The blue eyes of an extremely rare bird hadn’t been seen for nearly a century.
In one of the most extraordinary stories in Brazilian conservation, a group of researchers have announced the comeback of the Blue-eyed Ground-dove. Last documented in 1941, it was believed extinct.
But now the species has been found at top-secret locations in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. However researchers can only confirm sightings of 12 individuals, so securing its habitat will be the key to conserving this elusive bird.
Imagine the buzz in the crowd last weekend at the Brazilian Birdwatching Festival when ornithologist Rafael Bessa unveiled his rediscovery. The highly-anticipated talk was named ‘Species X’ and for the first time in history, this bird’s song was played to the public. Previously known from a handful of stuffed and ageing museum specimens and some more recent unsubstantiated reports, Bessa brought the Blue-eyed Ground Dove Columbina cyanopis back to life.
“When he played the video there was a commotion in the crowd and non-stop applause,” said Pedro Develey, SAVE Brasil (BirdLife in Brazil). “It was pure emotion.”
For the last few months the group of researchers – supported by SAVE Brasil, Rainforest Trust, and Butantan Bird Observatory – have been working in secret to scientifically report the rediscovery, and to simultaneously develop a conservation plan that secures the Critically Endangered bird’s long-term survival.
Describing the rediscovery, Bessa told Estadão:
“I returned to the place and I could recreate this vocalization with my microphone. I reproduced the sound and the bird landed on a flowering bush, coming towards me. I photographed the animal, and when I looked at the picture carefully, I saw that I had recorded something unusual. My legs started shaking.”
Only 12 individuals are confirmed: Blue-eyed Ground Dove Columbina cyanopis © Rafael Bessa
The Blue-eyed Ground-Dove occurs exclusively in Brazil and is threatened by the destruction of the Brazilian Cerrado, a savannah-like habitat. The jubilation of rediscovery quickly turned to sobering thoughts of acting fast to save the 12-or-more birds.
“We are now worried about the conservation of the species”, explained Rafael Bessa. “We are working on several fronts to build this plan. The main action is to ensure that the area where it was found becomes a protected area, which would benefit not only the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove, but many other threatened species occurring there.”
With cobalt-blue eyes and dark blue spots on its wings that standout against its overall reddish-chestnut plumage, it’s hard to believe such an eye-catching bird went unnoticed for so long. But rapid rates of habitat loss in the region mean that many more species could be heading to extinction unseen.
“Increasing the knowledge on Brazilian biodiversity is the first step to ensure its conservation“, said Luciano Lima, Instituto Butantan. “And, by doing so, we contribute to a better quality of life and health for all species, including our own.”
Right after first spotting the bird, in July 2015, the ornithologist Rafael Bessa contacted Lima, from Instituto Butantan. With the support from the Institute and SAVE Brasil, they started studying the species. A research group was formed also including ornithologists Wagner Nogueira, Marco Rego and Glaucia Del Rio, the latter two from Louisiana State University (USA).
The exact location where the species was found, nor the bird’s song, will not be released by the researchers, until they conclude the conservation plan and implement the proposed measures.
Within the conservation plan, the researchers are undertaking studies on the biology of the species, especially on behavior, breeding biology and feeding. They are also venturing to places with geographic and environmental features similar to the site of the original rediscovery, aiming to find additional populations. The search areas are identified through satellite imagery as well as a technique called Ecological Niche Modelling: based on several environmental features of the sites where the species occur, specific software uses mathematical models to predict areas potentially suitable to the species.
“So far we have visited many areas in three states, but the species was located only in two sites close together, both in the state of Minas Gerais, which reinforces the need for urgent action to guarantee its survival”, warned the ornithologist Wagner Nogueira.
The Blue-eyed Ground-dove seems to have a specific habitat that could be as Critically Endangered as the bird itself. Let the orange-red of the birds feathers be a colour warning to potential new infrastructure projects in the region – even a small project could wipe out this entire species.
Now brought to life publically again, only time will tell how SAVE Brasil and the research team can help further the life of this species.
This article was first published by BirdLife International on 23 May 2016.