Hurricane Wilma, a slow-moving category 4 storm, is currently spinning over Cozumel Island off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It is expected to remain there for the next 24 to 36 hours. At this point, we are all familiar with the damage this hurricane can and will do. Homes and businesses will be destroyed. And it is likely that a unique bird will also be wiped out. This may prove to be the end of the Cozumel Thrasher.
The Cozumel Thrasher (Toxostoma guttatum) is endemic to Cozumel Island, and so few are thought to exist that it is categorized as critically endangered. It was fairly common on the island until Hurricane Gilbert hit in September 1988. After that, few birds were seen. Two researchers from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (National Autonomous University of Mexico) made 15 visits to Cozumel between 1994-1998, and found only three birds, two of which were mist-netted, the last in July 1995.
That October, powerful Hurricane Roxanne hit the island, and for years, there were few credible sightings of the Cozumel Thrasher. Then in July 2004, a single bird was seen by researchers, reigniting the hope that the species was hanging on in small numbers.
Hurricanes and Cozumel are no strangers. Thrashers obviously evolved with and adapted to these storms. It is theorized that introduced boa constrictors, now established after being released by filmmakers at the end of a shoot in 1971, have become important predators on nesting thrashers (as well as other animals on the island). This added pressure may have made the birds vulnerable to hurricanes, unable to successfully regain their numbers after especially strong storms.
The fact that two previous hurricanes had such apparent devastating impacts on Cozumel Thrasher populations does not bode well for this species, considering the strength of Wilma and the amount of time it is expected to lash the island. We might not know for years whether or not the thrashers are gone. For generations they were able to cope with nature’s blows, but our carelessness once again may have created a situation from which the birds cannot recover. Already, it is a great loss.
That what we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lack’d and lost,
Why, then we rack the value, then we find
The virtue that possession would not show us
Whiles it was ours.
— Willliam Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, Act IV, scene 1