A Soaring Success in Bird Conservation
Five decades ago, Stanley Temple saw the Mauritius kestrel diving into extinction. Today, it’s flying high.
You could say Stanley Temple’s life has been for the birds. His interest in all things avian was nurtured at a young age by his mentor, Rachel Carson, the author of the seminal environmental book, Silent Spring. It continued into graduate school — and then beyond.
Just before he finished his Ph.D. in ecology at Cornell University in 1972, Temple would receive a fateful phone call from Dillon Ripley, who at the time was president of the International Council for Bird Preservation. Years before, Temple had sent the council a report he authored that reviewed the world’s endangered birds of prey and how to save them. Ripley remembered it. And when he received a gift earmarked for conservation work on the rarest birds in the world, he decided to ask Temple if he would like to put his ideas into practice.
This opportunity would take Temple to Mauritius, a remote island in the Indian Ocean, about 700 miles east of Madagascar. The island was once the home of the dodo, perhaps the most famous bird that has gone extinct. Temple was looking to achieve a better outcome this time.
The bird he hoped to save was the Mauritius kestrel, about the size of a pigeon, reddish in color with a great deal of barring on its back and numerous spots on its breast. It had evolved into a forest predator, its primary prey being endemic geckos. By the late 1960s, Temple says, it was considered the rarest bird in the world.
“After I got there, my fieldwork could only account for seven of the birds,” says Temple, who is the Beers-Bascom Professor Emeritus in Conservation in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at CALS. “Some said trying to save the kestrel was a waste of time, that the bird was beyond hope. The rescue effort I launched would involve taking birds in captivity and starting a captive breeding program.” Eventually that led to reintroducing birds back into the wild.
“Some said trying to save the kestrel was a waste of time, that the bird was beyond hope.”
Temple worked in Mauritius from 1972 to 1975, and his efforts from 50 years ago are paying dividends today. According to Vikash Tatayah, director of conservation at the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, there are roughly 400 Mauritius kestrels in existence; and, in March 2022, the country named the kestrel its national bird.
Like the kestrel, Temple continued to prosper following his work in Mauritius. He was hired by CALS in 1976 as professor of wildlife ecology and stayed there until his retirement in 2008.
“This was the first faculty position of its kind at any university when Aldo Leopold was named to it in 1933,” Temple says. “Leopold introduced the conservation approach that we now call wildlife management. I’ve worked on projects involving many endangered birds, designing management programs to help them recover. It’s been very rewarding work.” None of the species Temple has worked on have gone extinct, and most are recovering.
Temple, who edited Endangered Birds: Management Techniques for Preserving Threatened Species and coauthored Wisconsin Birds: A Seasonal and Geographical Guide, has remained an active emeritus professor after retirement. He says his work for the Mauritius kestrel was just the start of the bird’s decades-long turnaround, and that others contributed to its recovery over the years, including Welsh biologist Carl Jones and many dedicated people in Mauritius committed to the bird’s continued success.
“It’s because Stanley Temple was the one to point to the bird being in the most dire circumstances and, despite the negativity, did something about it,” Tatayah says. “At the low point, there was only one single breeding pair in the wild. He had to make contacts with people all around here, dealing in other languages, thousands of miles away from home, but he was committed. To nurture all the relationships he needed to, now that’s dedication.”
Temple reflects on the course of his career and how it was inevitably linked with the fate of a bird once perceived as doomed. “I think it’s fair to say that if the kestrel had gone extinct, in spite of my efforts, then most of what I went on to do with other endangered birds would never have been possible,” he says. “I’m thrilled to see it doing well today. My love of birds started at an early age, and I feel fortunate to have been able to devote my career to helping keep the kestrel and other threatened birds around for others to enjoy.”This article was posted in Fall 2022, Healthy Ecosystems, Natural Selections and tagged birds, Conservation, forest and wildlie ecology, Mauritius kestrel, Stanley Temple.