25 Feb 2020

Can traditional ranching revival reverse Saffron-cowled Blackbird collapse?

The pampas grasslands are one of South America’s most iconic landscapes – but less than half of them remain. Because of this, the Saffron-cowled Blackbird was moved to Endangered in the latest Red List update. Could a revival of centuries-old farming techniques be the solution?

 Nesting grounds are being run over by machinery or trampled by cattle © Inés Pereda
Nesting grounds are being run over by machinery or trampled by cattle © Inés Pereda
By Jessica Law

Every year, the Saffron-cowled Blackbird Xanthopsar flavus just wants to do what any other animal wants to do: find a mate, make a nest and raise the next generation. But today, even something as simple as finding a safe place to breed is getting harder and harder. In the past century, 50–70% of South America’s natural grassland has been destroyed, much of it given over to intensive agriculture. Consequently, this colourful marshland bird’s range has dwindled to a handful of separate sites across Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay.

Recent fieldwork in Argentina has shown a sharp decline in all known populations. Its habitat is becoming scattered and fragmented as natural wetlands are drained, land converted to monoculture crops or livestock farming, and non-native Eucalyptus trees planted for timber. As their natural home is carved up and exposed, entire colonies are run over by harvesting machines or trampled by herds of cows. Even more worryingly, none of the surviving birds are found within protected areas. Instead, they are often pushed towards one of the few areas that have not yet been taken over by humans: roadsides. Here, however, they are exposed to a more calculated human threat: trapping for the illegal pet trade.

The species is popular in the illegal pet trade due to its vivid plumage © Inés Pereda

Field researchers report that habitats have become so fragmented that this sociable bird is now increasingly forced to nest in isolated pairs rather than their natural colony structure. As if things couldn’t get any worse, these small, exposed populations are more at risk of nest parasitism by the Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis, whose cuckoo-like behaviour can cause the failure of entire broods. In one survey in Argentina, a shocking 63% of observed nests were found to be usurped by this common bird. Last year, we deemed it necessary to uplist the species from Vulnerable to Endangered.

It’s clear that urgent action is needed – and thankfully, our Partners have already set the ball rolling. In 2015, Aves Argentinas started a volunteer Colony Guardian programme where dedicated local people watch over nests and fledglings to protect them from predators and bird trappers. Tackling the problem closer to its source, the Southern Cone Grassland Alliance, a collaboration between BirdLife Partners in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay, is sparking a revival of traditional cattle ranching across the Americas. This centuries-old nomadic farming technique keeps natural grassland intact and leaves areas undisturbed for long periods of time: a break that this besieged bird is desperately in need of.