As Threats to Chile’s Birds Grow, a New Strategy Promises Stronger Protections

Advocates are optimistic that the just-launched bird conservation framework will catch on throughout Latin America.

As birds leave their North American breeding grounds each fall, some stop in Central America, others continue on to the Amazon Basin, but others go further still. About 40 species—Hudsonian Godwits, Whimbrels, Willets, Elegant Terns, Red Knots, and more—journey to Chile from as far away as California, New England, and Alaska. There they bask along some 4,000 miles of coastline and feed in rich wetlands and fisheries supported by the nutrient-loaded Humboldt Current. 

Now, these long-distance migrants and the rest of Chile’s avifauna will have stronger protections. On January 20, Chile’s undersecretary of the environment signed a new National Strategy for the Conservation of Birds, which—while not a law—offers a concrete plan through 2030 for both assessing the status of Chilean birds and protecting them across species and habitats. “This is the first step towards establishing bird conservation as a national priority,” says Javiera Ferreyra, the Chile country director for Audubon Americas. And it’s not only an encouraging development for Chile’s birds, experts say, but one that could provide a template for other countries.

Chile previously had no national bird conservation policy. Existing protections were limited to a few species or places, says Tomás Altamirano, an ecologist and the project coordinator for the new strategy through the Chilean Ministry of the Environment.

One of the strategy’s goals is to fill gaps in scientific knowledge of the country’s birds—and to identify and protect critical habitat—through nationwide avian research and monitoring. It also includes plans for enforcing environmental protections, promoting sustainable development, and establishing management programs for every guild of birds across the country’s varied ecosystems.  

The bird-focused policy isn’t just new for Chile, it’s also the first of its kind for any nation in Central or South America, says Matthew Jeffery, deputy director of Audubon Americas: “Most of the countries I've worked in, plans don’t exist in this in this sort of comprehensive manner. And there definitely hasn’t been as much engagement from the government elsewhere as we’ve seen in Chile.”

That sort of engagement is important, advocates say, because protecting habitats in Latin America is essential for conserving bird biodiversity. Colombia alone hosts more than 2,000 species, more than any other country. Chile has fewer species, with more than 500 reliant on the nation’s habitats at some point in their life cycle. But many of those birds are unique to the region, and “22 percent are either nationally, internationally, or globally threatened,” Altamirano says.

As ornithologically important as the region is, Chile’s birds remain understudied, says Ivo Tejeda, director of La Red de Observadores de Aves y Vida Silvestre de Chile (ROC), a local nonprofit conservation group that was involved in the strategy’s development. There’s a lack of resources available for avian research in the country, particularly for the birds that don’t travel to North America, Tejeda says.

Even without extensive monitoring, Tejeda says it’s already obvious that birds there are under threat. Urbanization, coastal development, commercial fishing, agriculture, and mining have intensified over the past decades. Tejeda describes watching healthy ecosystems shrink and, without knowing exactly how the bird population is responding, feeling “sure it must be declining” in many places.

The limited research to date supports his view. In one study, ecologists found that temperate rainforest habitat in southern Chile declined by nearly 40 percent between 2000 and 2014. Tejeda was among the authors of another study that identified 17 seabird species off the country’s coast that are drawn away from their foraging and breeding habitat by artificial lights, which can lead to the birds being disoriented, and sometimes injured or killed.

Almost two years of collaborative effort went into the development of the new strategy, Altamirano says. Government officials, scientists, agriculture and industry groups, the general public, and conservation NGOs like Audubon Americas—which is helping to fund implementation of the strategy—all helped to shape the policy. “We had more than 2,000 people that, at some point, said something about it,” Altamirano says. He believes these alliances will help ensure that the strategy is implemented to its full potential.

The cooperative process is already offering a framework for other countries. A related collective effort, initiated by Audubon Americas, is underway in Colombia, where a national strategy is set to be rolled out in early spring. “Then we’ll hopefully be working with partners in Panama, and eventually Mexico, to work on similar initiatives,” Jeffery says. 

Chile’s process could also yield lessons for the United States, says Erik Schneider, policy manager at Audubon. “I do think that providing a more comprehensive strategy for bird conservation in the U.S. could provide a lot of benefits,” he says. “You’ve got state plans, and you’ve got different federal strategies. But I think a more consistent, coordinated approach is needed.”

Chile’s new strategy for bird conservation comes amid wider political change and activism in the country. More than a year of nationwide protests for better social and environmental conditions have resulted in an ongoing overhaul of the country’s 42-year-old constitution and the election of its youngest-ever president, Gabriel Boric, who campaigned on addressing climate change and the biodiversity crisis.

The program is one of the last policies being implemented by current president Sebastián Piñera’s outgoing administration before Boric takes office on March 11. Yet, there is optimism that the new political wave will carry bird conservation forward, too. “We’re working on moving this strategy forward from this administration to the next one,” Altamarino says. “This is not only about birds, this about human well-being. If birds and biodiversity are healthy, we are.”