Saving the Pale-headed Brush-Finch

One of the world’s rarest birds recently passed a key milestone – the Pale-headed Brush-Finch was downlisted from Critically Endangered to Endangered on the IUCN Red List of globally threatened birds after more than a decade of sustained conservation action. I recently spoke with Daniel J. Lebbin, Ph.D., Conservation Biologist with the American Bird Conservancy (ABC).

American Bird Conservancy’s main priorities include focusing on birds that are highly endangered and have a highly restricted range. The organization also chairs the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE), Daniel told me. “AZE has identified birds (and other organisms) such as the pale-headed brush-finch that are very endangered and are 95% restricted to one last known site. The point of that is that if we were to lose that one site, then you would lose the species. So by identifying AZE sites, we’ve identified the line in the sand, the front line in the battle for conservation where we need to defend first against extinction.”

Photo: A. Somoza
Photo: A. Somoza

The Pale-headed Brush-Finch was one such bird that triggered an AZE ranking. “AZE began working with our partner, [Ecuador’s] Fundación Jocotoco, on this bird because we were all concerned about it,” Daniel continued. The reserve was established in 1999, and American Bird Conservancy has been involved with it for years.

Daniel has actually been to the Brush-Finch’s reserve. “It’s a very unusual place,” he commented. Whereas most brush finches live in cloud forests, “there are a few that live in drier forests in western South America, and this is one of them”. The landscape is like a humid enclave in an otherwise arid area. “And this bird is one of those that is just sort of on the edge of where forest or scrub can even grow.” The landscape is also degraded, which leaves little habitat for the bird. But the real problem, researchers found, was that their nests were being taken over by the more abundant cowbirds. “What they do is they fly in from the outside and search for the nests of these brush finches and lay their eggs in the nests. Sort of like an old world cuckoo. And then the parents will raise the cowbird chicks to the detriment of their own.”

So two major things were done, with ABC, World Land Trust – U.S.,  and other support. The land was purchased so it became a reserve, and the number of cowbirds was reduced. Similar to how they help endangered songbirds in the U.S.

So in a little over ten years, the Pale-headed Brush-Finch population has increased from fewer than 40 to over 100 pairs. While that is good news, the bird still has a small population and isn’t out of trouble yet. “The endangered status is still very significant and means that more work is needed to help protect this bird and people should not stop worrying about this bird. It basically means that we’re doing the right things. That this bird is now on a better trajectory, but we shouldn’t let up,” Daniel concluded.

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Alison Wheatley

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