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What the birds have taught me

The Aquicuana Reserve, with its many species of Amazonian flora and fauna, is a haven for birdwatching and research in Bolivia. So far, we have recorded 285 bird species in the Reserve, including first registers for certain species in this region of Bolivia. We still have many more to be identified. Just this past weekend I had the chance to join an international group of Brazilian and British ornithologists for an afternoon at the Reserve, spending 3 hours walking a forest trail. In just that short time we identified 4 new species to add to our checklist of recorded birds. Armed with their many decades of field experience with Neotropical birds, their keen ears immediately identified dozens of species at such a rapid pace I had trouble keeping up at some points. They pointed out the importance of listening for bird vocalizations in the field, as they identify around 75-90% of the birds by sound.

Entering the Aquicuana Reserve forest trail.

How did I start birdwatching?

There is plenty that I miss as I still look for birds mostly by sight. I didn’t start birding seriously until I got to Bolivia last year, armed with a new pair of binoculars and a small guidebook. I had much to learn – how could I have known, for instance, that there are entire families of flycatchers, many of whom look virtually identical to the untrained eye! For some of them, it is still a difficult task to ID them even with the bird in hand. The feeling of triumph when I confidently ID-ed a hummingbird would soon turn to doubt when I found out that there were several other similar-looking species. So I learned fast, reading up on as many birds as I could in my spare time. Birdwatching requires precision, agility, plenty of homework and experience.

An ornithologist recording bird vocalizations on the Aquicuana Reserve forest trail

A way to regain our connection to the land and nature around us

The birds have plenty to teach us, especially when it comes to conservation. In habitats and ecosystems they are indicators of community and environmental health and by extension the health of the people living there.

I did not fully grasp the stakes at hand until I became more attuned with the birds and the rhythms of the land. Watching the same birds fly over the same patch of sky or visit the same trees at the same time everyday, or how they change their habits from the wet to dry seasons, I began to understand how intimately we share their world and how disconnected from it most of us have become. We are stewards of the land – and what a great privilege that is! If the birds (and other wildlife) were to disappear, it would mean that the land would not be tenable for people to live on it either. In the worst case scenario, forests once teeming with wildlife would turn into barren landfills. Forests cleared for industrial agriculture would, in a matter of a decade or two, become too polluted by pesticides and chemicals (a problem which already plagues Bolivia and many other countries), the land no longer arable and water too polluted for even their farmers to live on, driving inhabitants away.

Corporations and governments are adept at writing away the human costs of development and environmental destruction, measuring value in how much of it can be destroyed – people who’ve lost their homes can be “relocated”, perhaps they switch occupations or become industrial farmers. Those in power can point to trickle-down economics or the increased number of machinery, pesticides or consumption of packaged/processed foods as proof of a higher standard of living.

The birds, on the other hand, do not get prosperous. They do not hold dollar bills in their beaks. They die out along with the loss of their habitats, where they live, feed, pollinate, raise their offspring and play a critical role in a sensitive ecosystem and food chain. There is no alternative PR story that can be spun from this loss.

Without conservation, we lose the wealth and richness that comes from their very existence

It is difficult to describe in words what exactly this richness is – words like “biodiversity” are still a tad too distant. Even the fact that we have a word for “nature” implies that we are separate from it, as though it is something that exists outside of us. The thing is, we have always been interconnected, for better and for worse. Without them, we would not be able to exist either. Indeed, this heritage has always existed in the communities here, who have age-old names for these birds, animals and plants. They have always been important, for hunting, livelihoods and other purposes.

If I had to pick a favorite bird, it would be the Piciformes order of birds, which include woodpeckers, toucans, jacamars and others. The woodpeckers and toucans can look disarmingly human-like, with their bright eyes, large heads and beaks giving them a certain stoic and permanently-surprised expression as they squawk and pound away at tree trunks without much care for the humans standing below them. My affinity for birds is not just something scientific, it is also a spiritual connection. For me, to behold a beautiful bird is to encounter something almost divine. When I whisper a bird’s name after it, it becomes a small thing known in a world filled with many unknowns, my connection to a world much larger than myself.

A pair of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers in the Aquicuana Reserve

Last week I rose early in the morning and headed to a nearby swampy lake in the forest. Just as I arrived a group of four Chestnut-eared Aracaris soared silently across the lake ahead of me. Those few seconds stretched on for much longer as I watched them in awe, their bold red chest bands illuminated by the sun as they flapped their wings determinedly and carefree through the sky. With diagonal black and yellow lines on their large, curved beaks, they looked like they were smiling. I smiled back.

A Chestnut-eared Aracari. (Photo credit: Vincent Vos/CC BY-NC)

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