The encouraging comeback of the Azorean bullfinches

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Just before Luís Pacheco was born in 1992, a mysterious man appeared near his family’s home on the Portuguese island of São Miguel. The man searched the forest for a small gray songbird with a black crown, tail and wing tips, which aroused the curiosity of the locals. “When I was little my dad and uncles talked about this guy and wondered what he was doing in the forest,” Pachecho told me. “It was very strange for the people from the island!”

It turned out that the man was biologist Jaime Ramos, who initiated a decade-long attempt to save the Azores bullfinch, an endemic songbird that was in trouble upon arrival. The locals knew the bird as that Priolo, but paid little attention back then. Their attitudes have changed significantly over the lifetime of Pacheco and today, thanks to the efforts of conservationists, volunteers and supportive locals, the Priolo’s recovery is celebrated as a rare success story at a difficult time for European bird life.

In early October, I went looking for the bird, starting at the Priolo Environmental Center on the eastern tip of São Miguel, a 290 square mile island located 1,000 miles west of Portugal in the Azores archipelago. The center is evidence of the bird’s status on the island as a source of pride and concern. After passing a quiet, dense stand of towering trees that were planted in close military formation, I came to a path among native junipers, laurel, and heather. As the day switched between sun and rain, I spotted chaffinches, wagtails and wagtails, but the priolo remained elusive.

The closest I came to was a Priolo in the center, where Pacheco, now an interpretive guide, led me through the history of the conservation of the species while his melodic call came from a portable loudspeaker. Pacheco, who has been helping with the conservation of Priolo since his internship with the Portuguese Society for Ornithology (SPEA) eight years earlier, reported how many birds first colonized the island hundreds of years ago. But they were rare by 1900, largely because humans had cut away their natural habitat and replaced endemic forests with pastureland and dense plantations of Japanese cedar trees. Alien species planted for beauty or utility reasons – such as the Chilean rhubarb, kahili ginger lily, lily of the valley tree, and Australian cheese wood – became invasive and choked the native laurel forests on which Priolo depends.

Kahili ginger, shown here in full bloom, is one of the invasive plants that have spread widely on São Miguel. It is native to humid tropical forests in the eastern Himalayas. Photo: Stefan Sollfors / Alamy

In the 1990s, when he was rummaging in the woods while doing his PhD, Ramos began the first surveys to get a grip on the bullfinch population. When it became clear that the species was in decline, Ramos experimented with keeping a few birds in captivity, curious about the breeding potential. But unlike other finches, who gladly accept sunflower seeds and other food that was offered, the priolo was picky and did not accept anything other than food that was collected from the forest. Ramos decided that getting the Priolo used to captivity would take time and effort that they did not have. The species was listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List in 2000 and “Critically Endangered” in 2005, with only a few hundred birds left.

At that time, SPEA took the lead in Priolo’s conservation efforts, led by coordinator Azucena de la Cruz Martín and Terrestrial Conservation Director Rui Botelho. In 2005 and 2006 they tried to build a network of feeding stations to make up for the loss of native plants, but they ran into the same problem that Ramos had when considering captive breeding. The bird feeders attracted many birds, but not the bullfinches. Ultimately, it became clear that habitat restoration was paramount.

“While we preserve the habitat, we preserve the priolo,” says de la Cruz, “and while we preserve the priolo, we preserve the habitat.”

Even after this strategy was zeroed, it took years figuring out how to push back invasive plants and how to best care for native plants. To further complicate matters, years of invasive plant invasions resulted in the loss of natural soil seed banks, so establishing tree nurseries became another important part of the habitat restoration equation.

Meanwhile, support for the return of the native forest and Priolos grew, says de la Cruz. SPEA staff and partners disseminate knowledge of the unique songbird through school programs, and restoration efforts created new jobs on the island, home to 45,000 people.

Today 1,100 hectares of laurel forest have been restored at different heights. These areas, which are within the 15,000 hectare Pico da Vara / Ribeira do Guilherme Special Protection Area, are once again dense with Macronesian holly and Portuguese laurel, Azorean cedar and Azorean blueberries, all of which are endemic to the island and for the diet of the bullfinch are essential. Although the bird has adapted to a few non-endemic species during the lean winter months, for most of the year it is completely dependent on native plants and feeds on tree seeds, flower buds, fleshy fruit seeds and even – unusually – fern fronds, made up of 37 different ones Plant species. This varied diet is likely one of the reasons feeders have failed. “What we have learned from the Azorean bullfinch,” says de la Cruz, “is that by reclaiming habitat and food sources, we can stabilize the population.”

And the priolo population is actually considered stable with around 1,000 birds. In 2016 the species was classified as “Endangered” on the IUCN list. “[It’s] now a symbol of the territory and a symbol of greater conservation of the biodiversity of the Azores, ”says de la Cruz.

So successful were the recovery efforts that the Azores bullfinch was highlighted as one of the few bright spots in the European Red Bird List 2021 report published by BirdLife International in October. Of the 544 species studied, 37 species have been classified as more threatened since the last report published in 2015. While 47 species have been classified as less endangered than before, many of their populations are still shrinking. Overall, a third of all European bird species are in decline and one in five is threatened or critically endangered.

BirdLife Europe’s Conservation Officer Claire Rutherford said in a press release that “Europe’s bird populations are declining mainly because they are losing their habitats”.

As the Azorean bullfinch shows, when you return to their natural habitat, the birds will recover. But while the priolo population is considered stable, the term is relative for birds in these troubled times. Even while the estimated 970 individuals hold on, invasive plants continue to invade, threatening to undo any conservation work so far.

“I’m divided when it comes to downlisting,” says de la Cruz. “On the one hand, that’s good news and shows that the restoration is working. On the other hand, it can convey the message that there is no longer any need for action. ”

Ramos, now a conservation biologist at the University of Coimbra in central Portugal, agrees the profits are precarious. “Invasive species are very aggressive and controlling them is a long-term project,” he says.

SPEA is committed to preserving its habitat gain and expanding its focus on vegetation restoration in water catchment areas and steep areas prone to landslides that often claim housing and sometimes life of the Azores. The effort underscores that caring for landscapes can help people and birds.

However, finding financial support for work remains a challenge. Since my visit this fall, Pacheco’s position at the Priolo environmental center has been cut for budget reasons, says de la Cruz.

Despite the job loss, Pacheco’s enthusiasm for the bird and its conservation has not waned. “It’s very important to have this project here,” he says. Priolos and the healthy habitat they live in attract tourists in search of nature and scientists dedicated to restoring landscapes and wildlife populations. And, he says, this little songbird has given his local community a deeper sense of connection and responsibility for that one special place on earth that they all belong to.

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