23 Jul 2018

Back from the Dead? The Story of the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove.

Just three years ago, the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove was thought to be extinct. Then, after 75 years without a confirmed sighting, twelve individuals were found in the wild. But with such a small population, can the species be saved?

By Samantha Moreno and Daniela Paz

In June 2015 ornithologist Rafael Bessa was working on an environmental assessment along a stretch of cerrado (a savannah-like ecosystem) in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais when he heard a bird song he didn’t recognize. Perplexed, Bessa recorded the call and then played it back to see if he could draw the mystery bird out.

The tactic worked. Shortly after he played the recording, a dove-like bird Bessa had never seen before flew into view. Snapping a few pictures, Bessa saw the dove was small, with a tawny reddish body and several sapphire blue spots clustered on its wing. From the photographs, Bessa recognized the bird and was shocked. It was clearly a Blue-eyed Ground Dove Columbina cyanopis, a species that hadn’t been spotted since 1941, and was thought to be extinct.

The discovery rocked the ornithological world, and birders everywhere celebrated. Lurking behind the celebrations though, was a gaping question. After nearly a year of study, scientists had found only a dozen Blue-eyed Ground Doves. This meant the bird was in critical danger of extinction. With such a small population could the Blue-eyed Ground Dove be saved? Could the species be brought back from the brink of extinction? 

The biggest threat to the dove was habitat loss. After extensive surveys, conservationists had determined that the bird lived in an extremely limited region of the cerrado. Unfortunately, the cerrado is one of the most threatened biomes in the country. Industrial agriculture has been encroaching on the land at such a rapid rate that studies suggest it is second only to the Atlantic Rainforest in being impacted by vegetation loss and deforestation.

Additionally, the specific area of cerrado on which the Blue-eyed Ground Dove was found was private land, owned by an individual who hoped to prospect it for iron ore. Since 1999, Instituto Grande Sertão (a local NGO) had been working to try to covert the surrounding area (Espinhaco Ridge) — which is home to several endemics and nearly 2,000 species of plant, 300 types of bird, and mammals including maned wolf and giant anteaters — into a protected park.

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Along with the Rainforest Trust, SAVE Brasil (BirdLife Partner) began a fundraising campaign to buy the land where the Blue-eyed Ground Dove had been found. They also talked with local communities and the State Environmental agency, stressing the need for a protected area to conserve the bird and the unique ecosystem that is the cerrado.

Simultaneously, conservationists and scientists continued to study the dove. They could not capture it due to the rarity of the species, but they hoped that by observing its behavior they could identify places the dove lived and mating patters that would help with conservation.

In January of 2018, with the support of the Rainforest Trust, SAVE Brasil managed to buy the original plot of land where the dove was found, as well as much of the cerrado around it, forming the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove Nature Reserve. On 6th July, the Government of Minas Gerais also officially recognized another 89,000 acres as protected, creating the Botumirim State Park, which overlaps with SAVE’s reserve and enlarges the total protected area. Increased observations of the Blue-Eyed Ground Dove had led scientists to believe that there are roughly 15-20 individuals living in the wild, all individuals now under legal protection.

The Blue-eyed Ground-dove Nature Reserve is now open to the public. Visitors are allowed into the park to see the dove, provided they stay in small groups and are accompanied by a guide from Save Brasil. For the first time in nearly a century, the general public can see this rare bird.

SAVE Brasil, which is working with local communities on capacity building and ecotourism, hopes that one day those communities themselves will oversee tourism at the park.

“It is very important that the local community profits from the surrounding biodiversity without losing it,” Albert Aguiar, Project Coordinator for SAVE Brasil said. “We expect that in the near future the community will manage tourism activities. We believe that birdwatching will be a great attraction in the park.”

In May, rangers in the park found something of great interest. Five Blue-Eyed Ground Dove nests were recorded, along with eggs. It’s not enough to guarantee that the Blue-eyed Ground Dove will recover, but it’s a great sign of hope for a species that, just three years ago, was thought to be gone forever.

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