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Americas
18 Dec 2015

The chronicles of the Saffron-cowled Blackbird

Saffron-cowled Blackbird © Aves Argentinas
By Aves Argentinas

“People don’t look after what they do not love, and they don’t love what they do not know” - and this is exactly what we want to change!

From bird lovers and scientists alike, one hears the same comment: “It’s becoming harder and harder to observe the Saffron-cowled Blackbird in the wild”. Habitat loss, increased encroachment of agricultural land, pressures from illegal trapping and high levels of parasitism from another bird (Shiny Cowbird) seem to have condemned this species to certain extinction. Aves Argentinas (BirdLife Argentina) was not willing to stand idly by. They needed to take urgent measures, and so they did.

The Saffron-cowled Blackbird, a rare sight © Aves Argentinas

Introducing the Colony Guardians

For several months, Aves Argentinas had been very concerned about the Saffron-cowled Blackbird, typically found in natural grasslands and in the wetlands of the Argentinian plains. Today, only a few sites of suitable habitat remain.

Adrián Di Giacomo, researcher at CONICET took the lead to start a coordinated project to save these birds, calling on numerous institutions in order to save them. All across the country, various groups began joining the project, some of which had already started working to conserve the species.

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The first step was to decide for which conservation measures would be most effective - all the experts gathered in various workshops. Existing research served as fundamental base for the project and it was concluded that having a group of trained volunteers carrying out the measures would work best.

Colony Guardians, volunteers that carry out conservation measures © Aves Argentinas

Firstly, the so-called Colony Guardians would watch over the nests and fledglings, drive away predators and parasite species like the Shiny Cowbird and most importantly, deter potential illegal bird traffickers just by being present.

Secondly, they would collect data: for instance, they would record behaviour of the colonies, measurements, weights and take samples. Recording everything that happens around the nests would provide valuable information to protect them.

Collecting scientific data provides valuable information to save the species ©  Aves Gualeguaychú

Mission failed?

The spring of 2015 was a year full of hope and expectations. Aves Argentinas wanted to put hands to work as soon as the colonies appeared. Initially, this eagerness lead them to a problem: the Saffron-cowled Blackbirds didn’t seem to appear anywhere, much less its nests. The walks through rural roads were frustrating and almost no individuals were seen.

They even launched search campaigns for birdwatchers through social media and put up posters wherever they could. But the data simply wasn’t coming in.

Saffron-cowled Blackbird nest and chicks © Aves Gualeguaychú

This continued until the first sightings began to arrive from the south of Entre Ríos. The knowledge of the area by members of Aves Gualeguaychú was instrumental and soon enough reports of individual nests and colonies began to arrive.

Simultaneously, news arrived from the fields of a producer associated with the Grassland Alliance (Alianza del Pastizal) in the Corrientes province. Here, the first Saffron-cowled Blackbird nest of the province was found.

In total, Aves Argentinas found more than 40 nests. Today, in Entre Ríos we can rely on two Colony Guardians that give their time to protect the birds. On the other hand, camps have been set up in the Corrientes areas to watch over the nests.

Camps to watch over Saffron-cowled Blackbird nests © CECOAL CONICET

The threats: from parasites to poachers

However, not everything was smooth sailing. Most of the nests were suffering from high levels of parasitism from Shiny Cowbirds. The Cowbird lays its eggs in the nest of the Blackbird, and as the parasitic chicks grow faster, they monopolize the food retrieved by the bird’s parents. By doing this, they lower the chances of survival of young Blackbirds and the majority of the chicks do not survive.

Male Shiny Cowbird © Sharp Photography

On the other hand, Aves Argentinas witnessed many cases of nest predation by lizards, foxes, snakes and other animals that were decimating the colonies.

However, the most unexpected and worrying problem turned out to be the capture of Saffron-cowled Blackbirds for the illegal trafficking and trade of birds. Although scientists were aware that it was an illegally hunted species, they didn’t expect such an uncommon species to be affected so severely.

In the few weeks of field work, the team suffered at least four intrusions from “trappers”. In one of these occasions they were able to register what had happened, but were unable to avoid the capture of several specimens.

Luckily they identified the vehicles and filed a criminal complaint to the Fiscal Unit of Environmental Research (UFIMA). In the rest of the cases the Colony Guardians were able to act in time, managing in one instance to free the captured animals. The strong cooperation of provincial and municipal authorities, as well as of local police forces proved to be essential.

The presence of volunteers is effective to deter poachers © Aves Argentinas

The more the merrier: help us succeed

Of all the nests guarded until now, no more than ten fledglings managed to succeed. It is a number that is too low to avoid the extinction of the species for the time being which means the work must continue.

In 2015 Aves Argentinas worked to raise awareness with residents and landowners, who kindly assisted and showed interest. It’s expected that throughout 2016 this will become a fundamental aspect of their work as their support is essential to save these birds from the brink. The work undertaken by Alianza del Pastizal and by rural societies is also of critical importance.

Raising public awareness will be essential as the project continues © Aves Argentinas

Aves Argentinas expressed to be very happy with the work achieved this season but they know that the hardest part lies ahead. The Saffron-cowled Blackbird Project (Proyecto Tordo Amarillo) is beginning and we invite you to join them!

 

 

*This project was only possible thanks to the collaboration of the following organizations: Aves Argentinas, CONICET, Alianza del Pastizal (Grassland Alliance), the Conservation Land Trust, the group Aves Gualeguaychu, Banco de Bosques, Aves Virasoro and the Bird Observation Clubs of the NEA affiliated with Aves Argentinas (Guirá Pirá, Churrinche, Garza Blanca, Santo Tomé y Carau, San Lorenzo reserve  ‘El Potrero’ and the local authorities.

 

** Nearly all colonies and nests were found within Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA), namely: Cuenca del Río Aguapey, Perdices  and Ñandubaysal-El Potrero. The first two are categorized as IBAs in Danger by BirdLife International.