Endangered Foreign Birds to Come Under Fed's Wing

Lawsuit forces Fish and Wildlife Service to take action on endangered species.

ByABC News
August 10, 2009, 11:23 AM

Aug. 12, 2009— -- Thirty-one of the world's most-imperiled bird species -- whose fly-zones range from Peru to Colombia to Spain to India to the South Molucca Islands of Indonesia -- almost ended up in U.S. federal court recently.

But they've been spared their day on the docket -- at least for now.

The Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently reached a settlement that forces the service to clear out its backlog and get moving toward adding 31 foreign bird species to the Endangered Species List. Some of the petitions to list these birds date back to 1980, others to 1991.

The settlement stems from a June lawsuit the center filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming the service had violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to meet mandated deadlines regarding these petitions, even though it had determined the species warranted listing.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service has spent the better part of two decades making recycled petition findings that these species continue to warrant listing, but that their listing is precluded by other priorities," said Jacki Lopez, a staff attorney with the environmental group that filed the suit.

It was the third lawsuit the center had filed on behalf of these 31 species in seven years.

"We have a listing priority we assign to species," said Nicole Alt, acting division chief for conservation classification for the endangered species program. "Based on that number, we try to make expeditious progress. The program that's overseeing foreign species had higher priority obligations, and just recently was able to free up additional dollars to start to work on these."

The settlement compels the Fish and Wildlife Service to take the required procedural steps -- whose deadlines it had missed in the past -- to protect all 31 species on a rolling timeline that ends Dec. 29, 2009.

It could still be another year and a half before all 31 beleaguered birds take their place on the U.S. Endangered Species List, said Lopez.

Here, from two continents, are six of their stories.

A large, mainly black iridescent game bird that measures about 3 feet and stands on pinkish legs, the blue-billed curassow has a hanging wattle and curled black crest feathers that it "flips up like an umbrella," much the way a peacock displays its tail feathers, said Paul Salaman, director of conservation at World Land Trust U.S., who has studied the bird for 12 years.

"The males give a very deep low hooting sound that reverberates through the forest for great distances," Salaman said. "You can feel it in your chest before you hear it and, basically, hunters will track it down."

Listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List, the blue-billed curassow at one time had a range that stretched for 41,197 square miles across northern and central Colombia, "over entire humid lowlands ... all the way to Antioquia to the Sierra Nevada to the Caribbean coast and all the way down the Magdalena Valley," Salaman said.

Today, its range is about 807 square miles, and its natural habitat is about 98 to 99 percent lost, said Salaman, having given way to cattle grazing, clearing for timber, agriculture and illegal cocaine cultivation.

"Cocaine is a big threat, because it finishes off the forest," said Salaman.

Its stronghold is in the small mountain range of Las Quinchas, specifically in the El Paujil Bird Reserve, about 100 miles north of Bogota.

Estimates of how many remain range from 1,000 to 2,000, although Salaman believes the number is closer to 250.

Another once common Colombian game bird now living in reduced circumstances, the Cauca guan, like the blue-billed curassow, has lost about 95 percent of its living area in the past 50 years, mainly to deforestation, especially in the Cauca Valley -- a key strip for agriculture between the central and western Andes.

Preferring large, humid, tropical primary forest, the Cauca guan must now make due with "fragmented and isolated secondary forest remnants, forest edges and plantations of exotic Chinese ash trees," according to a 2005 study in Bird Conservation International.

Not quite as large as the blue-billed curassow, the Cauca guan comes with a thin neck and small head and a bright red wattle, or dewlap, set amid dull brown-gray feathers.

Its raucous, honking call has made it a target for hunters, even in some of its protected areas, reports Bird Life International.

"Let's put it this way," Salaman said. "This is a large chicken" that provides a major source of protein for the local population.

Red listed as endangered, the Cauca guan has fared slightly better than the critically endangered blue-billed curassow, which is much more terrestrial and so much more open to attack by predators.

The 7.28-inch ash-gray Peruvian plantcutter, with white-tipped wings and a reddish-brown band down its belly, has a raspy, mechanical-sounding call that has been compared to the sound of a rusty hinge moving back and forth.

True to its name, it feasts on leaves, especially from algarrobo, or mesquite, trees in the prized Proscopis family, and on shrubs that grow in the coastal deserts of Peru, using its rounded serrated beak to cut through the foliage.

Like its other Red Listed brethren, its living under constrained circumstances in a severely fragmented environment. "It's like islands of habitat," said Fernando Angulo Pratolongo, a threatened birds area officer for Bird Life International's Peru program.

The plantcutter has its stronghold around the port city of Talara, a region in the heart of Peru's oil industry that runs along the Pan American highway, and holds 60 to 80 percent of the plantcutter population, or 400 to 600 birds.

Other sites are found farther south in Rafan, although that area has partly given way to sugarcane production, and in small forest remnants around Chiclayo in the Lambayeque region. The Bosque de Pomac, a somewhat protected area with a dense forest, is the newest site for the plantcutter.

But agriculture, burning, goat grazing and timber cutting have done their work on the plantcutter's home. "Finding spots with decent, diverse and relatively undisturbed forest is increasingly harder," said Jeremy Flanagan, a conservation biologist who founded ProAves Peru, an organization that works to preserve Peru's bird life.

Demands on the algarrobo tree, to provide firewood and charcoal, are continually growing, from meeting the demands of the country's grilled-chicken restaurants to a more menacing threat coming in the form of giant squid.

"No, they don't come out of the sea to eat the plantcutters," said Flanagan. "They take the waste of the squid, caught in the port of Talara, by truckload into the middle of the forest where they are boiled down to produce fish meal. The wood from the forest supplies the fuel."

With its striking colors and straight black bill, this 3-inch hummingbird makes up in vividness what it lacks in size -- and recognition. Considered rare and uncommon, the Esmeraldas woodstar, whose call is a rapid-fire chit-cheet and chit-chit-cheet, became "range restricted" to two or three disjointed sites in western Ecuador, on the western slope of the Andes.

But researchers Bert Harris, Ana Agreda, Mery Juina and Bernd Freymann, writing in the latest issue of the Wilson Journal of Ornithology, reported finding 11 new locales. What's more, they observed two matings and found 26 nests at nine sites, during eight months in 2007-2008, suggesting that even though the species is still Red Listed as endangered, it might be a little less so.

"The new locations are a big thing," said Harris, who's studying at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

But it's a similar story: The Esmeraldas woodstar's ideal habitat of lowland and foothill moist forest in coastal western Ecuador has fallen prey to the usual culprits: deforestation, logging, agriculture, persistent goat and cattle grazing. Machalilla National Park, a nominally protected area, has difficulty enforcing regulations -- illegal settlement persists inside the park, along with logging, hunting, farming and habitat clearance by people with land rights, according to the Wilson Journal study and Bird Life International.

It's a situation worth staying tuned to.

This pale, rosy-pink salmon-colored parrot, whose wings and tail have a yellow-orange underside, has a long, backward-curving deep-pink crest through which it communicates. Considered the prettiest bird in the parrot family, it might be too good-looking for its own good, as its beauty has made it a popular caged pet.

Red Listed as vulnerable if not endangered, this parrot's numbers have declined rapidly as a result of trapping for the pet bird trade, along with the usual culprits of deforestation, commercial timber extraction, logging, settlement and hydroelectric projects in its small range, according to Bird Life International.

"All parrot species are still threatened with trapping and illegal international trade in Asia," said Dian Agista, head of conservation at Burung Indonesia, a bird life association, in an e-mail from Bogor, Indonesia. "Like other parrot species, they are often kept as pets by local people.

Native to the four South Molucca Islands, the salmon-crested cockatoo is believed to survive only at one locale on Ambon, leaving most of the population on Seram.

Although reported international trade fell to zero in the 1990s, trappers reportedly remain highly active and birds are sold openly within Indonesia, reports Bird Life International.

In 2003, one bird welfare organization reported 50 salmon-crested cockatoos being sold in a Java market.

While most of Seram is still covered in lowland forest, only 14 percent of these forests are protected and almost half the island is designated as logging concession.

"For narrow-niche species like parrots," said Agista, "logging is not just about losing its suitable habitat, but it also reduces its chance to breed. Most parrots need specific trees to lay their eggs -- not to mention that they have to compete with other species for the tree."

Nearly 5 feet tall with a 99-inch wingspan and thick yellow beak, the greater adjutant stork is huge by stork standards. With a nearly bald pinkish head that resembles a vulture's, its hanging orange chest pouch set against its dark bluish-gray plumage is the standout feature on this long-legged wader.

Once widespread across much of south and southeast Asia, the greater adjutant stork is now known only in India, in the state of Assam, its stronghold, and at sites in northern Cambodia. They've been known to wander over into Nepal, Bangladesh and Thailand.

When it's not breeding season, the Indian population feeds around garbage dumps on the fringes of urban areas.

Unfortunately, their near-human size and behavior of nesting in colonies make them easy hunting prey. Drainage, pollution, coupled with hunting, and the confiscation of eggs and chicks from nesting sites -- for consumption or trade -- has dwindled its numbers down to about 800.