Dreaming of Doves on Socorro Island

A scientist's dream of returning a bird now extinct in the wild to its native homeland may soon become reality.

In 1903, an Academy expedition sailed to the Revillagigedo Islands, a remote archipelago off the west coast of Mexico, to investigate the animal and plant life. What they found was a biological treasure rich with species unique to the islands from scorpions to lizards to birds. One chestnut-colored bird, the Socorro dove, lived only on Socorro Island. But cats introduced by residents on the islands in the early 1970s killed off many of these endemic creatures, and within a decade the Socorro dove was driven to extinction.

Photo:  eroded area of Socorro Island
Eroded area of Socorro Island showing degraded vegetation from sheep grazing. Photo: Luis Baptista

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photo:  Socorro dove
Socorro dove. Photo: Dong Lin

In 1988, the late Luis Baptista, an Academy bird expert and an authority on birdsong, visited the islands to survey its ailing bird life, and returned with a passion to bring the dove back to Socorro. Before the birds went extinct, breeding colonies had been established in Europe and in the U.S., including one in Baptista's backyard. Baptista soon founded the Island Endemics Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving island habitats, and along with scientists from Mexico, the U.S., and Europe convinced the Mexican government to repatriate the birds.

Today, after Baptista's untimely death in 2000, the Institute is carrying out his dream. They hope to reintroduce the first doves to Socorro in 2003, the 100th anniversary of the Academy's first expedition to the islands.

Photo:  Luis Baptista and Stefan Stadler
Luis Baptista with Stefan Stadler on a Mexican Coast Guard vessel approaching Socorro Island.
Photo: Juan Martinez-Gomez
Illustration:  Socorro dove
Socorro dove. Illustration: Hans Peters