Pioneering flight to dove island|Richard_F||01/10/07 at 13:59:22|richard_f|xx|0||Pioneering flight to dove island

THE wings of a rare dove that died out in the wild are to flutter again over
its natural habitat, thanks to the help of Scottish zoologists.

The Socorro Dove became extinct more than 30 years ago in its home in a
remote Pacific island chain known as Mexico's Galapagos.

Fewer than 100 adult birds now exist in captivity around the world. But in
2007 it is to be reintroduced to Socorro, 600 miles west of the Mexican
coast, following a successful breeding programme involving Edinburgh Zoo.

The zoo has already agreed to send staff out to the island to take part in
the reintroduction programme.

If successful, it will pave the way for other species that only exist in
captivity to be returned to the wild.

Around 20 of the small brown doves will be released first into specially
constructed aviaries to adapt to island conditions. Once acclimatised they
will be set free to attempt to form a new breeding colony.

Colin Oulton, the head of the bird collection at Edinburgh Zoo, said: "It is
important to reintroduce them back into the wild because they do not exist
anywhere except in zoos.

"Were it not for the fact that some were kept in captivity then they would
already be lost forever. There has not been much concern about them,
probably because they look so familiar.

"Species like tigers attract a lot of attention because they are
spectacular, but there are far more tigers living in the wild than there are
Socorro Doves."

The uninhabited island was discovered in the 16th century by Spanish
explorers, but the dove was first described by a 19th-century American
naturalist, Andrew Jackson Grayson, at work in the Pacific about 20 years
after Charles Darwin began logging the unique wildlife of the Galapagos
Islands, which is thousands of miles to the south.

The bird was spread across the 157-square-mile island, but flocks of sheep
introduced in 1869 started destroying the natural habitat of the
ground-nesting species.

Then, in 1957, the Mexican Navy moved in, setting up a base and building an
airstrip. The 250 personnel brought their families and pet cats, which bred
and spread into the wild.

The last sighting of a Socorro Dove was by a scientific expedition in 1972.
It was declared extinct in the early 1980s.

Oulton explained: "Sheep grazed out the habitats of these ground-nesting
birds and then, as there were no natural predators on the island, the doves
were easy targets for feral cats.

"If you lose numbers and habitat then there comes a time when the community
is not big enough to sustain itself and a species can become extinct."

The Revillagigedo Islands were declared an official "biosphere reserve" by
the Mexican government in 1994 in recognition of its many endemic plant and
animal species, but it was too late to save the Socorro Dove in the wild.

Fortunately, some birds had been taken into captivity by zoos and private
collectors in the 1920s, and their descendants are now set to return.

The bird's cause was fought most fiercely throughout the 1990s by Dr Luis F
Baptista, the curator of ornithology and mammalogy at the California Academy
of Sciences.

The scientist worked for 10 years with Mexican ornithologists on the
reintroduction plan until his premature death in 2000.

The reintroduction plans have gathered pace since the turn of the
millennium, with the Mexican Navy and other local organisations building
aviaries and helping to eradicate the feral cat population and restore
natural habitat.

Edinburgh Zoo, which is at the forefront of bird conservation, received its
first consignment of doves from other zoos in England in 2005 and has now
successfully bred 11 chicks.

Birds from a range of zoos across the world are expected to make up the
first 20 to be taken back to their natural home for release under a European
Association of Zoos and Aquaria programme.

"Scientific programmes are being carried out to find out which are most
genetically equipped to survive," Oulton said.

"There are quite a lot of birds zipping between zoos in preparation."

It is hoped the return of the dove will mark a turn in the island's
ecological fortunes. Several other species from there are endangered,
including the Socorro Mockingbird, which number fewer than 400, the Socorro
Parakeet, the Socorro Elf and the Townsend's Shearwater.