Systemic Barriers Hinder Bird Research, Say 124 Latin American Ornithologists

A new preprint from scientists across the region asserts that advances in neotropical ornithology will require a stronger commitment to inclusion.
María Gabriela Núñez Montellano holds a White-fronted Woodpecker, a small black and white bird with a long beak.
María Gabriela Núñez Montellano, an author on the paper and research scientist at the Institute of Regional Ecology in Argentina, holding a White-fronted Woodpecker. Photo: John Blake

When Lourdes Mugica Valdés was finishing her master’s thesis with fieldwork in Cuba in 1992, she lost 70 pounds. Due to the Cuban economic crisis, there was little food to eat. One day, she says, the only calories her team could find near the bird communities they were monitoring was a bottle of wine. The cars they relied on would often break down. Sometimes, they had to bike.

Nevertheless, Mugica Valdés collected her data, finished her degree, and went on to complete her PhD. Now a professor at the University of Havana, Mugica Valdés is one of 124 ornithologists from the neotropics—a region that includes Latin America and the Carribean—co-authoring a new paper highlighting the many systemic barriers that ornithologists in the neotropics continue to face. While, they say, they have a wealth of knowledge and data to share, their contributions are often ignored by the global scientific community—specifically, scientists in North America and Europe. 

The preprint, which will be published as a peer-reviewed paper in Ornithological Applications this fall, was written in response to a 2020 article by ornithologist Alexander Lees and his co-authors. Lees’ article, published in ornithological journal The Auk identified a number of gaps, or “shortfalls,” in the field of neotropical ornithology, including a "lack of basic natural history knowledge” among ornithologists. The coming rebuttal argues that these gaps named by Lees and his co-authors are in part a result of the exclusion of Latin American scientists from the global discourse in the field. “Knowledge—and knowledge gaps—look different depending on where we are standing, our lived experiences, and what we perceive to be our objectives,” reads the preprint’s introduction. 

Removing the barriers that Latin American scientists face, as well as “increasing reliance on local leadership and major investment in local capacity,” says Mugica Valdés, is the key to not only advancing knowledge in the field of neotropical ornithology, but also improving outcomes for birds. 

“I congratulate these authors for pointing out the elephant in the room,” says Jorge Velásquez, Audubon’s science director for Latin America and the Caribbean. Though Velásquez was not involved in the writing of the paper, he says he has personally experienced the issues raised in the preprint, and that his extensive body of work has often been ignored in favor of citing English-language articles on the same subject.

According to the preprint's authors, Lees’ 2020 article followed a similar trend: Of more than 150 citations, the paper cited literature from only three of the numerous ornithological journals based in the neotropics, and all six of its co-authors were primarily affiliated with institutions in North America and Europe. That’s a problem, the Latin American scientists write, because it suggests that advances in neotropical ornithology are primarily led by scientists foreign to the neotropics.

Lourdes Mugica Valdés looks through a spotting scope in a rice field.
Lourdes Mugica Valdés, a professor at the University of Havana, monitoring birds in Sur del Jibaro rice paddies. Photo: Martin Acosta Cruz

Lees, who worked as a postdoc at the Goeldi Museum in Brazil for five years, says that through his whole career he’s tried to build relationships with Latin American scientists and has worked with neotropical scientists often. He also says he’s cited a large amount of work from Latin American ornithologists in his own papers, and that the 2020 paper is one of just three he’s ever written about the neotropics that hasn’t featured a neotropical scientist as a co-author.

The criticisms raised by the preprint, he says, are fair enough. “I have to take responsibility for that,” he says. In response to the critique about citations, he adds that he often cites papers by neotropical authors published in journals that are “as good” as those his global north colleagues publish in, such as Science, Nature, and Science Advances

However, says National Autonomous University of Mexico Professor and author on the paper Leopoldo Vázquez, citations are not always synonymous with inclusion. “To cite a few of the relevant authors and then indicate that there are huge gaps in the knowledge neglects that there are groups of people doing this work in [Latin America],” he says. 

Kristina Cockle, an author on the preprint and a Canadian ornithologist who has lived and worked in Argentina for the last 20 years, says that the new paper was not meant to attack Lees or his co-authors, but that Lees’ article was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Bias and birdwatching

Specifically, says Cockle, one of the propositions in the Lees article—the wider adoption of community science initiative eBird and subsequent analysis of eBird data by neotropical researchers—is less realistic for Latin American ornithologists, and, in some cases, she says, “overwhelmingly benefit and are relevant to” researchers in North America and Europe.

Run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is an online catalog of bird sightings that anyone can contribute to and study. But Cockle says lack of computing power and the need for expensive data-analyzing software can make using eBird data difficult for scientists based in the neotropics. And while eBird makes it easy to study population-level trends, like bird distribution across a landscape or bird abundance, the format doesn’t help to include the natural history knowledge that many local neotropical scientists know, says Vázquez.

Lourdes Mugica Valdés holds a West Indian Whistling Duck standing on a table indoors.
Lourdes Mugica Valdés with a West Indian Whistling Duck, a Caribbean endemic and threatened bird, during an environmental educational campaign for wetlands and bird conservation. Photo: Martin Acosta Cruz

The eBird platform, he says, is mainly geared toward birdwatchers, who tend to be foreign to the neotropics. Moreover, Latin American scientists and traditional knowledge-holders don’t always interact with birds in the way North American birders, who list and seek out specific species, often might. As a result, he says, science focused on eBird data might miss knowledge held by local scientists. 

“I don't think it's the panacea for the neotropics that many in the Global North assume it to be,” says Cockle.

The biases involved in birdwatching affects Latin American ornithologists in other ways too. In fact, Vázquez, an expert on neotropical birds, says he was unable to share his knowledge at an annual birdwatching festival in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico because the event only accepted speakers fluent in English. “It’s disrespectful and it’s ironic,” he says. 

Difficulties also arise when Latin American ornithologists are expected to produce the same kinds of datasets as North American or European ornithologists, as the technology used to do that can be expensive or impossible to get into some Latin American countries. 

For example, many ornithologists across the world use Motus towers to track birds and learn about migration and bird distribution. While Latin American scientists can tag birds using the Motus system, they can’t know where birds are traveling in Latin America because there are far fewer Motus towers in neotropical countries than there are in North America. On-the-ground fieldwork in Latin America could fill this gap in data, says Cockle, but that work is less supported since such research doesn’t use Motus tower infrastructure and also requires more logistical support

Another barrier raised by the authors is that North American and European ornithologists often lean on Latin American scientists as logistical support during fieldwork, and then fail to include the Latin American scientists in the full research process. Lees says he understands this to be a problem, too. 

“Treat us like colleagues, not like field assistants,” says Mugica Valdés.

Seeking solutions

Making these changes, say Cockle and Vázquez, will require long-term investment into Latin American research networks and an inclusion of local perspectives into every part of the research process. Mugica Valdés would like to see researchers from North America and Europe who study neotropical birds “make an effort to learn about the idiosyncrasies of the places where they work, the local needs for research and conservation, [and] the language.” 

Other practical changes, like increasing the diversity of geographical representation and gender in editorial bodies of scientific journals, in professional societies, in invitations to lectures or plenary sessions at scientific meetings, and in academic prizes, are “essential” to building scientific knowledge fairly, says María Gabriela Núñez Montellano, an author on the paper and research scientist at the Institute of Regional Ecology in Argentina.

“I often hear from people and scientists in North America that they actually don't know anybody from Latin America," Cockle says. “We have a paper here with 124 authors, who are all ornithologists from Latin America. Google them, read their work.”

After all, greater inclusion of Latin American scientists can improve outcomes for birds. “Beyond inclusion as an ethical goal, including perspectives from marginalized groups in field sciences help us to develop concepts, approaches, and epistemological tools that cause new and interesting advances in the knowledge of birds,” says Núñez Montellano.