Although it is dispiriting to read about birds that have become extinct in recent times or are heading for oblivion, it is also heartening to learn about species that reappear long after they have been assumed to have died out.
One example is Beck’s Petrel (Pseudobulweria becki), which was refound a few years ago after being overlooked for 80 years. However, this species still faces a high risk of extinction. Much research is needed if we are to detect, respect and protect its breeding sites, believed to be on small Melanesian islands.
While relishing the re-emergence of this species, I find it irritating that its English name and its scientific binomial both commemorate a man whose activities threatened its survival. Until its rediscovery, Beck’s Petrel was known only from two specimens “collected” during a 1928/29 South Pacific expedition by Rollo Beck (1870–1950), an American ornithologist who seems to have made a living by selling the corpses of vulnerable birds to museums.
Although the petrel that bears his name still survives precariously, Rollo Beck may have contributed to the extinction of at least two other creatures. One of these was the Guadalupe Caracara or Quelili (Caracara lutosa), a bird of prey endemic to Mexico’s Guadalupe Island. Once common on the island, its numbers plummeted towards the end of the 19th century, mainly because of an extermination campaign by goat herders who believed that the bird predated their kids. In 1900, when the caracara had already been almost wiped out, Beck visited the island and found 11 birds. Having no land-based predators (other than goat herders), they were tame and approachable, and Beck shot nine of them to supply to museums as scientific specimens. Since Beck’s fateful trip to the island there have been no confirmed sightings of this species.
In 1906, Beck also “collected” three of the last four known specimens of Pinta Island Tortoise (Geochelone nigra abingdonii) — even though he knew that, like the Guadalupe Caracara, this subspecies of the Galápagos Tortoise had already been almost wiped out.
After Beck’s testudinal butchery the Pinta Island Tortoise was believed to be lost. But in 1971 a lone male was discovered. Dubbed “Lonesome George”, he was taken to a research station for protection. He died of old age in 2012, after failing to mate successfully with females of a closely related subspecies.
In view of Rollo Beck’s appalling record, surely it is time to award Beck’s Petrel a less cynical name?