Conservation

A Miraculous Discovery Near Medellín Yields Insight on a Mysterious Songbird

Conservationists recently discovered a Colombian brush-finch only known by museum specimens. Now they’re racing to save it from habitat loss.

On a Sunday morning in January last year, Rodolfo Correa Peña was strolling to mass in San Pedro de los Milagros, just outside the city of Medellín, Colombia, when he noticed a bushy, black-and-gray bird in a backyard garden.

San Pedro de los Milagros translates to “Saint Peter of Miracles” and rightfully so. The rusty-crowned creature Correa Peña discovered was an Antioquia Brush-finch, a species never identified in the wild prior to his unexpected encounter. The sparrow had only been identified in 2007 from specimens collected in the 1970s. They were mislabeled as Slaty Brush-finches.

Correa Peña, an engineering student at a local university, was able to identify the bird thanks to a study he’d read while teaching himself about the local birds. Noting the potential impact of his discovery, he reached out to Sergio Chaparro-Herrera, a biologist from Universidad Pedagógica, Bogota, who accompanied Correa Peña back into the field.

The duo quickly relocated the bird, much to Chaparro-Herrera’s amazement. He’d been searching for the species for years, he says through a translator, and had never expected it to turn up in a suburban backyard.

Soon after, Chaparro-Herrera organized a four-person research team to find more Antioquia Brush-finches and glean a better understanding of their habitat, diet, nesting behavior, song, and ancestry. The group has been wildly successful so far: In the past year, it’s traced the once-mysterious species back to multiple locations throughout the region. By observing and temporarily trapping and tagging some individuals, the team has also determined that the bird prefers scrubby, short habitat and is likely restricted to the plateau of Santa Rosa de Osos in northern Colombia. What’s more, Chaparro-Herrera and his colleagues believe it’s more closely related to the Yellow-breasted Brush-finch, which also resides in the area, rather than the Slaty Brush-finch as initially thought.

The Antioquia Brush-finch is classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with fewer than 50 birds estimated in the wild. But researchers still need to gather more information on the species—and make it accessible to locals—before a conservation plan can be set. “When people don't know that there's a population in existence, we can't do anything about it to conserve it,”  says Daniel Lebbin, the vice president of threatened species for the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), which is assisting in the efforts. “If the brush-finch wasn't rediscovered, chances are all the habitat where we know it is would be lost. Now we might have a chance to save some of it.”

The biggest threat to the species is habitat transformation, says ABC’s Deputy Director of International Programs Wendy Willis; its native brush habitat around Medellín has been cleared out by dairy farmers, making the landscape look like a golf course, she adds. So, to save what’s left of the brush-finch’s home, she and her nonprofit peers are working to found a reserve on the plateau, full of the scrub that the bird so prefers. Willis hope they’ll acquire the necessary acres by the end of this year.

While ABC firms up a land deal with Colombian authorities, Chaparro-Herrera is focused on educating locals on his findings. “One of the first steps with this sort of outreach is to let the people know that there's this really rare and unique endemic bird that only occurs in their community,” Willis says. This can help start conversations with dairy farmers on bird-friendly practices, such as planting trees and renewing soil nutrients.

The brush-finch, Chaparro-Herrera says, is “one part of a chain”—losing it could be detrimental to the area's ecosystem overall. What’s more, the species reflects a larger problem in a declining group of Latin American birds. Brush-finches are among the most diverse genuses in the tropical Andes, an area heavily threatened by deforestation, mining, and the dairy, coffee, and cocoa industries. As a result, many varieties have seen steep declines in recent years. Take the the Pale-headed Brush-finch: Similar to the Antioquia Brush-finch, it had not been seen in Ecuador for almost 30 years until it was rediscovered in 1998. After more than a decade of habitat-based conservation efforts by ABC and others, the species climbed past 200 individuals in the wild. It’s currently considered endangered but continues to be on the upswing thanks to a firm action and monitoring plan.

Willis would like to see a similar success story for the Antioquia Brush-finch. She and ABC are prioritizing work around the bird and made sure to include it in a rare-species report for the Americas last week. “It's just a matter of getting on the ground and linking patches of fragmented brush to other patches,” she says. “The brush-finch could rebound if we act quickly.”  

Chaparro-Herrera echoes that optimistic perspective. Now that more Colombians are aware of the songbird’s existence, he says it’s time to think creatively and concretely on how the species can be saved from extinction.  

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