The Mauritius kestrel (Falco punctatus) is a small falcon that was rescued from the brink of extinction by a world-renowned conservation programme (4). It is small, with relatively short wings, a long tail and long legs (5), which bear short talons (6). The upperparts are a rich brown colour with black barring, and the underparts are white with dark spots (5). Juveniles have bluish-grey facial skin, which turns yellow after a year. The sexes are similar in appearance (7), although the males are noticeably smaller (4). The call is a repeated 'toee tooee' or a shorter 'tooit tooit' (4).
Crécerelle de l'Ile Maurice, Crécerelle de Maurice, Faucon de l'Ile Maurice.
The Mauritius kestrel feeds mainly on small lizards, particularly geckos of the genus Phelsuma, although insects and small birds are also taken (9). It hunts by flying quietly through the forest canopy and then rushing the quarry, (2) or by executing strikes from a perch, or chasing prey on the ground (7). It is a territorial species that nests in the rock cavities of cliff faces; recently the kestrel has started to nest in nest boxes (7). Pairs are monogamous throughout the breeding season (8) and typically produce a clutch of four to five eggs in November or December (8). Incubation takes between 38 and 39 days, and the juveniles stay within their natal territory until the next breeding season (7).
This kestrel is endemic to Mauritius, and was once widespread throughout the island. (5). However, by 1974 the population numbered just six individuals (two of which were in captivity), and the species was the most endangered raptor in the world (8). Presently numbers appear stable and the Mauritius kestrel has been downgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) (4).
The main cause of the catastrophic decline of the population of Mauritius kestrels was the destruction of a huge amount of the native forest habitat (2). Introduced predators such as black rats (Rattus rattus), feral cats (Felis catus), and mongooses (Herpestes auropunctatus), also took their toll (8). In the mid 20th Century, pesticides such as DDT were widely used on the island and this further decimated the population (10); predators such as the kestrel that are at the top of the food chain are particularly susceptible to the build up of these chemicals. By 1974, only four birds remained in the wild (10), and this minute population was incredibly vulnerable.
The Mauritius kestrel has been the subject of an extremely successful conservation programme that rescued the species from what was almost certain extinction. The project was supported by the Government of Mauritius, the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust International (now known as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust), the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and the Peregrine Fund (9). Measures taken have included artificial incubation, hand rearing, the release of captive reared birds into the wild and supplementary feeding (10). By 1994, 331 birds had been released into the wild, and the re-introduction programme ceased, although monitoring continued (4). This spectacular recovery resulted in the species being downgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red list (4). The recovery of the Mauritius kestrel is an inspiring example of what determined conservation programmes can achieve.
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