I’ll start by saying that this story has a happy ending. But the two main things I took away from it were “bombardment” and “bird balls”. Fortunately, they’re unrelated.
The Palau fantail is only found in – surprise – Palau, an island nation in the Pacific, and spends its days flitting about in most forested areas except for mangrove, and the occasional fire-scarred savannah. Said fantail is used for the two most important things in nature: food and sex.
Get some tail
Although females are slightly smaller, both sexes share the gorgeous rusty plumage with dabs of black, grey and white, and use their tail-fans to flush insect prey out into the open. Alternatively, it’s flashed and bloomed when trying to impress a potential mate. If the date goes well, you’ll know about two weeks later when the female finishes hatching about 3-4 yellow-white eggs in her wonky yarn ball of a nest.
It’s usually seen in pairs, “scolding” in chirrups rather than singing, and is considered fairly common on three of the 200-plus islands that make up Palau, despite being nonexistent anywhere else in the world. A restricted range plus “tropical forest” usually spells doom, and it almost did for the Palau fantail. Except in this case, it suffered a different kind of deforestation.
The populations exploded. Literally.
During World War II, the Battle of Peleliu in 1944 saw Japanese soldiers bunkered down in caves under what came to be called “Bloody Nose Ridge”, while US soldiers battled from the beaches and onward.
Battles are obviously horrendous in principle, but according to History.com, this one “resulted in the highest casualty rate of any amphibious assault in American military history”. The Japanese didn’t have a great time of it either, losing almost all of their soldiers too. The forests and animals caught in the cross-fire and explosions had a similarly un-fun experience, with the Palau fantail, ground-dove, and owl almost blasted out of existence along with their homes. But all was not lost for our feathered friends.
In 1948, the US Navy undertook a survey of wildlife on the island. A family of Palau fantails was seen swooping in and out of the trees once more, as well as in vegetation that had since grown over areas of heavy fighting. And they seemed to be getting on with the business of more families, because as noted at the time, “one male had enlarged testes”. Um, what?
I knew most male birds didn’t have the human body part that’s since taken their name, but I never looked any deeper at bird genitals. It turns out they do indeed have testicles of a kind, and these can peep out of their cloaca when in season. So thank you, Lt. Rollin H. Baker, for taking me on an unexpected journey. Speaking of unexpected journeys, there’s a theory as to why the Palau fantail is found in Palau, and not just because of the fallout from war.
The other type of invasion
Along with other members of its Rhipidura genus, the Palau fantail is thought to have colonised parts of Palau from Indonesian island Sulawesi further west, and from New Guinea-neighbour Melanesia before that.
It’s considered a fairly weak flyer, and this, coupled with strict preferences for forest habitat, could be why it hasn’t expanded further. Our friend Lt. Baker also thought summer and autumn winds from the south-east could have played a part in aiding its journey to remote shores. Fortunately, the traditional culture of Palau is ahead of the conservation curve, so it’s probably one of the best places to be if your numbers have been destroyed by war.
Paradise at last?
According to Ketebengang and Gupta, the idea of “take no more than you need” is embedded in Palau culture, and local chiefs can even implement what’s called a bul on a certain plant, species or resource that’s running low, so it has time to recover. Firearms are also illegal, and since only a monster or someone with an ego wounded by one would shoot a tiny fantail bird, the Palau fantail is safe from local hunting pressures too. Well, except the kind that doesn’t involve guns.
A huge chunk of Palau’s economy is from tourism, including bird-watching. Only being found in this part of the world makes the Palau fantail and its neighbours celebrities of a kind, so it’s in everyone’s interests to keep them happy and hidden in lush and undisturbed forest.
So being protected, undisturbed, and free from any menus or (fatal) trophy lists has helped the Palau fantail recover its numbers – to the point that it was taken off the endangered species list in 1985. It’s now considered Least Concern with an increasing population.
Being left alone to fan itself, its food and its lovers on a paradise island is the least it deserves after all the fighting! And another reason for all the increased lovin’.
Latin: Rhipidura lepida
What? Small, colourful fan-tailed bird.
Where? The Pacific island nation of Palau, in most kinds of forest except mangrove, and fire-shaped savannah.
How big? About 13 cm / 5 inches long, with a wingspan of 18-22 cm / 7-8.6 inches. Females are slightly smaller than males.
Endangered? Currently Least Concern, despite a very restricted range.
Probable motto: I survived the other kind of deforestation.
They look beautiful. Do they need my help at all?
The Palau fantail is happy darting about its home in relative safety, however, such a unique eco-system and environment can always do with some help. The Palau Conservation Society has some ideas, for example.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Baker, Rollin H. 1948. “Report on collections of birds made by United States Naval Research Unit No. 2 in the Pacific war area“. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 107(15).
Baker, Rollin H.1951. “The Avifauna of Micronesia, Its Origin, Evolution, and Distribution“. University of Kansas Publications, Museum of Natural History.
BirdLife International. 2016. “Rhipidura lepida. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2016: e.T22706897A94095938.
Boles, W. 2019. “Palau Fantail (Rhipidura lepida)“. In: del Hoyo, J. et al (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Christopolous, Stamatios. 2018. “Rich in biodiversity, Palau looks to protect its most precious resource“. UN Environment Programme.
Foreman, Paul. 2002. “Endangered species: issues and analyses“. Nova Science Publishers.
Government of Palau and the National Park Service. 1991. “Blililou (Pelelieu) Historical Park Study“. Preliminary draft.
History.com Editors. 2009. “Battle of Peleliu“. History.
“Important Bird Areas in Palau: protecting Palau’s natural heritage“. 2008. BirdLife International/Palau Conservation Society.
Josephs, Lewis S. 1990. “New Palauan-English dictionary“. University of Hawaii Press.
Ketebengang, Heather, and Gupta, Anuradha. 2010. “State of Palau’s Birds 2010. A conservation guide for communities and policymakers“. Palau Conservation Society.
Office of the Federal Register. 1984. “Federal Register“. Volume 49, issues 178-183. (US)National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration.
“Palau fantail Rhipidura lepida“. No date. Internet Bird Collection.
“Palau fantail Rhipidura lepida“. No date. Whatbird.com/Percevia.
Palermo, Elizabeth. 2013. “Animal sex: how birds do it“. Live Science.
Shuster, Donald Raymond, and Foster, Sophie. No date. “Palau“. Britannica.com.
“Species saved by the Endangered Species Act“. No date. CBS News.
2006. “Colour in birds’ eggs: the collections of the Natural History Museum, Tring“, Historical Biology 18(2):145-208.
Wiles, Gary J., and Conry, Paul J. 1990. “Terrestrial Vertebrates of the Ngerukewid Islands Wildlife Preserve, Palau Islands“, Micronesica 23(1): 41-66.
Featured image credit: Photo by Devon Pike