US and Latin American Groups Join Forces to Protect Birds at Risk


For years, biologists of the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS) have been tracking the Bicknell's thrush, a rare songbird that nests in the cool mountain forests of the Northeast US and Maritime Canada. Two winters ago, their search for the wintering grounds of this furtive bird brought them to the Caribbean.

High in the remote Bahoruco Mountains of the Dominican Republic, the biologists found what they were looking for - a male thrush that had been banded only six months earlier, on Mt. Mansfield, Vermont, 2,000 miles away.

"It was a pretty amazing establishment of a direct link between the two areas," says Chris Rimmer, director of research at VINS. That discovery has led to another link - between VINS and Dominican birders, biologists, and conservation groups. They are collaborating on field research and on the launch of a broader bird-conservation movement in the Dominican Republic, where forests are rapidly disappearing.

This is only one example of the activities supported by an innovative international coalition called Partners in Flight (PIF). A nonprofit organization backed by federal and private funds, PIF was launched in 1990 in response to evidence of widespread declines in the populations of many migratory bird species.

The premise of PIF was that the traditional approach to conservation - single groups working independently - was not effective. "When you're talking about 350 species moving across two continents, one group can't do it," says Peter Stangel, head of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Initiative.

PIF seeks to combine the resources of organizations in Latin and North America. It forms partnerships among groups as diverse as the US Army and the Sierra Club, working on international, regional, and local levels to develop bird conservation plans for species that are not yet endangered, but increasingly at risk.

THE PIF "Flight Plan" begins with field research to enable scientists to prioritize those species most at risk. This is often done at a grass-roots level, with amateur birders participating in projects to monitor birds.

The next step is to set population and habitat objectives for each species. In the Lower Mississippi Valley, for example, several threatened species - among them the cerulean warbler and Swainson's warbler - depend on bottomland hardwood forests. Under PIF, Champion International, a major paper producer with vast forest holdings in the area, is funding a University of Tennessee research project on the cerulean warbler. "They are looking at where it is and its habitat use so we can fold that into our management of hardwood stands," says Jim Sweeney, wildlife manager for Champion and head of the PIF's corporate committee.

The third step is to develop conservation action plans. In some cases this may mean changing land-management practices in national forests and private lands to take birds into account, such as maintaining riparian corridors or grazing and burning programs that benefit prairie birds.

In Mexico and Central America, traditional shade-grown coffee plantations offer a forestlike environment for birds. But over the past 20 years, coffee producers have removed the forest canopy to grow coffee in full sun, boosting yields. Studies by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center show a resulting plummet in bird diversity.

With backing from PIF, the Tropical Rainforest Alliance is encouraging the production and marketing of shade-grown coffee, marked with an "ECO-OK" seal. "Just by changing coffee-drinking habits of a few people in North America, we can save migratory songbirds and help people in Latin America save habitat," says Chris Wille, the Costa Rican-based representative for the alliance.

Another effort is identifying sites on both continents that are important to rare species or large areas that can sustain healthy populations of birds. Though some of these areas are already reserves, "we have to make sure these parks are real and not paper parks," says Roberto Roca, who heads the Migratory Bird Initiative of the Nature Conservancy. The Conservancy's Wings of the Americas program is establishing partnerships between reserves in both hemispheres.

Finally, through events like International Migratory Bird Day, celebrated on the second Saturday in May, PIF is trying to raise awareness of the problem. The American Bird Conservancy and the Audubon Society are also reaching out to some 63 million Americans who watch and feed birds at home to get involved in everything from bird counts to habitat-conservation efforts.

"We have this incredible grass-roots uprising," says Mr. Stangel. "There's never been a more exciting time for bird conservation."

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