How Training Secretive Birds Became a Boon for Tropical Forest Conservation

When a farming family in Ecuador “befriended” an elusive antpitta, they pioneered a new path for ecotourism.
A rust and gray-colored bird stands on a mossy surface and looks at the camera.
Maria the Giant Antpitta. Photo: Vinicio Paz

After hiking a mile through the cloud forest of southern Ecuador earlier this year, a group of other birders and I arrived at a bench beneath a trailside shelter. It faced a flat-topped, moss-covered rock at the edge of a thicket. Diego Velasques, our guide and a park guard at the Reserva Tapichalaca, removed a round plastic food carton from his bag, walked over to the rock, and scattered a few worms on its surface. 

He began to whistle, and then called urgently: “Venga! Venga! Venga!”— Come! Come! Come! He went on like this for a minute, then stopped and smiled at us. Soon, a water balloon of a bird, gray with a black cap and white cheeks, skittered up a log behind the rock, peeked up over it, then climbed on top to eat the worms.

Standing before us was a Jocotoco Antpitta, one of Ecuador’s rarest birds, one not even described to science until 1999 and still known from only a few localities. Specifically, this bird was Panchito, who Velasques had named, trained, and commanded out into the open as if beckoning his pet dog.

Antpittas are a family of birds notorious for their elusiveness, occasionally heard yet rarely seen, even by expert birders. They were rarely seen, that is. In 2005, on a family farm some 300 miles north of Panchito’s stomping grounds, brothers Angel and Rodrigo Paz were the first to train the birds, luring them into view with worms. Since then, the practice has spread, allowing birders to see antpittas across the neotropics. Today, antpittas with names like Maria, Shakira, and Rob emerge for visitors to ecolodges and reserves in Ecuador, Colombia, and other countries. And while habituating to humans can have unfortunate consequences for birds, experts see no major ethical concerns in this case, noting that growing ecotourism demand—driven in part by the increased ease of seeing elusive tropical birds like antpittas—can help to conserve threatened species in South America and beyond. 

The Paz brothers grew up on their farm in the mountains northwest of Quito. Among the customers for their produce was the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve and Lodge, a private retreat popular with wildlife watchers. A friend of theirs working at the lodge commented on how successful it was, and asked Angel (pronounced Ahhn-hel) whether there were interesting birds on the Paz property—perhaps the Paz family could make money by hosting birders. Angel’s mind went to the Andean Cocks-of-the-Rock, bright-orange birds with black and silver wings and a crest like a chicken’s comb, who regularly gathered in the forest on his property. 

Angel returned home and told Rodrigo, who gathered their large family to ask whether they could bring tourists from Bellavista to see the birds for pay. The family agreed, and for 4 days, 12 hours a day, the brothers cut a trail to the cock-of-the-rock lek, a communal area where males gather to vie for females’ attention. Bellavista’s co-owner Richard Parsons came to visit, and was impressed by the quality of the forest and the view of the competing birds. He began bringing tours from his lodge to see the lek. 

One day, while Rodrigo was maintaining the pathway to the lek, he noticed a bird—rotund, rust-colored, with a gray cap and no tail—eating worms on the trail. He told his brother and, the next day, Angel started tossing worms to the spot where the bird had appeared. While Rodrigo led Bellavista tourists to the cocks-of-the-rock, Angel attempted to befriend the bird. He called out to the bird as he fed it, and dressed in a camouflage-print military jacket so it wouldn’t see him and get scared. 

On a visit to the farm, Parsons, who is knowledgeable about the local birds, was shocked to see hopping along the trail a Giant Antpitta, a rare bird found only in the Andean cloud forest in northern Ecuador and southern Colombia. 

Stand still, he said to Angel, that’s a very rare bird.

Don’t worry, Paz replied, that bird is my friend. 

“That’s when we realized how important this bird was to the area,” Angel Paz tells me through a translator. 

Birders, bird guides, and scientists from around the world have since come to visit the Paz’s verdant property, now Refugio Paz de las Aves, for the unique experience of seeing Maria—named after Angel’s wife as thanks for allowing him to turn the farm into an ecotourism destination—and other Giant Antpittas. Angel and Rodrigo have worm-trained five antpitta species, plus other sought-after skulkers like the Ocellated Tapaculo and the Rufous-breasted Antthrush, all at the same reserve.

Antpittas have a knack for staying hidden, even when they sound like they’re right next to you. “Friends and I used to joke about the curse of the antpitta,” says Kenn Kaufman, field editor at Audubon. So the thought of one visiting a feeder sounded laughable at first to Kaufman. When he visited the Paz property himself in 2006, he was blown away. “It seemed like a miracle. Angel really was this angel who’d come down from bird heaven to bless us with these antpittas.”

Kaufman and others say the practice has the potential to benefit these species and conservation more generally. Cloud forests make up one-half of 1 percent of the world’s land mass but harbor 15 percent of its species, including a variety of antpittas. These biodiversity hotspots are under pressure from deforestation and climate change. The same goes for other tropical forested habitats; the Amazon, which hosts antpittas as well, has lost around 17 percent of its original area in just the past half-century. And around a quarter of antpitta species are listed as either near-threatened, vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Perhaps these worm-trained antpittas could help. Research shows that ecotourism has the potential to benefit certain threatened species. And the desire for people to keep seeing the birds might encourage property owners to conserve their habitat rather than turn it to farmland, says Jorge Velásquez, Audubon’s science director for Latin America and the Caribbean. Thanks to Maria, the Paz family found it more profitable to keep their forest intact for visiting birders than to clear it for farmland. Plus, training a few antpittas to offer good looks may prevent birders from disturbing habitat in search of others. “There’s at least a good body of anecdotal evidence suggesting [antpitta feeding] may have some positive effect on the populations,” Velásquez says.

But habituating wild birds to regular feeding can be a controversial topic, and its potential impacts on individual antpittas is not clear. “There’s not really scientific evidence either way to say whether it has a bad effect,” Velásquez says. Angel Paz stresses that he tries to minimize any potential harmful effects. Over the years, he’s honed his process so that the bird will only approach humans in a place that’s sheltered from predators and away from main roads. He also makes sure to only feed the birds once per day so that they’re not reliant on humans for all of their meals. 

None of the sources I spoke to seemed to take issue with antpitta feeding. “I think the educational value outweighs the risks,” says Kaufman. “As long as it’s done in a responsible way, I think that bird feeding is a net-positive thing.”

Those benefits are reaching more places as word of Angel Paz’s success spreads across Latin America. Antpitta feeding has become a major attraction at a growing number of ecolodges, based on Paz’s teachings. After hearing about the techniques, famed naturalist Robert Ridgely invited Angel Paz to the Tapichalaca Reserve in southwestern Ecuador to train a few Jocotoco Antpittas. Ridgely hoped that worm-training the birds would stop birders from using recorded playback to lure the rare bird into the open. But the Paz brothers couldn’t leave their home—they had to take care of Maria. So instead, Franco Mendoza, Tapichalaca’s first park guard, spent a month at Refugio Paz de las Aves to learn the tricks.

Velasques, who called out Panchito for my group, began working at Tapichalaca in 2008 and helped Mendoza with feeding, and has since taken over as Panchito’s feeder. Every two days he walks down the road to a cattle pasture to dig up fresh worms. The work pays off; he’s become a local bird expert. There are indirect benefits, too: Visitors who come to see the Jocotoco antpitta also help fund the Fundación Jocotoco, the conservation organization that runs Reserva Tapichalaca. This allows the organization to buy more forest to protect threatened Andean species, while conserving watersheds and improving water quality for communities downslope from the reserve.

The practice has spread beyond Ecuador. For example, the Molina family in Colombia runs the El Encanto Reserva Ecoturistica, a reserve and ecolodge whose main attractions include Mike the Hooded Antpitta, Rob the White-bellied Antpitta, and Tom the Schwartz’s Antthrush. Their land began as a coffee farm and hostel for visitors to a nearby national park, but their conservation-minded practices earned them the designation of nature reserve in 2015. Birders began visiting, some with a keen interest in antpittas. The Molinas’ son Michael Antonio Molina Cruz knew there were antpittas on the property, so the family—having learned about Angel Paz on YouTube—decided to start feeding the birds.

“At first my parents didn’t think birdwatching was a great idea since it didn’t bring as much money as coffee,” says Molina Cruz. “But after a lot of work, birders began to arrive. Little by little my parents became convinced and now they are hardcore birders.” They still grow coffee, but at a smaller scale.

The idea has even spread beyond Latin America. Bird guides and ecolodge owners from the eastern hemisphere have visited to learn feeding techniques and find out whether they could train similarly skulky (and similarly-named, but unrelated) birds called pittas, says Angel Paz.

But just because someone has a worm-trained antpitta on their property doesn’t mean they’ll succeed in ecotourism. Even at Refugio Paz de las Aves, long-term success wasn’t a guarantee. Teresa Villafuerte, mother of the Paz siblings, passed away in 2020 and left the land to her nine children; aside from Angel and Rodrigo, the siblings hoped to sell the land to make money for their families. But a successful GoFundMe campaign raised enough money for the brothers to buy the land and make it a nature preserve in perpetuity. They recently signed an agreement with the Ecuadorian environmental ministry to create the Fundación Refugio Paz de las Aves. And their sons have learned how to summon antpittas, too, so they can continue their fathers’ legacy.

Angel and Rodrigo are proud to know that they’re motivating conservation and ecotourism efforts around the world. They’ve started traveling to conferences, talking to scientists about their projects, and showing others the importance of conserving their land.

Feeding antpittas has changed the trajectory of their lives. “Thanks to the birds I can fly, both literally and figuratively,” Rodrigo says. “I never would have flown on an airplane if it wasn’t for the birds.”