Science has a fairly bland name for the national bird of Samoa: the tooth-billed pigeon (Didunculus strigirostris). The bird’s name in the Samoan language, however, is much more colorful: manumea. Samoan currency is also quite colorful and features an image of the manumea on both the 50 sene coin and the 20 tālā banknote:
Unfortunately, there are far more 20 tālā bills in circulation than there are birds in the wild. In 1987 researchers estimated the manumea population at between 4,800 and 7,200. Today that number is as low as 200 birds. A recent 10-day survey in the remote Savai’i uplands region of Samoa revealed just a single manumea, an indication that any remaining birds exist only in highly fragmented populations.
What has caused this dramatic decline of these brightly colored, 30-centimeter birds? No one knows for sure. The population experienced its first crash in the 1990s after several cyclones struck Samoa and flattened more than 70 percent of the nation’s forests. Beyond that catastrophe, many other factors appear to also be at play. Rebecca Stirnemann, a PhD student at Massey University in New Zealand who has spent the past several years studying the birds of Samoa, told Radio Australia that invasive rats and cats have taken a toll on the slow-breeding, ground-dwelling species. Manumeas may have also been the victims of agricultural development and hunting.
But it’s hard to be sure of the true reasons for the declines because the birds have never been fully studied. Not a single paper on the species has been published in the past 10 years. Scientists don’t know exactly what they eat, where they prefer to nest, their group behavior or what environmental factors they rely on for survival. There aren’t even any birds in captivity where their behavior can be studied. Stirnemann’s research, which is supported by grants from organizations such as the Conservation Leadership Programme, aims to answer some of these questions, provided a viable wild population can even be located for observation.
The manumea is actually a close relative to the long-extinct dodo, most evident in the structure of the two species’ parrot-like beaks. Hopefully it will not soon go the way of its more infamous relative. But as Stirnemann says, that will require more work and a lot more funding, which is not readily available in a developing nation such as Samoa. Tragically, that is a story we hear all too often.