Alarm Sounds for Disappearing Birds
By Humberto Márquez*
The planet is suffering the worst wave of species extinction since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago, warns a bird expert. Some 649 species of our feathered friends are in imminent danger of disappearing forever.
CARACAS - Any overview about birds in Latin America sounds like a description of the great wealth of species, a reminder of the region's almost lavish biological diversity, and of the aggressions against the environment, which not only threaten the habitat of one kind of bird or another, but that of all living things.
Of the 9,700 known bird species in the world, 4,339 (45 percent) are found in the Americas. Of that total, 649 are in danger of extinction before 2020, according to the environmental coalition BirdLife International, based in Britain.
In the world leaders for biodiversity, Brazil and Colombia, the threat of extinction hovers over 114 and 77 bird species, respectively.
Worldwide, there are 1,200 bird species -- approximately one of eight -- that are in danger of disappearing forever within the first two decades of this century.
The impacts of human activity on our natural surroundings are the cause for bird species endangerment in 99 percent of the cases, according to the Washington-based non-governmental Worldwatch Institute.
Howard Youth, author of "Winged Messengers: The Decline of Birds", says we are witnessing the worst wave of species extinction since the dinosaurs disappeared from Earth 65 million years ago.
In the past 500 years, since the Europeans arrived in the Americas, at least 128 bird species have disappeared from the hemisphere, with more than 100 of that total becoming extinct in the just the last two centuries.
"Birds are valuable environmental indicators," says Youth.
Clemencia Rodner, president of the Audubon Foundation of Venezuela, explained this concept to Tierramérica: "Due to their visibility, birds are the best indicator, an early warning sign, when something is going wrong in an ecosystem. They flee or their numbers diminish or they disappear."
The loss of habitat is the leading threat to bird populations, if it does not outright cause their extinction. Each year, the world loses more than 50,000 square km of forests, an area the size of Costa Rica.
That was the case of the 'poc', inhabitant of Guatemala's Atitlán Lake until a generation ago. Known in English as the giant pied-billed grebe, it became extinct as the result of the diminishing coverage of the shoreline bush it nested in, the 'tul'.
A contributing factor to the demise of the poc was the 1976 earthquake, which caused the lake level to fall several meters, killing off the tul, but another was the introduction -- by humans -- of the black 'lobaina', which fed on the eggs of the poc, also known as the Atitlán grebe.
"It was a very special bird, unique to Guatemala and the color of dark coffee. It didn't fly, it was a diver," Diego Esquina, mayor of Santiago Atitlán, told Tierramérica. A fast swimmer, the poc is remembered by older residents of the area for its ability to escape the gaze of the curious, diving under the lake surface to reappear 20 to 25 meters farther away.
In the mid-1980s, the "save the poc" campaign was launched, but it only proved able to prolong the lives of the few remaining birds for a few more years.
A similar story is that of the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), "a monumental bird", says Rodner, and the strongest bird of prey in the world. It can weigh up to nine kilos and needs an extensive -- and also protected -- habitat.
This type of eagle was historically found from southern Mexico to northern Argentina. Today, the area along the Venezuela-Brazil border is one of its best-preserved populations, but "they feed almost exclusively on monkeys and sloths, and need to eat at least one every two days," explained the activist.
"Where can populations develop in order to make the species viable, with several dozen birds? In Venezuela, only on the Yanomami indigenous reserves in the extreme south. But what happens if the jungles begin to disappear, and with them the sloths and the monkeys?" asks Rodner.
The onslaught against birds has several fronts: an airport planned for construction on the site that was Texcoco lake in Mexico could affect 70 species; pesticide use contaminates land and water, and is fatal for millions of birds each year; trapping parrots to turn them into pets is a threat to one out of three parrots worldwide.
But to fight these threats, there are programs to protect birds and their habitats in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela, seven of the 12 countries with greatest biodiversity, alongside China, India, Indonesia, Kenya and South Africa.
Many birds fly great distances -- even across oceans -- and their protection must be coordinated by several countries. One example of a bi-national initiative with public and private funding is aimed at conserving some 5,000 swallow-tailed kites (Elanoides forficatus), which migrate between southeastern United States and Brazil.
The dickcissel (Spiza americana) lives and reproduces in the northern hemisphere summer on the U.S. plains, and in the winter heads to central-western Venezuela, where the species is known to ruin rice and sorghum crops.
The Venezuelan Audubon Foundation is promoting an alliance with local farmers to convince them not to kill the birds but to scare them off using a repellent in their fields.
The protected areas of Venezuela cover a combined total of 14 million hectares, or 16 percent of the national territory, in 43 national parks, 17 natural monuments and seven wildlife refuges.
But Rodner complains that the country has not developed management plans for these areas to ensure appropriate habitat for the species meant to be protected.
Luis Cova, of the governmental Wildlife Institute, told Tierramérica "there are many cases of success. For example, the refuges created along Venezuela's Caribbean coast have pushed up the number of flamingos from 18,000 to 44,000 in just over 10 years."
* Humberto Márquez is an IPS correspondent. Jorge Alberto Grochembake (Guatemala) contributed to this report.