Searching for Bird Life in a Former ‘Ocean of Forest’
A century after museum collectors surveyed Colombia’s avian fauna, a new generation of researchers returns to see what remains, and what has changed.,
Nelsy Nino of Colombia’s Instituto Humboldt held a pair of Lafresnaye’s piculets, tiny tropical woodpeckers. Biological collections are part of a nation’s heritage, she says, and likens them to a public library.
Searching for Bird Life in a Former ‘Ocean of Forest’
A century after museum collectors surveyed Colombia’s avian fauna, a new generation of researchers returns to see what remains, and what has changed.
Nelsy Nino of Colombia’s Instituto Humboldt held a pair of Lafresnaye’s piculets, tiny tropical woodpeckers. Biological collections are part of a nation’s heritage, she says, and likens them to a public library.Credit…
By Jennie Erin Smith
Photographs by Federico Rios
Aug. 31, 2021, 2:30 a.m. ET
FLORENCIA, Colombia — In June 1912, Leo Miller, a collector with the American Museum of Natural History, arrived in the Caqueta region of Colombia, where the eastern foothills of the Andes melt into the forested lowlands of the Amazon basin.
Miller was working for Frank Chapman, the celebrated curator of birds at the museum. Chapman suspected that Colombia’s wildly varied topography had given rise to an unusual density of species, and sent collectors like Miller to bring him birds from all corners of the country to study.
Miller set up camp on a farmstead called La Morelia, surrounded by what he described to his mentor as “a perfect ocean of forest stretching out ahead as far as the eye can see.” There, he and his Colombian assistants worked day and night, beleaguered by rain, malaria and insects. By the end of July, they had collected more than 800 birds for Chapman, who was thrilled.
On a morning in early August, a century and nine years after Miller loaded his specimens onto river rafts and commenced his return to New York, a group of researchers tramped through muddy fields to their base camp, a ranch in a rural outpost of the city of Florencia.
The team, led by Andres Cuervo, an ornithologist at Universidad Nacional in Bogota, has organized six expeditions across Colombia, collecting birds and data for comparison with Chapman’s; this was the fifth. The undertaking, called Alas, Cantos y Colores — Wings, Songs and Colors — is financed by the Colombian government, with the participation of research institutions in Colombia and the United States. Studies of species from the same place over long periods of time are rare in science, and this resurvey project stands to speak volumes about how tropical birds have responded to changes in land use and climate.
In early August, the research team decamped to an isolated remnant of al forest where scientists with the American Museum of Natural History collected birds in 1912.
Biologists Andres Cuervo and Juliana Soto removed a sepia-capped flycatcher, a species that thrives in forest edges and in clearings, from a mist net.
A lot has changed in this part of Caqueta since 1912. For one, the “ocean of forest” has been reduced, after decades of expanded cattle grazing, to mere islands in a sea of pasture. Before arriving, the researchers had pored through satellite images in the hope of finding a forest big enough to sustain the kind of bird life they sought. A patch adjacent to the farm was the best they could do.
This group comprised 10 Colombian biologists and one American. Half were women, most were in their 20s and 30s, and several lived and worked in the Caqueta region. Importantly, the specimens they collected would not leave Colombia. Instead, they would be deposited in the public natural history collections of the Universidad Nacional. Ornithologists like Dr. Cuervo had spent much of their careers studying their own country’s birds in foreign museums. The young scientists on this trip, Dr. Cuervo hoped, would not have to.
Shades of green
Dr. Cuervo, Ms. Soto and biologists Jessica Diaz and Andrea Morales Rozo check the nets. Mist nets were opened at dawn, checked every 30 minutes until dusk and rolled up at night to avoid catching bats.
The farm’s owners, the Alvira family, had sent their horses into the pasture and allowed the scientists to turn the stable into a lab. Plastic card tables held syringes, vials, glass slides, rulers, scalpels and a lot of forms and lists.
On the packed-earth floor sat a cooler with dry ice and a canister full of liquid nitrogen, which is needed to flash-freeze tissues for genetic studies. The supplies had arrived by tractor early that morning as the team made its hourlong hike from a nearby village. During the group’s previous expedition to a highland forest in southern Colombia, the nitrogen had tumbled off the back of a mule that slipped on the trail, but was saved before it could spill.
Outside in the forest, the team strung hundreds of feet of mist nets — loose, wispy netting that causes birds to become trapped in its pockets — as howler monkeys groaned from unseen perches. At two o’clock, Juliana Soto, a biologist with the Instituto Humboldt in Colombia, carried in the expedition’s first bird, labeled MOR-001 — MOR for Morelia — in a cotton bag hooked to a cord around her neck.
It was a male striolated manakin, with a little green puff of a body and a proud red crest. In Colombia, people tend to call this family of birds saltarines, or jumpers, for the way that males gather and hop from branch to branch to impress an audience of females.
In 1912, preparing birds for scientific study was a simpler process. Birds were shot in the field, with many never recovered. Soft tissues were discarded, and only skeletons and skins were conserved. Each body was dried, filled with cotton and tagged with information on who had collected the bird and the location and altitude of its capture.
The technical and ethical demands of modern science require that greater care be taken with each specimen. A few on this team were veteran ornithologists; others were students, volunteers and newly minted professionals still mastering the challenges of fieldwork. The more experienced members helped the rest.
MOR-001, a male striolated manakin. This was one of the expedition’s “focal species,” which would be compared with specimens collected here in 1912.
Ms. Soto measuring the wing of a ruddy quail-dove. Wingspan is an important morphological metric of a bird, one that speaks to its flying style and ability to disperse.
Andrea Morales Rozo, who teaches biology at the Universidad de los Llanos in central Colombia, guided the team at the nets, from which she skillfully extricated birds unharmed. Ms. Morales Rozo has been studying the blackpoll warbler, a species that migrates between the Amazon and Canada; she was part of a group that recently compared museum specimens and field-caught birds and learned that the warbler’s northward range had shifted by nearly 400 miles in 45 years.
Dr. Cuervo, the expedition leader, offered calm, fatherly support to those at the processing table. It’s not always obvious how best to describe a bird’s colors, for example, and second opinions were often requested. Was a wing “verde cafe,” greenish brown? Or was it “verde olivazo,” olive green? Was a female bird’s brood patch, the bare skin that warms the eggs, still smooth or becoming wrinkly?
MOR-001 struggled in Ms. Soto’s hand as she passed it to her colleague, Jessica Diaz, a field biologist hired for the expeditions. The bird was photographed and logged. Ms. Diaz labored to extract a tiny amount of blood from its jugular vein with a syringe, expressing the drops into a vial of alcohol. She then prepared herself to euthanize it with rapid cardiac compression, using fingers to apply firm pressure over the bird’s heart. With this technique, small birds pass out within seconds and die in about half a minute. Large birds are anesthetized.
Ms. Diaz held MOR-001 under the table so as not to have to watch; her colleagues did the same whenever their turn came to sacrifice a bird. “This is the not-fun part,” she said, softly.
A few in the group, including Ms. Soto, avoid sacrificing birds, although they believe in the necessity of scientific collecting and participate in the process. “I think it’s hard on all of us,” said Ms. Soto, whose high, mellifluous voice gave her a certain birdlike aura. “But it’s really hard on me. It just stabs me through the heart.” On this expedition, Ms. Soto assumed other jobs on the assembly line: cutting samples of pectoral muscle to drop into liquid nitrogen, calling out colors of beaks and feathers, gingerly tagging a leg.
Each bird was wrapped tightly in plastic and placed on dry ice to await the next, more complex stages of dissection and preservation, which would occur at the university lab. By the time MOR-001 was in the cooler, swathed like a miniature mummy, several more bags wriggled on a wire above the table, and the heat of the afternoon was breaking.
And no antbirds called
Ms. Nino, Ms. Soto and Eliecer Diaz, a rancher and member of the Alvira family, in the stable-turned-laboratory.
For long stretches of the next day, few birds came in. The researchers weren’t used to this; normally, they would be too busy to even eat. “Miller said in no location in Colombia did he do so well,” Ms. Soto lamented after one fruitless return from the nets.
A century earlier, Miller had brought back from this site a dozen varieties of antbirds, a family of insect-eating species that need the refuge of the darkness of thick tropical undergrowth.
Most people associate the Amazon region with showy macaws and toucans, but to an ornithologist, the diverse antbirds are among its main draws. In a large, uninterrupted tract of forest, “you get overwhelmed by antbirds, by many species calling at the same time,” Dr. Cuervo said.
But antbirds avoid sunlight. With the forest so exposed, and with so much light now reaching the forest floor, the team wondered whether they could capture any antbirds at all.
Before Dr. Cuervo and the rest of the group arrived, a small advance team had spent days conducting censuses of birds and bird song to better understand the composition of the local forest community. They heard no antbirds. They did hear the buzz of a chain saw.
Xiomara Carpera Espinosa and Dr. Cuervo with a many-banded aracari, a type of toucan. Ms. Carpera Espinosa runs a family-owned nature reserve in Caqueta, a region hard-hit by deforestation.
Ms. Morales Rozo returning from a fruitful run to the mist nets. Ms. Morales Rozo, a biologist, has been studying the blackpoll warbler, a species that splits its time between Amazonian and Canadian forests.
Census data is an important component of these expeditions, complementing data gleaned from the specimens. Last year, a group of Colombian ecologists successfully compared census data from one forest with Chapman’s specimens, and concluded that the composition of bird life had drastically changed over 100 years. In a forest that once favored specialized species, the all-purpose generalists now dominated.
“But if you’re asking what has changed within a species, you need the actual bird,” said Glenn Seeholzer, a research associate with the American Museum of Natural History who is part of the Colombia team. Species are not static; nor are bodies, behaviors or genes. Beaks grow or shrink over generations; feathers change in color or luster in response to different selective pressures. On a genetic level, the changes can be profound, revealing reduced or expanded diversity, an indicator of a population’s ability to adapt to changing environments.
Scientists are now able to extract some genetic material from old bird specimens by scraping the pads of the toes. By comparing data from birds collected on this trip with Chapman’s, “we will be able to see how the genetic variation has shifted,” Dr. Seeholzer said. “There are very few data sets for wild populations of birds that you could ask or answer these questions with.” Once this series of expeditions is complete, at the year’s end, the collections in both Bogota and New York “will be much more valuable than the sum of their parts,” he said.
A wealth of wings
Residents of Roncesvalles, a rural outpost of Florencia, Caqueta, at a meeting with the scientists. Many families in the region were resettled here by Colombia’s government after being displaced from their prior lands by armed groups.
The researchers conduct careful advance work that begins months before each expedition. This one required even more tact than usual. In this ranching community, Ms. Diaz and two colleagues had knocked on the doors of nearly 100 families, many of them resettled here by the government after being displaced by armed groups. “People were sensitive about us coming onto their land,” she said. “Their land is all they have.”
Another delicate task involves explaining why and how they take birds, which the researchers try to do in as frank a manner as possible. Nelsy Nino, a researcher at the Instituto Humboldt who designs outreach for the expeditions, uses the analogy of a public library when talking to communities or groups of young people. Biological collections are part of the nation’s heritage, knowledge that will be available for all Colombians for generations to come, she explains. “We also talk about collecting as taking a picture,” she said. “A specimen is like a photograph we took of an individual in a specific time and space.”
Daniel Diaz, 6, family friend Ediud Buitrago and Dr. Cuervo with a striolated manakin. Cultivating birdwatching in rural regions is a goal of the Colombian government, which has backed the resurvey expeditions.
Ranchers Miguel Alvira and Betty Manchola let the scientists camp on their property, turn their stable into a lab and set up nets in their woods.
Ms. Nino and her team return some weeks after each collecting trip to report on their findings and hold workshops, part of an effort to increase interest in bird conservation and bird tourism in the countryside. In recent years, Colombia has promoted itself as the most bird-rich country in the world, but not all of its regions are equally poised to benefit.
Caqueta has been hard hit by deforestation. The region has lost 8.5 percent of its tree cover since 2000, according to Global Forest Watch. Land speculation and cattle grazing, along with waves of resettlement and colonization, have all contributed.
Two members of the expedition, Mauricio Cuellar and Xiomara Capera Espinosa, both work as birding guides and hope to build interest in the region’s fauna. Here on these farming plots, it was up to families like the Alviras to decide whether to save remnant forests for the sake of their bird life, which they valued. Off and on during this trip, as the rest of the team sat hunched over the processing table, Ms. Nino gently coached the youngest member of that family, the 6-year-old Daniel Diaz Alvira, in bird identification using a guide.
‘A story of our birds’
At the mist nets. From left: Dr. Cuervo; Mauricio Cuellar, a biologist and birding guide in Caqueta; Ms. Diaz and Daniel Diaz.
Most of the team had read Chapman’s and Miller’s writings about Colombia. Chapman’s 1917 book, “The Distribution of Bird-Life in Colombia,” has been an especially important reference for the country’s ornithologists, virtually all of whom have participated in the resurvey project in some form or another. The roots of the effort date back to 1994, when the ornithologist Gustavo Kattan first used Chapman’s data to show that certain species had disappeared from a forest near Cali.
Dr. Cuervo, who studies the evolution of Neotropical birds, called Chapman’s work “inspirational.” Chapman “laid out a number of ideas that we can now test with modern tools,” he said. “It’s a story of our birds, a history and pattern that you want to understand.”
But it was not lost on this team that both Chapman and Miller expressed racist views. In their books, Black and Indigenous people are disparaged. They seldom named the Colombians who helped them find, collect and prepare their birds, content to label them “unskilled native assistance,” “peons” or worse.
The expeditions straddle an awkward line, being at once a tribute to Chapman’s work and a conscious departure from scientific practices and attitudes that have come to be labeled “colonial,” or at the very least unequal. Even into the current century, scientists in tropical countries have tended to be seen as “the ones that will deal with the permits, the ones who know how to get to the place, and that’s it,” Dr. Cuervo said.
Dr. Cuervo stressed that he did not view this group’s work as a repudiation of their predecessors. “It would be easy to point out all their defects,” he said. “They were writing in their time. In our time, we’re creating a more participatory science, a more global science, with our own diversity and our own tools.”
“We’re not trying to create high-quality bird collections for the sake of accumulation, or out of nationalism,” he added. “We’re doing this because we need this.”
Gerlando Delgado, a biology student at the Universidad de la Amazonia in Caqueta, with a black-banded woodcreeper.
A white-bearded manakin.
A juvenile male silver-beaked tanager, locally known as the come-queso, or cheese-eater.
A female chestnut woodpecker.
After several days at the Alvira farm, the team changed sites, striking a camp near a more promising patch of forest. Stands of rare palms and bamboo survived in this remnant, which bordered a wide, sandy river. The site was even closer to the old La Morelia estate, and on it they did better.
By the end of their time in Caqueta, they had collected some 400 birds representing more than 100 species. Ten were what they called focal species, which could be compared, morphologically and genetically, with birds in the Chapman collection.
These included wedge-billed woodcreepers, which use their curved tail feathers to anchor themselves to tree trunks; silver-beaked tanagers, whose brilliant white lower bills earned them the nickname come-queso, or cheese-eater, in Spanish. There were scarlet-crowned barbets — small fruit-eating birds related to toucans — and yellow-browed sparrows, an edge-dwelling species that seemed as poised as any to thrive in a new world of micro-forests surrounded by grasslands.
Most of these were common, widely distributed species, Dr. Cuervo noted, and no more than a dozen of each had been taken, meaning that on a population level the collecting was of little consequence. “We don’t deny that there is an impact to the individual bird,” he said. “We remove it. But what we put in the balance is what we can learn.”
It appeared — although the hard work to quantify this had yet to begin — that at least some of the bird life present in 1912 was still hanging on, even in vastly diminished habitats.
But many bird families were missing, among them the antbirds. The group left with just three, of a single species.
What was once an ocean of forest had been reduced to islands in a sea of pasture. But at least some of the bird life present in 1912 appeared to be hanging on.