Cahow Bones

Project details

  • Object number – JR1P
  • Material – Bone
  • Place of Origin – Bermuda
  • Date – c. 1610
  • Context – James Fort, Pit 1
  • Location – Archaearium
  • Category – Starving Time

It may have been the cahow’s shrieks that caused sailors to avoid Bermuda for a century and nickname it the “Isle of Devils.” The nocturnal cahow makes an eerie moaning sound as it flies. Bermuda’s reputation grew whenever ships passing nearby encountered thousands of these birds flying around the masts.

But the English stranded by the wreck of Admiral Sir George Somers’ Sea Venture in July 1609 were glad for the bird. In their first weeks on Bermuda, the castaways did not see the cahows. The birds spend their adult life on the open seas (they can rest while flying). The cahows return to the Bermuda islands to nest in late October. When they did, the English found an easy meal. The cahow nests on the ground by day and has poor daytime vision, so the English could catch up to 300 birds an hour — as many as their boats could carry, castaway William Strachey wrote. They survived 10 months on wild hogs, sea turtles, and the cahow — and some wanted to stay for the tropical breezes and food supply.

Their leader, Thomas Gates, forced the rebuilding of two ships and their departure for Jamestown in 1610 with supplies such as “powdered porck, live turtles, salted birdes and fish.” But food that was supposed to supply a one-week sail became vital nourishment for the haggard survivors of Jamestown’s dreadful “starving time” winter. Gates realized there would be further starvation within a few weeks; on June 7, 1610, he announced the colonists would abandon Jamestown and sail for England, and it was only the timely arrival of the next group of settlers from England that forced their return to continue the colony.

The remains of these Bermudian animals have been found in early James Fort pits and provide a clear link to a dramatic moment in Jamestown’s story. When the English returned to Bermuda to colonize it, they ate so many cahow that by 1616 it was feared the birds were going extinct. The governor of Bermuda made a proclamation “against the spoyle and havocke of the Cahowes.” This bird related to the albatross is a slow breeder, laying only one egg a season. The cahow disappeared. It was not until the 1950s that breeding pairs of cahow were discovered still existing on outlying reefs endangered by storms. A conservation program began translocating the birds to Nonsuch Island, a nature preserve in Castle Harbour, Bermuda. Today, with the help of special artificial nesting burrows, the cahow population is making a comeback.