Marine Conservation Biology in Hawaii

Day 10: Of Mice and Men
by -- January 26th, 2012

Mice abound but the rats have been eradicated, with enormously positive impacts on several species of seabirds

Steinbeck wasn’t thinking about conservation or Midway Atoll when he wrote his novella.  But his title was a reflection, apparently, of Robbie Burns poem To a Mouse and, particularly, on the lines “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go often askew” (you can look it up on Wikipedia).

A mouse scurries past a Laysan albatross on its nest

A mouse scurries past a Laysan albatross on its nest

I was thinking about Burns today as I stepped out of our rooms at Charlie Barracks on my way to a soccer game with my Thai buddies.  While dodging a Laysan albatross I saw a mouse scurry across my path. There are millions of mice on Midway – the only resident land mammal (no, monk seals don’t count).  There used to be rats as well and, like the mice, these rodents were introduced accidentally to this fragile island ecosystem during the period when Midway was used as a military base.  The USFWS and USDA eradicated the rats when Midway was handed over to the Department of Interior by the Navy and made into a National Wildlife Refuge.

A red-tailed tropicbird in flight - these gorgeous birds are courting at the moment, with elaborate aerial mating displays. They are one of the species whose numbers have increased due to the eradication of rats.

A red-tailed tropicbird in flight – these gorgeous birds are courting at the moment, with elaborate aerial mating displays. They are one of the species whose numbers have increased due to the eradication of rats.

As John Klavitter, the Deputy Refuge Manager, told us today, the eradication of rats had an immediate, profound and long-lasting positive effect on populations of seabirds here, particularly the smaller species that nest in burrows, like Bonin petrels, or on the ground, like tropicbirds.  Rats are voracious predators of eggs and chicks and can even attack and kill adult birds.  As scientists have understood the impact that rats have on seabirds, programs have sprung up to eradicate them from many remote island ecosystems.   Read, for example, about the recent rat eradication program on South Georgia, led by my pal Tony Martin.  Today only the mice remain on Midway and they do not seem to pose any threat to seabirds, although they do hinder the reintroduction of native plants, like the bunch grass we have been planting, by consuming seeds and young plants.

On MIdway, the wildlife has priority. The USFWS has created several closed areas to protect birds, monk seals and sea turtles.

On MIdway, the wildlife has priority. The USFWS has created several closed areas to protect birds, monk seals and sea turtles.

This is but one example of the positive conservation stories on Midway.  You may have already read of some of the others – the successful translocation of Laysan ducks, the reintroduction of native plants, mitigation of disturbance to monk seals and green turtles, and the successful breeding of a short-tailed albatross.  This is one of the most important reasons for bringing tomorrow’s leaders in marine conservation to this wonderfully remote place – to show that some of the best laid schemes of men do not, in fact, go askew.  We’ll have to see about those mice, though.

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