ring around its eye called the Laysan Duck.

Until a few years ago, the ducks were found only on the tiny island of Laysan, which is about halfway between Midway and the main Hawaiian Islands. One bad storm could have wiped the species out.

So Breeden and other biologists brought some of the ducks to Midway. They're monitoring them very closely, and the ducks seem to be thriving.

A Wandering Scientist

Breeden started working with birds right after college, in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, not far from where he grew up.

"I've been a gypsy biologist ever since, going from job to job every four to six months or so," he says.

He sometimes volunteers and sometimes gets paid. The jobs brought him to the main Hawaiian Islands and then 1,000 miles farther west, to Laysan and Midway.

The Call of the Wild

Breeden says the funny thing is, he didn't even like birds until near the end of college when a professor had him learn about 10 bird songs.

"All of a sudden, I would hear a bird sing, it would be like, 'I know that that's a robin, that's a cardinal,'" he says. "It just seemed like I had a natural gift of picking up bird songs."

He says he's not quite sure how he made his way from Tennessee to the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

"It's just a weird chain of events that brought me to this place, and I've fallen in love with it," he says. "I've always had a love and joy for wildlife ever since I was small. For some reason, it's part of my soul. I enjoy just watching, especially the ducks. It seems like they're doing very well. In some way, I'm partly responsible."

How a Duck Species Was Snatched Away to Safety

A baby Laysan duck

A fledgling Laysan Duck on Midway Island. Hens surprised scientists by laying multiple clutches on their new island home; back on Laysan, they only did so once a year. The number of fledglings on Midway has grown to more than 100. Courtesy of Jimmy Breeden hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Jimmy Breeden

Three years ago, biologists dressed all in black crept around the wetlands of a small desert island in the middle of the night. Their goal: to capture 20 Laysan Ducks.

Those snatched ducks became pioneers in an effort to help preserve an extremely endangered species. The entire population consisted of about 500 birds, found only on Laysan, a remote Northwestern Hawaiian island in the Pacific Ocean. A bad storm could have wiped them out.

The birds were relocated to Midway Atoll, and today, they are thriving, says John Klavitter, chief biologist for the Midway National Wildlife Refuge.

"It's amazing," Klavitter says. "It's sort of rare to have this kind of success with an endangered species in this time period."

Surprising biologists, the ducks bred in their first year on Midway. Some hens now have multiple clutches a year. On Laysan, they lay eggs only once a year.

The number of fledglings on Midway each year has grown from 12 to 60 to more than 100. And the total population is up to almost 200, Klavitter says.

"If something were to happen to that main population on Laysan, here we have a safety-net population to keep that species going," he says.

Laysan measures less than two square miles. Before scientists brought the ducks to Midway, they had less range than any other duck on earth.

Scientists believe the ducks used to live on most Hawaiian Islands, but rats probably killed most of them. Laysan was rat-free, so the species did better there.

In the early 1900s, people brought rabbits to Laysan, and the rabbits ate the vegetation that the ducks needed for foraging and nesting. At one point, the ducks numbered less than a dozen.

Klavitter says saving endangered species is important because biodiversity is essential to the health of the planet.

"You could think about all the species on the planet like rivets on an airplane. If you lose a few rivets, the plane will probably still fly. But if you lose too many rivets, or too many species, that plane, or that world, might change significantly."

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