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SEARCHING FOR BIRDIE

To save a nearly extinct bird, Colombians are rethinking one of their biggest economic engines

Bárbara Abbês for Quartz
  • Alexandra Ossola
By Alexandra Ossola

Deputy membership editor

Antioquia, Colombia

The sun was dropping rapidly, but I kept descending the slippery hillside, knowing I’d have to come back up in the darkness. It took time to pluck each boot from the black, squelching mud. Soon, I had lost the rest of my fellow hikers. I didn’t want to yell after them—I could scare off our quarry.

Finally, I caught up with the group in a large clearing. About 10 birders focused on the dense vegetation, still glistening with rain. As the sky erupted into the pinks and purples, we lapsed into a comfortable silence, vigilant for signs of movement. In the half-darkness, we managed to see a bird or two.

But we knew it wasn’t the one we were there for.

We were about two hours north of Medellín, in a dairy farmer’s field, to spot just one kind of bird: the Antioquia brushfinch (Atlapetes blancae). The bird, endemic to Antioquia, one of the 32 regions Colombia calls departments, hadn’t been seen in 47 years. It was thought to be extinct—until, in 2018, an amateur birder rediscovered it in a town nearby. Researchers suspected that fewer than 20 of them were alive, rendering the species critically endangered. In October, I came to Colombia to participate in a massive bird-search intended to determine if that count was accurate.

Birders aren’t just interested in the brushfinch because it’s rare. They know that the species is an indicator for the overall environmental health of Antioquia, and the natural resources that make the region one of the country’s most economically important. In order to save the bird, they’re going to have to take dramatic steps—which could improve quality of life for Antioquia’s residents and resuscitate its sputtering ecosystems.

“The Atlapetes is just an excuse. Because behind it there are so many things, like water resources,” said Sergio Chaparro Herrera, an ecologist at the University of Antioquia and the coordinator of the research-focused conservation group Proyecto Atlapetes. “We need to protect the Atlapetes because it’s a flagship species. If we protect Atlapetes, we are protecting many more species, the forests, and the water sources.”

Sergio Chaparro Herrera
Atlapetes blancae, aka the Antioquia brushfinch

The Antioquia brushfinch might not look like anything special. It’s about the size of a baseball, with a pointy black beak, white throat, gray breast, and gray-black wings and back. Its most distinctive feature is a thick rust-colored streak on its head. It lives in low, scrubby brush that grows in the place of felled native trees, feeding on whatever fruits and seeds are available.

Fifteen years ago, however, there was no such thing as the Antioquia brushfinch (in Spanish the gorrión montes paisa or the montañerito paisa). When naturalists collected a handful of brushfinches from this area in 1971, they thought they were all the same species. To be fair, they all did have that standout crest of the color birders call “rufous.” But when researchers reviewed the specimens in 2007, they determined that the Antioquia brushfinch was its own species.

There was a problem, though: The bird hadn’t been seen in the wild since those specimens were collected in 1971.

Naturally, people went out looking for it. Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries on Earth, home to an estimated 10% of all species. It’s particularly rich in birds, with nearly 2,000 identified species (Antioquia alone has more than 900), making the country popular with birders. But though they spent years looking, none of them encountered the Antioquia brushfinch in its natural habitat.

“The Virgin has emerged”

In January 2018, 21-year-old Rodolfo Correa Peña was on his way to church in his hometown of San Pedro de los Milagros, a town of about 28,000 residents. Correa Peña was in college, commuting about two hours each day on a rickety bus into Medellín to complete his degree in agricultural engineering. He was new to birding, but even he had heard about the fabled Antioquia brushfinch.

That day, as usual, he walked on the dirt road into town, with high banks topped with trees. But it was not a usual day—Correa Peña spotted the glint of a rust-colored head. “The Virgin has emerged,” he recalled thinking.

Alexandra Ossola
Rodolfo Correa Peña next to the embankment where he first spotted the Antioquia brushfinch.

He managed to snap a photo on his cell phone and sent it to some experts, but it was too pixelated for anyone to say for sure whether it was the Antioquia brushfinch. “I got an email from Rodolfo and I recommended that he make more observations and take a good photo,” said Chaparro Herrera, the ecologist.

Just a week later, Correa Peña had another chance—and this time, he was ready. With photo from his higher-quality camera, experts confirmed that he had rediscovered the species.

Correa Peña suspected that at least one brushfinch, probably several, lived near his family’s house. Birders from within Colombia and abroad started flocking to see for themselves. “Between Jan. 28 and Nov. 30 2018, we obtained 38 observation events of A. blancae (possibly 3-4 pairs) in two points in the same area, separated by 500 linear meters,” reads a paper published in February 2019, co-authored by Correa Peña and Chaparro Herrera, in the ornithological journal Cotinga.

The discovery was particularly surprising given where it happened: in a highly developed area skirted by dairy farms, with few trees. “It’s incredible—we spent so much time walking around [looking for the bird], and it was right there in the vegetable plot,” Chaparro Herrera said at one of several annual get-togethers of Colombia’s birders.

In the years since, Correa Peña has, at least in certain circles, become well-known. “For me, the rediscovery is like the phoenix. A bird that resurfaces when one least expects it—and not in deep forests, in disturbed areas. It fills me with so much hope, that in an area that seems to not have much biodiversity, there are surprises,” he said.

Perhaps, he speculated, his neighborhood’s ecosystems weren’t as bad off as they seemed.

In the land of the paisas

Anna Krishtal
This is chosen land. Be grateful to be here.

Drive out of the chaos of Medellín, up into the Antioquian countryside, and you will find scenery that is stupefyingly beautiful. Dramatic, scar-like ridges feed like tributaries into rolling hills. The many shades of green are punctuated by occasional clusters of black and white cows. The clouds, alternating between cotton-ball fluff and layers of cascading gray, seem to send a message: This is chosen land. Be grateful for it.

Antioquians, known throughout the Spanish-speaking world as paisas (link in Spanish), feel this way about their land, too. The region, which includes the cosmopolitan Medellín and the rustic coffee region, was shaped by an influx of independent Basque immigrants in the 1800s. Today, the paisa spirit is akin to that of Texans in the US. “This is an extremely proud region,” said Andrea Lopera Salazar, a biologist at the University of Antioquia and a member of Proyecto Atlapetes, herself paisa.

Though it has many natural advantages—among them abundant access to clean water—Antioquia’s ecosystems are far from pristine. It’s one of the most economically important regions in the country: The department’s per capita GDP is higher (pdf pg 2, link in Spanish) than the country overall, driven by finance, hospitality, construction, and agriculture industries (pdf pg 16, link in Spanish) .

Dairy farming, along with crops like potato, are particularly popular in the area where the brushfinch was spotted. And although Antioquia’s population is increasing about as quickly (link in Spanish) as that of the country overall, the agricultural industry is growing faster. In the municipality of San Pedro de los Milagros, the area around Correa Peña’s hometown, 72% of the land is “managed pastures” (pdf, pg 136, link in Spanish) used to raise cattle.

Managed does not always mean well-managed. Farmers tend to cut down every tree and bush on their property to grow grass for their livestock. “You feel like you’re in a golf course,” said Wendy Willis, deputy director of international programs at the American Bird Conservancy. That land is also used inefficiently: Throughout Colombia, grazing land averages just .6 to .9 cows per hectare, instead of the ideal 4 to 6 per hectare, said Jhon Jairo Lopera Marín, an agricultural engineer with the sustainable farming nonprofit CIPAV.

Alexandra Ossola
Hillsides are cleared for cattle grazing.

Lost tree cover dries up natural pools of fresh water. Potato doesn’t hold water well, which leaves the hillsides vulnerable to being washed away by storms. Farmers bulldoze the land to plant potatoes and invasive grasses; they use too much fertilizer, pesticides, and insecticides, said Lopera Marín. Monocultures and over-use of the land also deteriorate the quality of the soil.

The farmers have been doing things this way for a long time. “They come from a tradition of how they use the land, [the way their] fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers did,” said Chaparro Herrera.

But if things don’t change in this part of Antioquia, its ecosystems could degrade as agriculture continues to expand.

An uneasy partnership

In Antioquia and elsewhere, environmental activists and nonprofits are turning their attention to more sustainable farming practices. But to do so, they have to not only re-educate the farmers—they have to address the lessons passed down through generations.

“An hour outside Medellín, people are very hesitant and skeptical [of conservationists]. They don’t want government involvement—they’re afraid the government will come in and start regulating when they’re just barely getting by,” Willis said.

Ana Maria Castaño, the ecosystems subdirector with Corantioquia, Antioquia’s environmental authority, agrees. “Unfortunately, our farmers don’t have much environmental awareness. One of the most important things we can do is [provide] environmental education because they are the ones with the greatest capacity for impact on our ecosystems,” she said. Castaño and her colleagues at Corantioquia, however, are among those working to change that.

Anna Krishtal
Birding on a farmer’s land

I had come to Colombia to participate in the buscatón, a massive citizen science effort organized by the conservation-focused nonprofit SalvaMontes. Eighty-five birders from around the world spent two days at one of 25 sites north of Medellín, each trying to spot as many Antioquia brushfinches as possible.

By getting a better sense of where the bird lives, its behaviors, and sheer number, the birders hoped to understand just how endangered the bird is. A healthy bird population could indicate that the surrounding ecosystem is thriving, too.

To do that, though, the birders had to access areas where the brushfinch was likely to live. And in most cases, that meant asking farmers if some birders could traipse onto their property for a few hours.

SalvaMontes had partnered with another water-focused organization called CuencaVerde, which has relationships with dozens of farmers, to gain that access. The organization suggests and helps implement sustainable farming practices; in return, CuencaVerde gets access to promote sustainable farming practices on-site for 10 years.

Just as soon as the bird reappeared, it was clear it was threatened by harmful or inefficient farming practices. Cutting down trees and bushes to open up farmland means destroying the bird’s habitat or isolating populations to a few livable patches. Contaminated or disrupted water sources also threaten its livelihood. Exposure to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals may harm the birds, as research on other bird species has shown. And as temperatures rise due to climate change (pdf), new species may move in, eating the brushfinch’s food and taking its nesting areas.

Sometimes it seems like these problems are getting worse.

On the second day of the buscatón, my group of 10 birders went to one of the northernmost sites, close to the town of San Andres de Cuerquia. The land appeared scrubby and wild, but there were houses nearby. Our leaders were pretty sure we would see the brushfinch, since another birder had spotted one there some months before. We parked our cars on a rough, little-used dirt road; though we had been up since 4:30am, we excitedly hopped out, our eyes and ears open for the telltale rustle of leaves.

But quickly, the local birders realized that something had changed. According to a birder named Sebas Vieira Uribe who was there with us that day, the site had been home to about 100 frailejón plants. The delicate shrubs, which grow just a centimeter per year, are critical to providing water and shelter to many species—possibly including the brushfinch. But on our visit, there was only one plant left. The others appeared to have been hacked down with a machete.

The birders were devastated. It felt like someone had died. Many frailejones are protected species; cutting one down could result in penalties from the environmental authority, according to Castaño. Though I was assured the area was recently teeming with fauna, I didn’t see another bird that day.

Alexandra Ossola
Frailejón plants, large and small, at a different site we visited that day.

I asked a lot of environmentalists and birders what they thought happened. Many were willing to give the landowners the benefit of the doubt—they didn’t know what they were doing, they wanted to replant the frailejones elsewhere. But the answer that made the most sense came from Santiago Chiquito, the director of innovation and development of SalvaMontes who helped organize the buscatón.

Many landowners feel nervous about having a protected species on their plot, Chiquito said, because they fear that conservation will restrict their land use. “It could have been due to the property owner’s sudden fear,” he said. “Having one of those species there would impede him from doing some sort of agricultural activity, or that the government would take his land.”

I heard a similar sentiment from two farmers I met. “People can’t cut down trees on their own land because of the government,” said Pascual, a farmer who lived for some time in the Boston area before moving back to Antioquia. At the same time, they worried that agriculture was degrading what they so loved and respected about the area’s natural beauty.

It’s this respect for the natural world that a number of local organizations are using to encourage more sustainable farming practices. CuencaVerde and CIPAV, two of the biggest actors in the area, each has their own way of connecting to farmers and helping them rethink farm operations.

Proyecto Atlapetes is newer, but uses the brushfinch as a way to do social outreach—everybody loves their de facto mascot—and push for sustainable change.

Bird, found

Alexandra Ossola
The view from the potato patch where I searched for the brushfinch on Correa Peña’s land.

“The bird is here,” Correa Peña whispered.

A few days after the buscatón, I met up with Correa Peña in San Pedro de los Milagros. We wound our way out of town, walking a leisurely half hour until we arrived at his family’s land. Correa Peña was whispering as I perched next to a field of potato plants, looking into a tangle of tree branches. There were few sounds except for the occasional moo of a distant cow—and a rustling of leaves, much closer.

Correa Peña held his hands behind his ears and whistled (though many birders play recordings of bird calls to lure individuals close enough to spot, Correa Peña thinks it’s a form of “deceiving” the birds and so avoids the practice).

“There—there! there!” Correa Peña said, pointing excitedly, careful not to make loud noises that would disrupt the bird.

I aimed my binoculars at the dark patch in the trees. Sure enough, there was the Antioquia brushfinch, perched on a long branch.

We followed it for a while as it flitted from branch to branch. Eventually, it was too fast for us. The bird flapped away as we struggled to avoid rolling our ankles in the terrain’s brush-covered holes.

This was one of what Correa Peña suspects is a community of six to eight brushfinches that live near his family’s land. We weren’t the only ones to spot the brushfinch that week: During the buscatón, birders counted 24 individual brushfinches in eight different places. In five of them, the bird had never been spotted before.

The results were exciting to the birders. Their findings expanded the number of Antioquia brushfinches known to exist, from just a handful to likely a few dozen. It also gave researchers a better sense of the habitat in which the birds live. Many of the sightings were in places that had been developed by humans, suggesting that the species is perhaps heartier than previously thought.

“It [felt like] such a success to see so many people thinking about the brushfinch and excited to look for it,” said Chiquito of SalvaMontes.

Biologists and ecologists still have a lot more questions about the brushfinch’s biology and its role in its ecosystem. But it’s clear that it is an indicator of the overall health of the ecosystems, and therefore the region’s agricultural economic sustainability.

The fact that the bird was seen more than expected doesn’t negate its endangered status. Its extinction could foretell a grim turn for Antioquia’s biodiversity and farmers. “A species is another element of the ecosystem that, if it’s gone, shows us that we as a species are not trying to survive with nature, but instead at its expense,” said Juan Luis Parra, a biologist at the University of Antioquia and part of Proyecto Atlapetes.

They understand, however, that incremental changes will be the only way to make progress. “My dad, who has only ever raised cows, has recently planted flowering trees. Now birds have started coming there. If just one person gets interested, it becomes contagious,” Lopera Salazar said.

The bird, while it can be considered a harbinger of ecological changes to come, is improving the ecological prospects of its home merely by being popular. People from around the world want to be able to see it—and protect it. Correa Peña, for one, is working to convince his family to use some farmland as a reserve for birding tourists. “They don’t know what birding tourism is for, nor its use, but my dad and uncles know that it can pay for the costs of the farm,” Correa Peña said.

Alexandra Ossola
It may not look like much, but these trees could be crucial for linking habitat for the brushfinch, Correa Peña says.

“The Antioquia brushfinch has survived despite all the historical pressures to its habitat. Acting in favor of the conservation of the species and its habitat should not only allow its survival, but also improve the health of its populations,” said Castaño of Corantioquia. “I trust that the species will improve, and that well-directed ecotourism will allow local communities to have an income that incentivizes even more conservation.” Though increased tourism is one of the stated goals (pdf pg 67, link in Spanish) of the mayor of San Pedro de los Milagros, it’s still rare for farmers to use their land for ecotourism, according to Chaparro Herrera.

Locals seem to be getting on board. In a workshop that SalvaMontes hosted in the weeks after the buscatón, several locals mentioned the need to increase ecotourism as a way to subsidize farming, especially as they shift to more sustainable farming practices. They also mentioned a desire for continued education and participation of the local population.

“I’m optimistic. I believe in people, in the farmers. They’re going to receive conservation with open arms. They’re all aware of the environment,” Correa Peña said. “Not for nothing, the farmers hold 20% of the world’s biodiversity in their hands. The people who live here can save that.”

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