27 Jan 2020

Growing flowers to save a Critically Endangered hummingbird

Flitting through the mist in Ecuador’s high Andean forests, the Black-breasted Puffleg is running out of habitat. A forest restoration programme offers hope, working with local people to plant the species’ favourite flowers.

93% of the Black-breasted Puffleg's habitat has been altered or degraded © Murray Cooper
93% of the Black-breasted Puffleg's habitat has been altered or degraded © Murray Cooper
By Emilia Ulloa

When it comes to birdwatching, Ecuador is a lucky country. Although it occupies only 0.2% of the earth's surface, it houses around 130 species of hummingbird – that is, more than 35% of all the world's hummingbirds. Some are found nowhere else on the planet, including the Black-breasted Puffleg Eriocnemis nigrivestis. This Critically Endangered endemic lives 3,200 – 3,400 metres above sea level, amid the cold mist and drizzle of the high Andean forests. Its unique name comes from the white feathers that adorn its legs, similar to the rustic trousers worn by local people. This glossy, iridescent bird is truly miniscule, measuring 9cm at most.

The species is so iconic that in June 2005, it was declared the Emblematic Bird of the Metropolitan District of Quito (the capital city of Ecuador). The founding member of Aves y Conservación (BirdLife in Ecuador), Juan Manuel Carrión, strongly advocated for this recognition during his time as City Councillor. His intention was: “To make the species visible, to attract attention in a symbolic way and for the city to have a natural emblem embodied in a bird; as well as encouraging municipal participation in efforts to preserve it”.

This bird needs all the recognition it can get. Its population is estimated not to exceed 1000 individuals, spread across just two sites. One spans the northwestern slope of the Pichincha Volcano. The other was rediscovered in 2006 by the ornithologist Olaf Jahn in the Toisán Range, Imbabura province.

The puffleg inhabits mountainous forests over 3,000 metres above sea level © Juan Carlos Valarezo

These populations are encroached upon from all sides. 93% of the Black-breasted Puffleg’s habitat has been severely altered or degraded, through a combination of agricultural expansion, livestock farming, logging and coal mining. Another threat is climate change: rising temperatures interfere with the flowers they feeds on, and push habitat higher and higher up the mountainside – to the extent that one day, it may have nowhere left to go.

The interaction between hummingbirds and flowers is very special. They can visit more than 2500 flowers in one day, and are essential pollinators for high-altitude habitats such as the Andean forests, which are too cold for most insects and bats. Aves y Conservación realised this relationship was the key to conserving the species. In 2017, they obtained funding from the Swiss Federal Research Institute (WSL) to study plant-hummingbird interactions at Pichincha.

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This research, led by Prof. Catherine Graham of the WSL, used camera trap technology to discover the diet of the Black-breasted Puffleg and forty other species of High Andean hummingbird. “The cameras are used to record activity at the flowers... Then we used software to analyse the information and determine the network of plant-hummingbird interactions,” said Tatiana Santander of Aves y Conservación, who has studied the species for more than 20 years.

Together with the local community of Alambi (near Pichincha Volcano), and supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, they built a nursery cultivating 32 species of hummingbird-friendly flowers. This oasis of life is overseen by six local women who have propagated an astonishing 4,500 native plants to date. The plants are being used to restore and enrich degraded habitats, starting with 40 hectares of forest in Pichincha.

The local community has planted 4,500 native plants so far © Juan Carlos Valarezo

The next step is expand the project to the province of Imbabura, where Aves y Conservación is already building bonds with the local community. Preliminary research from our Young Conservation Leaders suggests unexplored high-altitude areas may turn out to house the largest known Black-breasted Puffleg population.

The latest lessons will be added to the 2020 update of the Black-breasted Puffleg Action Plan, originally published by Tatiana Santander and Olaf Jahn in 2008. Meanwhile, in Alambi nursery, each flower brings with it a new opportunity for the Black-breasted Puffleg.