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Searching for Samoa’s elusive national bird

On the remote pair of islands that make up the tropical destination of Samoa, the national bird — aka the 'little dodo' — proves elusive. Visitors and resident scientists alike have recently redoubled their efforts to track down this shy bird.

Rebecca and Toni trekking in the rainforest. 

Photograph by Adrian Phillips
Published 25 Oct 2021, 06:00 BST, Updated 26 Oct 2021, 15:03 BST

"I got a leech on my eyeball during our last field trip,' Rebecca tells me cheerfully, as I helicopter my arms in futile defence against the mosquitoes. My companions are relentlessly upbeat in the face of the discomforts of a tropical forest — Toni bouncing happily about like jelly on springs while Rebecca launches into a story about being bitten by a centipede. I guess you need to stay positive when you're out in the jungle.   

We're here in Samoa, searching for dodo. Well, not an actual dodo, now extinct, but the closest remaining relative of the dodo, nevertheless. “That’s proven genetics, not wishy-washy theory!” Rebecca declares fiercely. The manumea (or tooth-billed pigeon) — affectionately known as the little dodo — has a beak that’s big and hooked and includes a pair of toothy projections that are probably used to break into the seeds of maota trees. I say ‘probably’ because little is known for sure about what the manumea eats or where it nests, or anything much else besides. What we can say for certain, though, is that the manumea is precariously close to having more in common with the dodo than some similar DNA.

In 1994, it was estimated there were 2,000 manumea left on Samoa’s main islands of 'Upolu and Savai’i, the only places on Earth they live, but recent surveys suggest the population may have dropped below 200. Rebecca, a scientist from New Zealand who for two and a half years has ensconced herself in the montane forests here, has encountered only 10 manumea during her field work. Toni, employed by the Ministry of Environment, has spotted just one. There aren’t even any confirmed recordings of its call.

This seemingly bleak situation has focused minds, for this isn’t simply a goofy-looking pigeon with some interesting ancestry. The manumea is Samoa’s national bird, the bird that’s painted on the backs of buses and championed on the country’s bank notes. It’s unthinkable that this iconic species, this symbol of a nation, could slip quietly into oblivion. Something must be done.    

We continue along the path between splayed ferns and tree trunks hairy with creepers, on one of Rebecca and Toni’s regular scouting missions into ’Upolu’s interior. Toni points to a pair of white-throated pigeons and cups his hands to copy their cooing. The manumea’s call is lower, he says, shifting his fingers to create a deeper, warmer sound. “So much birding relies on sound,” Rebecca comments, but Toni isn’t listening. He’s instead tracking a crimson-crowned fruit dove, before ducking into undergrowth to pull up some taro plants — their leaves like elephant ears — to eat later.

After 30 minutes, we reach our destination: Tiavi village, and a vast banyan tree, its gnarled branches grasping at the sky. There’s a rumour going round the village that this tree is the favoured perch of a manumea. It’s a precious lead.  

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Toni, Rebecca and I stake out the area, while an elderly woman looks on, amused, from the porch of a nearby hut. "This is prime manumea territory," they chirp excitedly. "See the maota trees, tall and spindly with their bushy crowns? Prime territory!" Could the villagers have seen another pigeon species, I wonder. No, no, Rebecca assures me. They’d described the manumea’s awkward flight and oversized head. And its bright, orange beak: although decades-old photos of a captive bird show a dull, peach-hued bill, it’s a garish carrot colour on specimens in the wild. Of course, this individual might have been killed in the recent storm that ravaged the islands, they muse. But the elderly woman at the nearby hut isn’t about to let a storm rain on the parade. “I’m sure he’s still around,” she calls across to us. “He’s probably watching you right now.” Toni is barely able to control himself, hopping to and fro like a forest bird.  

There are so many questions to answer about the manumea. Does it lay its eggs on the ground? This is what an 18th-century visitor to the islands had written in his diary. If so, the eggs would be at the mercy of modern invaders like rats and cats. Or is the bird’s decline instead due to the creeping clearance of forest for village plantations. Rebecca assesses the landscape with a practised eye, judging positions for sound recorders, cameras and feeders. She makes plans. Perhaps the manumea will return to the banyan, and they can set up a viewing area for tourists. Meanwhile, Toni makes his way through the greenery, trailing fast-flapping starlings and craning to see a flat-billed kingfisher on a branch.

While Rebecca plans, Toni flits about, and the manumea does or doesn’t spy on us from a leafy hiding place, I lean on the banyan and watch things unfold. "That’s a miti,” Rebecca says, interrupting my thoughts, and nodding towards a tiny bird flitting about in the branches. It’s a tiny speck on a vast canvas, but doesn’t seem daunted. “’Miti’ means ‘dream’”, she continues. “They’re cuties.”

“What’s that?" calls Toni in an electric whisper, stock still for a change and staring into the middle distance. He’s just seen a largish shape alight untidily in a tree, he explains urgently. We poke binoculars and cameras in its direction. “Fruit bat?” asks Rebecca. “No,” Toni insists, “not a fruit bat — I saw it perch, not hang. Definitely not a bat!” For several minutes, we wish dearly for a little dodo, breath held and eyes straining at the foliage, until the largeish shape launches and glides away. “A fruit bat,” states Toni matter-of-factly, as if he’d told us all along, and then speeds off in pursuit of a blue-crowned lorikeet.  

Blue-crowned lorikeet, Samoa

Photograph by Rebecca Stirnemann

On land

In Samoa, domestic pigs root about where they fancy and skinny dogs skulk about the village fringes, but the fruit bat — aka flying fox — is the only native land mammal. A good place to see them is Mount Tafua, a volcanic crater on Savai’i island. A guide called Anthony takes me there the following afternoon, along a narrow track, across logs and busy lines of ants. It’s hard, hot work climbing almost 1,000ft to the rim, under attack from thorns and insects. Sweat runs from my brow in syrupy dribbles onto decaying leaves and lumps of lava stone.

An hour later, we reach the top. From here, the crater looks like an ebony bowl of broccoli, its black rock dropping to the frill of the rainforest canopy. White-rumped swiftlets are on the wing. On my first day in Samoa, I’d set off alone from my accommodation for a long walk along a local road, challenging myself to absorb this place, breathing warm air and unfamiliar smells, passing open-fronted huts and neatly painted churches. At a village called Letui, a wizened man with no shoes and a feeble torch had beckoned me into the pitch darkness of Pepea Cave to show me what he called the ‘little bats’. They were swiftlets — some nesting snug on their rocky ledges, others careering above the trees engaged in dogfights with flies and moths. And around them, like bombers among spitfires, three Samoan flying foxes make lazy circles.

Tafua crater, Samoa

Photograph by James Atherton

The flying fox is something of a celebrity in Polynesian mythology, lauded for bravely rescuing the warrior goddess Nafanua from a desolate island. Unfortunately, it also tastes good in stews. Hunting the bat has been prohibited since 2004, but ancient habits die hard, and it wasn’t long ago that an official from the tourism ministry itself assisted a film crew in recording footage of the cooking of a flying fox for a programme on unusual world cuisines.

Hunting is a threat to the manumea too, although villagers claim only to kill it by accident when out shooting the juicier, white-throated and Pacific pigeons. Ironically, however, hunters might actually prove to be the bird’s saviours. They know the twists and turns of the forest far better than any scientist, and are starting to share their knowledge. Two hunters from the nearby village of Taga have agreed to lead scientists to an area where they claim regularly to see manumeas. The plan is to establish an eco-tourism project at Taga, encouraging villagers to preserve the habitat and act as guides on manumea-spotting treks.

As daylight fades and dusk draws near, I look over Tafua Crater and hope it isn’t too late for those manumea still ghosting among its trees. Hang on, little dodo, hang on by the skin of your toothy beak. Help is on its way.

Essentials

Austravel offers a 10-night Samoa Island Hopping itinerary (featuring international flights, internal transport, two day-tours and including four-star accommodation) from £2,899 per person. For further tourist information, contact the Samoa Tourism Authority.

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