Over the years, tiny Nonsuch Island in Bermuda’s Castle Harbour has served as a deer farm, a yellow fever quarantine station, and a reform school for delinquent boys. Now, this scrubby outcropping is the home base of a groundbreaking initiative to bring Bermuda’s national bird, the cahow (or Bermuda petrel), back from the brink of extinction.
For more than 300 years, biologists thought the cahow—an albatross relative whose onomatopoeic nickname comes from its piercing screech, which 17th-century Spanish sailors mistook for devil cries—had been hunted out of existence. “Humans eradicated about a million cahows from 1509 to 1620,” says Dr. Ian Walker, principal curator of the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum, and Zoo. “We basically pushed them to the point of extinction in 111 years.” Then, in 1951, environmentalists stumbled upon a shocking find: 18 nesting cahow pairs on a few rocky islets near Nonsuch.
“In the science community, it was like finding a dodo walking down Front Street,” says senior terrestrial conservation officer Jeremy Madeiros, who heads up the Cahow Recovery Project on Nonsuch Island. It’s easy to see why the birds went unseen for so long: They spend the majority of their lives over open ocean, sleeping on the wing and drinking seawater. “In the course of a 40-year life span, they fly 2.4 million miles on average,” Walker says as we pull up to Nonsuch Island in his boat, “or the equivalent of going to the moon and back five times.”
Today, Madeiros builds concrete nesting burrows on Nonsuch and the nearby islets, then feeds and monitors hatchlings and fledglings. His program has been a rollicking success: The record-breaking 2018 nesting season saw 124 breeding pairs nest here, with 71 chicks successfully fledging.
The program has also given rise to a burgeoning ecotourism industry, as Nonsuch is the only place on Earth where bird nerds can check one of the world’s rarest seabirds off their bucket list. The ecosystem is extremely fragile—one invasive Argentine crazy ant could destroy the whole program—so most visitors are required to stay offshore and watch the cahows dive and hunt squid from boats. (A lucky few can access the island in fall and spring by signing up for a tour with the Bermuda Zoological Society.)
Despite all the fuss, the cahows don’t seem to realize they’re turning into celebrities. “They’re very laid-back,” Madeiros says as he pulls a docile, downy puffball out of its nest. “Very Bermudian.”