The Bird Man of Midway Atoll In college, biologist Jimmy Breeden learned to identify bird songs — and in them, he heard his life's calling. His passion has taken him from the Smoky Mountains to a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where he works to preserve a rare duck species.
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The Bird Man of Midway Atoll

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The Bird Man of Midway Atoll

The Bird Man of Midway Atoll

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Midway Island is a tiny speck in the middle of the Pacific. It's home to millions of birds, among them some of the most endangered species in the planet. It's also a laboratory of sorts and part-time home for about 50 people, some of whom spend years in the region living among those birds, studying and trying to save them.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren was on Midway recently and got to know one of the scientists.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: 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 this.

(Soundbite of flowing water)

(Soundbite of birds singing)

Eastern Island is small and treeless. It's part of the Midway Atoll. No people live here, but its chock-full of birds. Red-footed boobies with iridescent blue beaks and snow-white feathers, hundreds of thousands of sooty terns - those are the noisy ones - and Laysan Albatross chicks the size of geese.

(Soundbite of birds)

They snap their long-sharp beaks as I walk past with field biologist Jimmy Breeden.

(Soundbite of birds)

Jimmy, have you ever gotten nipped by one of the albatross?

Mr. JIMMY BREEDEN (Biologist): Oh, yes. Yes. All the time.

SHOGREN: What does it feel like?

Mr. BREEDEN: Well, sometimes they get a really good pinch on you, and they can break your skin. It feels like if you kind of got snagged on a nail or something. I have had them run into me at about 35 miles per hour - flying into me, you know. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHOGREN: Breeden is 31. He 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.

Mr. BREEDEN: We just had two ducklings come out in the vegetation, and this male is coming to chase him around and harass them a little bit.

SHOGREN: Until a few years ago, the ducks were found only on the island of Laysan, another speck in the Pacific, about halfway between Midway and the main Hawaiian Islands. One typhoon could have wiped the species out. So Breeden and some other biologists brought some of them to Midway. They're monitoring them very closely, and they seem to be thriving.

Mr. BREEDEN: The first thing I want to check out is there is a hen that was sitting on eggs, and she may have hatched.

SHOGREN: The hens wear radio sensors. So Breeden inserts a big antenna into a receiver and dials the hen's frequency to find her.

(Soundbite of radio static)

SHOGREN: He gets only a faint signal, so it's clear she's left the area, but he checks the nest.

Mr. BREEDEN: Right now, we'll go try to find her and see if we can have a look at her nestlings.

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

Mr. BREEDEN: And I've been kind of a gypsy biologist ever since, going from job to job every - towards six months or so.

SHOGREN: He sometimes volunteers, sometimes gets paid. The jobs brought him to the main Hawaiian Islands, and then several hundred miles further west to Laysan and Midway.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

SHOGREN: Sand Island is the largest of Midway's islands. It's the only one where people live. It's quieter here, but still you hear the songs of tropic birds, fairy terns and albatross. A few days later, Breeden is looking for a hen called blue yellow six. She started her life on Laysan, and was brought here three years ago.

Mr. BREEDEN: I found her the other day in the grass in incubation posture where it sit really still and they have their tail kind of - kind of flipped up.

SHOGREN: Her first clutch of ducklings for the season hatched only a few weeks ago, and Breeden wants to know if she's working on a second batch.

Mr. BREEDEN: Okay, we'll see if she's here.

(Soundbite of duck vocalizing)

SHOGREN: Breeden works barefooted to minimize the noise makes as he moves through the brush. He says the funny thing is, he didn't even like birds until a professor had him learn about 10 bird songs near the end of college.

Mr. BREEDEN: And after I graduated, I went home and all of a sudden, you know, I would hear a bird sing, it would be like, oh, I know that. That's a robin. Oh, that's a cardinal.

SHOGREN: So he bought some CDs to learn more. About that time, he went to the Smokey Mountains to help scientists with an inventory of all the plants and animals there.

Mr. BREEDEN: That was spring migration, so birds were moving through. They were singing, and we started clicking. It just seemed like I had a natural gift to picking out bird songs. And from that point, I started actually loving birds.

SHOGREN: So is it a long way from songbirds in the Smokeys to ducks and the middle of the Pacific? It seems a long way.

Mr. BREEDEN: It is a long way. Then if it's a weird chain of events that brought me to this place, then I've fallen in love with it.

SHOGREN: Sand Island has a cafeteria, a basketball court, and even a store that's open a few hours a week. It's practically a city to Breeden. That's because he spends six months a year with the ducks on Laysan, a true desert island. It's so remote, it would take five days for help to arrive by boat.

Mr. BREEDEN: It seems weird at first but it's really simplistic. Everything runs on propane or solar power. And we have computers, we have a satellite phone out there in case of emergencies.

SHOGREN: There are no showers or televisions, but the ducks provide entertainment, like when a hen stopped suddenly and her ducklings crash into her rump, one after the other.

Breeden says it felt very strange the first time a boat dropped him off, but now it feels strange when he leaves the islands.

Mr. BREEDEN: You go from the remote to a place like a large city, like (unintelligible) or back home. It's stimulus overload, and it's pretty stressful.

SHOGREN: He says his old friends can't relate to his new life. He's recalled meeting one of them when he was back home in Tennessee.

Mr. BREEDEN: He was like, ah, Jimmy, we're talking about you the other day, and we were thinking that you had dropped off the face of the planet, and now that we've talk to you, we think you just about did.

SHOGREN: But it's clear Breeden has found his niche.

What makes you love this? I can tell you love it.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BREEDEN: I've always had a love and joy for wildlife ever since I was small. And for some reason, it's just kind of part of my soul, I think. I'm really sure I enjoy and - just watching the - especially the ducks. It seems like they're doing very well. You know, in some way, I'm probably responsible.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

SHOGREN: Around his neck, Breeden wears a very unusual necklace. The shiny metal beads are the bands biologists use to identify birds. Breeden collected them during his adventures with ducks on these remote islands.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Get a look at the iridescent blue beak of a red-footed boobie, plus find out how the endangered birds were snatched to safety at

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