By the Skin of His Teeth
It’s a surprising technique to be sure, but it’s hard to argue with its efficiency. A swift bite to the neck and the quarry goes limp. While the kill may be simple, catching a night-flying black noddy (Anous minutus) is another matter—one that’s only become more challenging in recent decades for the noddy hunters of Nauru.
Black noddies are common on and around islands throughout the tropics, from Australia to Africa. In many places, the birds find an abundance of small fish, which they snatch from just beneath the ocean surface, as well as small trees in which to construct their nests. Such was the case on the South Pacific island of Nauru, too. For centuries, islanders here have used large nets to catch the birds as they fly in to their night roosts. But habitat loss and hunting pressure have taken a heavy toll.
The decline in Nauru’s noddy population is somewhat surprisingly connected to the island nation’s boom-and-bust economy. Between its independence in 1968 and the late 80s, Nauru enjoyed tremendous wealth, thanks to its abundance of phosphate—essentially the accumulation of centuries upon centuries of now-fossilized bird crap—which was mined and sold to other nations for fertilizer. At one point, thanks to phosphate, the world’s smallest independent nation was also one of the richest in per capita GDP.
By the late 90s, however, Nauru’s phosphate reserves were all but depleted, and their extraction had left the island’s fragile ecosystems in ruin. The forests that served as noddy rookeries weren’t spared. With its breeding grounds decimated, the noddy population here plummeted alongside Nauru’s economy. Meanwhile, with unemployment soaring, Nauruans were increasingly turning to noddy hunting as a means of supplementing their incomes and diets.
While many species would have succumbed to these pressures, the population here has benefited from the noddy’s wide distribution and natural tendency to fly long distances and colonize new islands. Studies of noddies banded elsewhere in the Pacific have found individuals on Nauru that hatched as far away as the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, more than 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) away. It’s not known whether immigrants like these have joined the breeding population, or whether the regular influx of new birds makes the current level of hunting pressure sustainable. But for now, Nauru’s noddies and the people they support are holding on by their teeth.
Born in France, Matthieu Paley has traveled all over the world for National Geographic. Focusing his efforts on regions that are misrepresented or misunderstood, Paley is especially committed to issues relating to diminishing cultures and the environment. More of his work can be seen on his Instagram account @paleyphoto.