Lord Howe Island woodhens are flightless brown birds about the size of a bantam. Females of the species are slightly smaller than the males, and their chicks are covered with sooty black down. These birds are found only on Lord Howe Island, a World Heritage Area which lies in the south-western Pacific Ocean around 700 km east of Port Macquarie.
The ancestors of the Lord Howe Island woodhen arrived on Lord Howe Island many thousands of years ago, flying across the Pacific Ocean. They thrived in the subtropical rainforests of the island, where there was plenty of food and no fear of predators. Their wings gradually receded and became useless, because there was no longer any need for them to fly.
This situation changed in 1788, when HMS Supply anchored at Settlement Beach and members of her crew came ashore in search of food and water. Lord Howe Island's bird life had never been hunted, and was not afraid of humans. The Lord Howe Island woodhen, together with the now-extinct Lord Howe pigeon and white gallinule, provided easy game for the sailors.
Lord Howe Island was settled in 1833-34, and Lord Howe Island woodhen numbers quickly declined to near-extinction, because:
- they were hunted for food by the island's increasing human population
- introduced owls, feral cats and pigs preyed on the woodhens
- feral pigs and goats competed with the birds for food and damaged their habitats.
In 1966, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classed the woodhens as endangered. They were later put on the IUCN's highest priority list. The bird is listed as an endangered species under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act and the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
In 1978, the NPWS, with help from the Lord Howe Island Board and the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife, began a detailed study of the Lord Howe Island woodhen. After two years of research, a captive breeding facility was built in the centre of the island. Standing in an area of natural forest with plenty of leaf-litter animals like spiders and insects, the facility provided the birds with a good supply of food.
In 1980, three healthy pairs of Lord Howe Island woodhens were brought down from Mount Gower by helicopter. Settling in well at the breeding facility, they began laying eggs a few weeks after arriving. The eggs were cared for by both parents, and then were put in an incubator for the last week before hatching. By late 1980, 15 healthy chicks had been hatched.
The second stage of the project began in 1981, when two pairs of the captive-bred birds were released in an area under the cliffs of Mount Gower. Surveys had shown that this was the best site for a new woodhen colony. The birds survived and by 1984, 82 woodhens had been released. The breeding facility was closed.
Meanwhile, feral pigs and cats had been removed from the island, the feral goat population had been significantly reduced, and domestic cats were being phased out.
Since then, the NPWS and the Lord Howe Island Board have been counting the number of Lord Howe Island woodhens once or twice each year. They are breeding well, and the population reached over 200 in 1997. The birds are now living in many parts of the island, including residents' back yards.
The numbers of Lord Howe Island woodhens declined in April 2001 to 117 individuals. Further monitoring is being carried out to see if numbers have stabilised.
A Lord Howe Island threatened species recovery team has been set up to help manage threatened species on the island, including the Lord Howe Island woodhen. With the support of the people of Lord Howe Island, the woodhen's future is hopefully secure.