Protection and Recovery of the Mangrove Finch

Protection and Recovery of the Mangrove Finch

Contributing to the Conservation of the Critically Endangered Mangrove Finch (Camarhynchus heliobates)

This project is currently Active

The Mangrove Finch (Camarhynchus heliobates) is one of the 17 species of Darwin's finches that only live in the Galapagos Islands. It is the rarest bird of the archipelago, with an estimated population of 100 individuals that inhabit only 30 hectares in two areas on Isabela Island.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species classifies the Mangrove Finch as in Critical Danger. The main known threats are the introduced parasitic fly (Philornis downsi) and the introduced black rat (Rattus rattus).

Our Research Team

Francesca Cunninghame

Principal Investigator

Francesca was born and raised in New Zealand. She has been actively involved in bird conservation and research most of her life, joining the Ornithological Society of New Zealand when she was just...

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Birgit Fessl


Birgit has been studying land birds on the Galapagos Islands for just over 20 years and has extensive experience in bird ecology, bird monitoring and host-parasite interactions with a special focus...

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Other collaborators:

David Auz (Seasonal Technical Assistant), Jorge Jiménez (Tree Climb Specialist), Mateo Reyes (Volunteer), Pierina Hincapie (Volunteer).

Project Details

The critically endangered Mangrove Finch (Camarhynchus heliobates) is the rarest bird in the Galapagos Islands. The estimated population size is just 100 individuals and has only 12 breeding pairs recorded in 2018. Classified as critically endangered (CE) by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it is essential to conduct conservation management to prevent its extinction.

Mangrove Finch (Camarynchus heliobates) on Isabela Island, Galapagos.
Mangrove Finch (Camarynchus heliobates) on Isabela Island, Galapagos. Photo by Liza Diaz Lalova.

Historically distributed throughout mangrove habitat on the two western islands (Isabela and Fernandina), extensive surveys in the 1990s confirmed a current range of just 30 ha of mangrove forest on North West Isabela, making it one of the most range restricted birds in the world.

The exact reasons for historic declines are not entirely understood although at present the species is threatened primarily by introduced species - predation from introduced rats (Rattus rattus) and parasitism of nestlings from the larvae of the introduced fly Philornis downsi. Additional threats come from the potential introduction of avian diseases, reduced genetic diversity, hybridization with the closely related woodpecker finch (Camarhynchus pallidus) and habitat loss as a result of volcanic activity and climate change.

Team of the Mangrove Finch project in the field looking for nests.
Team of the Mangrove Finch project in the field looking for nests. Photo by Liza Diaz Lalova.

This is a bi-institutional project of the Charles Darwin Research Station and Galapagos National Park Directorate in collaboration with San Diego Zoo Global, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Auckland Zoo. It aims to conserve the mangrove finch and ensure its long term survival within its natural habitat.

Our main goal is to increase the population of the mangrove finch in within its natural habitat by conducting intensive in situ conservation management.

Our results

Since 2007, ongoing introduced rat control has succeeded at significantly reducing egg predation. Head-starting (collection of eggs/nestlings from the wild, artificial incubation and hand rearing of young followed by the release of juveniles back into the wild) has been conducted for four years in order to increase annual fledging success by rearing nestlings away from the threat of P. downsi. To date 39 hand-reared individuals have been released with observed survival and recruitment into the breeding population.

Mangrove Finch chick bred in captivity.
Mangrove Finch chick bred in captivity. Photo by Liza Diaz Lalova.

Additionally, a method for protecting nestlings in the wild is being trialed. Since 2017 nestlings have been protected in their natural nests by injecting a pyrethroid pesticide carefully in to the base of the nest where it kills P. downsi larvae. At least 21 chicks have successfully fledged from treated nests. It is hoped that this will meet with success and provide a more effective conservation management technique. Until a broad scale effective control technique for P. downsi is found, it is essential that the intensive conservation management of the only mangrove finch population remains a priority. Long term project aims include increasing population size and reestablishing a viable mangrove finch population at a site within its historic range.

Our team reaching Mangrove Finch nests.
Our team reaching Mangrove Finch nests. Photo by Liza Diaz Lalova.


The Project has an outreach component with the aim to increase local awareness of the mangrove finch in the community of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island. The mangrove finch is presented as a flagship species to highlight the importance of protecting mangroves. Each year activities are conducted and new mangrove finch themed products are distributed throughout the community to school students, nature guides, tourism operators and the wider community. 

Video about our work with Mangrove Finches.

While the mangrove finch remains critically endangered it is imperative that effective conservation management continues to ensure the future conservation of the rarest of Darwin’s finches.


Keywords: Mangrove finch, Camarhynchus heliobates, conservation, intensive management, head starting, introduced species, Galapagos

Bibliographical References

  • Causton, C.E., Cunninghame, F., & Tapia, W. (2013). Management of the avian parasite Philornis downsi in the Galapagos Islands: a collaborative and strategic action plan. 167-173. Galapagos Report 2011-2012. GNPS, GCREG, CDF and GC. Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador.
  • Cunninghame, F., Young, H.G., & Fessl, B. (2011). A trial conservation translocation of the mangrove finch in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Global Reintroduction Perspectives 3 (ed PS Soorae). Pp 151-156. IUCN/SSC, Abu Dhabi.
  • Cunninghame, F., Young, H.G., Sevilla, C., Carrión, V., & Fessl, B. (2013). A trial translocation of the critically endangered mangrove finch: Conservation management to prevent the extinction of Darwin´s rarest finch. 174-179. Galapagos Report 2011-2012. GNPS, GCREG, CDF and GC. Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador.
  • Cunninghame, F., Switzer, R., Parkes, B., Young, G., Carrión, A., Medranda, P., & Sevilla, C. (2015). Conserving the critically endangered mangrove finch: Head-starting to increase population size. 151-157. Galapagos Report 2013-2014. GNPD, GCREG, CDF and GC. Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador.
  • Cunninghame, F., Fessl, B., Sevilla, C., Young, H. G., & LaGreco, N. (2017). Long term conservation management to conserve the Critically Endangered mangrove finch (Camarhynchus heliobates). 163-170. Galapagos Report 2011-2012. GNPS, GCREG, CDF and GC. Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador.
    Dvorak, M., Vargas, H., Fessl, B., & Tebbich, S. (2004). On the verge of extinction: a survey of the Mangrove Finch Cactospiza heliobates and its habitat on the Galapagos Islands. Oryx 38:1-9.
  • Fessl, B., Vargas, H., Carrión, V., Young, R., Deem, S., Rodríguez-Matamoros, J., Atkinson, V., Carvajal, O., Cruz, F., Tebbich, S., & Young, H.G., (Eds.). (2010a). Galapagos Mangrove Finch Camarhynchus heliobates Recovery plan 2010-2015. Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Charles Darwin Foundation, Galapagos National Park Service.
  • Fessl, B., Anchundia, D., Carrion, J., Cimadom, A., Cotin, J., Cunninghame, F., Dvorak, M., Mosquera, D., Nemeth, E., Sevilla, C., Tebbich, S., Wendelin, B., & Causton, C. (2017). Galapagos landbirds (passerines cuckoos and pigeons): Status, threats and knowledge gaps. 151-162. Galapagos Report 2011-2012. GNPS, GCREG, CDF and GC. Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador.
    Fessl, B., Young, H.G., Young, R.P., Rodríguez-Matamoros, J., Dvorak, M., Tebbich, S., & Fa, J.E. (2010b). How to save the rarest Darwin’s finch from extinction: The Mangrove Finch on Isabela Island. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Lond. Ser B 365:1019-1030.
  • Fessl, B., Loaiza, A.D., Tebbich, S., & Young, H.G. (2011). Feeding and nesting requirements of the critically endangered Mangrove Finch Camarhynchus heliobates. J. Ornithology 52:453-460.
  • Lawson, L.P., Fessl, B., Vargas, F.H., Farrington, H.L., Cunninghame, H. F., Mueller, J. C., Nemeth, E., Sevilla, P. C., & Petren, K. (2016). Slow motion extinction: Inbreeding, introgression, and loss in the Critically Endangered mangrove finch (Camarhynchus heliobates). Conservation Genetics. 10.1007/s10592-016-0890-x.
  • Young, H.G., Cunninghame, F., Fessl, B., & Vargas, F.H. (2013). Mangrove finch Camarhynchus heliobates an obligate mangrove specialist from the Galapagos Islands. Mangrove Ecosystems (eds G Gleason & TR Victor). Pp 107-121. Nova Science Publishers Inc. New York.


The mission of the Charles Darwin Foundation and its Research Station is to tackle the greatest threats and challenges to Galapagos through scientific research and conservation action, in order to safeguard one of the world’s most important natural treasures.

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