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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tora! Tora! Tori! - Japanese Eat Bird To Extinction

You'd think it to be a sad state of affairs when a bird or animal goes extinct... and it is... but when I found out about HOW the Wake Island Rail (a bird) went extinct, I actually laughed out loud for its ridiculousness.

Then I read up a bit about Wake Island, and so... I feel I must apologize for my flippancy exhibited in paragraph one.

First, some background on the island... and then the bird, which is NOT a Japanese bird.

Wake Island is an atoll. That's a ring-shaped coral rim that encircles a lagoon... so essentially there's a ring of land around a lagoon. I had first heard of an atoll back when I was maybe eight-years-old and pretentiously read the Robert William Service poem "Atoll":

The woes of men beyond my ken
Mean nothing more to me.
Behold my world, and Eden hurled
From Heaven to the Sea;
A jeweled home, in fending foam
Tempestuously tossed;
A virgin isle none dare defile,
Far-flung, forgotten, lost.

It goes on a bit more, but this was the first poem I ever memorized. The only other memorized things I did were all the songs and poems in the Alice In Wonderland books (it had the extinct Dodo in that one), or The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner poem (by Coleridge), with its famous last two lines of the 20th stanza "Why lookst thou so? With my crossbow I shot the albatross."

Hmmm... I had no idea I was going to come back to birds when I decided to use the Atoll poem as a starting reference point...

Anyhow... Wake Island is about 2.85 square miles (7.38 km2) in size and currently has about 150 people on it... and is run by the U.S., specifically the United States Air Force. Needless to say, access to the atoll is restricted, as the place houses a missile facility and has a 3,000 meter (9,800-foot) airplane runway.

Wake Island (1,821.31 acres total) consists of three coral islets: Wake Islet (1,367.04 acres); Wilkes Islet (197.44 acres); and Peale Islet (256.83 acres). It has a lagoon that is 1480 acres in size, and a sand flat of 980 acres.

As you can see from the photo below, it is beautiful. Basically, I think the atoll is the remnant of a volcano. 
Wake Island - photo taken from
It was previously discovered by "nearby" traveling Marshall Islanders, and was first discovered by Europeans in 1568 when a Spanish ship spied it and called San Francisco. It was given its current name in 1776 when Captain William Wake of the British schooner Prince William Henry visited.

U.S. Brigadier General Francis Greene stopped at Wake Island in 1898 and raised the American flag while en route to the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. A year later, Commander Taussig of the U.S. Navy landed on the atoll and claimed it as a possession for the United States - I suppose no one else (like the Spanish who first 'discovered' it) noticed or cared.

The plan was to use it as a telegraph cable station. But, for our purposes, Wake Island, back in the heady days of World War II,  got its first bit of construction when a major air and naval base was built in 1940-41. A permanent military garrison consisting of 449 officers and men were stationed there, along with 68 Naval personnel and 1,221 civilian workers.

On December 8, 1941, the day of the Attack on Pearl Harbor (it was December 7 in Hawaii, which is on the other side of the International Date Line), Japanese planes flew over from the Marshall Islands and attacked the US presence on Wake Island knocking out most of the American planes.

The Americans were eventually overwhelmed by a reinforced and greatly superior Japanese invasion force on December 23, 1941. But while about 132 US people died, the Japanese lost about 700, including the shooting down of 24 airplanes, sinking of one sub and two destroyers.

Taking over, Japan kept close to 4,000 men under the command of Colonel Chikamori Shigeji (surname first) on Wake Island, which they themselves called Otori-shima (Bird Island - because of its shape), which, as you will find out, was ironic.

Now from December of 1941 until such time that the war ended, Japan occupied the island, and being stuck in the middle of nowhere, the Japanese had little to do, and little food to keep them fed and occupied. In fact, the Japanese were on a very remote island and supply ships did not arrive often enough. As such, the Japanese soldiers were on a bit of a starvation diet.

So they - the Japanese soldiers - began to capture and eat the local wildlife... which unfortunately consisted mostly of the Wake Island Rail.

The Wake Island Rail (Rallus wakensis) is perhaps an off-shoot of a more prolific banded rail known as Rallus philippensis. It is theorized that a long time ago, a bunch of these banded rails were flying around one day and found Wake Island and made it their home. Probably because they were blown off course by a typhoon, and this was the only land nearby for the flight-weary birds.

Over the years, their descendents lost their power of flight—what with no predators on the island, there was no real need to fly around. And while there was enough food to sustain the birds, it was not abundant enough to increase the bird population.
Wake Island Rail - photo from 1936.
The Wake Island Rail (painting at the very top is by Errol Fuller - I love the tongue-in-cheek 'red rising sun' in the painting!) was about 22 centimeters (nine-inches) long and smaller than the banded rail, and it was also paler and less bright and lacked the beautiful spotting of its cousin.

To me, it looks kind of like a kiwi more than a plover, another shore bird native to North America.

Its breeding took place between July and August. It had a low chattering and clattering voice. Its movement was deliberate and cautious, with an occasional twitch of the tail. Being cautious, they would scamper back into the cover if disturbed.

The Wake Island Rail were often seen digging in the dirt - tails twitching - digging with their beaks for mollusks, insects and worms.

The Wake Island Rail was probably quick enough to elude a single soldier on the prowl for an easy meal, but two or three men could easily capture a bird for dinner. Plus, I would imagine its eggs were also pilfered from its ground nests for a change of delicious fare.

On September 4, 1945, the Japanese garrison surrendered to a detachment of United States Marines. The handover of Wake Island was conducted in a brief ceremony.

While plentiful before the Japanese took over the island, no one could find a single solitary Wake Island Rail afterwards... and it's a small enough atoll that a thorough search would have been undertaken.

The Japanese soldiers had - in just under four short years - eaten the Wake Island Rail right out of existence.

No ceremony was held for the bird that was wiped out by hungry Japanese soldiers.

Andrew Joseph

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