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The Bird Man of Midway Atoll

Red-footed Boobies are one of the many feathered inhabitants of the Midway Islands.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
Red-footed Boobies are one of the many feathered inhabitants of the Midway Islands.
Biologist Jimmy Breeden stands next to a fairy tern, which is sitting on its nest. Animals aren't afraid of people on Midway Atoll, so people have to watch out not to harm them.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR /
Biologist Jimmy Breeden stands next to a fairy tern, which is sitting on its nest. Animals aren't afraid of people on Midway Atoll, so people have to watch out not to harm them.
A Great Frigatebird prepares to take flight.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR /
A Great Frigatebird prepares to take flight.

You know those little kids who are always bringing home turtles or tadpoles? What happens when they grow up? At least some of them end up in places like Eastern Island, one of the islets that make up the Midway Atoll in the middle of the Pacific.

Midway is a small, treeless place that's chock-full of birds. Red-footed boobies with iridescent blue beaks and snow-white feathers sit on nests in bushes. Hundreds of thousands of sooty terns fill the sky with a squawking that recalls the classic horror movie The Birds.

Goose-sized Laysan Albatross chicks snap their long, sharp bills as field biologist Jimmy Breeden walks past.

"Sometimes they get a good pinch on you and break the skin. I have had them run into me at about 35 miles per hour--flying into me. And that feels like somebody were to take a feather pillow and hit you as hard as they could. It will take you down to one knee," Breeden says with a chuckle.

Breeden, 31, has unruly auburn hair, tons of freckles and a contagious smile. For the past two years, he has been helping an extremely endangered species. It's a small, brown duck with a white ring around its eye called the Laysan Duck.

Until a few years ago, the ducks were found only on the tiny island of Laysan, which is about halfway between Midway and the main Hawaiian Islands. One bad storm could have wiped the species out.

So Breeden and other biologists brought some of the ducks to Midway. They're monitoring them very closely, and the ducks seem to be thriving.

A Wandering Scientist

Breeden started working with birds right after college, in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, not far from where he grew up.

"I've been a gypsy biologist ever since, going from job to job every four to six months or so," he says.

He sometimes volunteers and sometimes gets paid. The jobs brought him to the main Hawaiian Islands and then 1,000 miles farther west, to Laysan and Midway.

The Call of the Wild

Breeden says the funny thing is, he didn't even like birds until near the end of college when a professor had him learn about 10 bird songs.

"All of a sudden, I would hear a bird sing, it would be like, 'I know that that's a robin, that's a cardinal,'" he says. "It just seemed like I had a natural gift of picking up bird songs."

He says he's not quite sure how he made his way from Tennessee to the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

"It's just a weird chain of events that brought me to this place, and I've fallen in love with it," he says. "I've always had a love and joy for wildlife ever since I was small. For some reason, it's part of my soul. I enjoy just watching, especially the ducks. It seems like they're doing very well. In some way, I'm partly responsible."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Shogren is an NPR News Science Desk correspondent focused on covering environment and energy issues and news.
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