Special features

The birds of Cuba

Trade restrictions have left a 44,000-square-mile gap in our knowledge of the birds that spend their winters in Cuba — including many we call "ours."
By Julie Craves | Published: 11/1/2002

Cuban Tody is one of 21 bird species endemic to the island nation. Photo by Thomas H. Brown (Creative Commons)

Cuban Tody is one of 21 bird species endemic to the island nation. Photo by Thomas H. Brown (Creative Commons)

A monotonous call that was unmistakably a pewee came from somewhere over my head. Nearby, an emphatic song reminiscent of a White-eyed Vireo accompanied rustling leaves in the shrubbery. Two woodpeckers noisily chased each other around a tree trunk to my left. I might have been standing in my neighborhood Michigan woodlot in spring, but the birds were a Cuban Pewee, a Cuban Vireo, and Cuban Green Woodpeckers. It was winter, and I was surveying birds in a botanical garden outside of Havana. Not many other American ornithologists have had this experience. Not only is this unfortunate, it has far-reaching consequences for “our” birds that winter in the tropics.

Cuba is home to at least 21 bird species found no place else in the world — the vireo and woodpeckers among them. Some are particularly special. The Zapata Sparrow is the only sparrow endemic to the West Indies. The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird on the planet. Nine endemic species are endangered or vulnerable. In addition, a dozen or so endemic subspecies have the potential for full species status. This high level of endemism alone signifies Cuba as a globally important place for birds.

Since Cuba represents 50 percent of the entire West Indian land mass, it is also one of the most important wintering and stopover sites for North American migrant birds. Well over 100 North American nesting species winter or pass through Cuba. (See list below.) Nineteen species of passerines are considered common wintering residents. All but three of the eastern wood-warblers have been recorded in Cuba, and Cuba was the only known wintering location for the extinct Bachman’s Warbler.

On my visit, I did see North American birds that were on their Cuban winter vacation, but I was surprised not to see more temperate-nesting birds during the 10 days I spent with our survey group. For instance, I expected to see many Black-throated Blue Warblers, considered one of the most common wintering migrants on the island. I had a special interest in them because a colleague learned, via blood sampling, that the population of Black-throated Blues on her study site in northern Michigan mostly wintered in Cuba.

That morning outside of Havana, we were working with Cuban ornithologist Orlando Garrido, co-author of a recently published field guide to Cuban birds. Having seen no Black-throated Blues thus far, I quizzed Orlando about them. He shook his head sadly and repeated the same lament I had heard so many times from old-timers here in the U.S.: that the North American migrants were disappearing. Despite an itinerary that covered a good chunk of central Cuba, we ended up counting only four Black-throated Blue Warblers the entire trip.

What is happening to North American migrant birds wintering in Cuba? What habitats do they use? What are the population trends? How do they interact with resident birds? What is the status of Cuba’s rare endemic species? These excellent and critical questions go largely unanswered.

The conservation of Neotropical migrants — birds that breed in North America and winter in the tropics — has come into focus in recent years. Long-term population declines have been detected in many species, but their complex annual cycle makes determining causes and cures difficult. Clear understanding of the distribution, ecology, and status of these species is essential, yet there is a 44,000-square-mile gap in our knowledge — a hole the size and shape of our largest Caribbean neighbor, Cuba.

We know so little because U.S. policy toward Cuba creates restrictions for American researchers and complications for funding organizations wishing to do work in Cuba. The revolution in 1959 that brought Fidel Castro into power marked the end of U.S.-Cuban relations. The embargo both restricts direct trade with Cuba and penalizes other countries that trade with the U.S. if they also trade with Cuba. Travel to Cuba by Americans is tightly controlled. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union (Cuba’s main trading partner) in 1989, the Cuban economy went into a tailspin, and citizens have since endured the “Special Period” of extreme austerity.

As a result, Cuban ornithologists struggle to work with few resources. Vehicles and fuel for transportation to field sites are limited. Binoculars, spotting scopes, mist nets and other bird-banding gear, cameras, tape recorders, even flashlights, batteries, and other basic, essential field equipment are scarce. Research is further handicapped by a shortage of computers, restricted Internet access, difficult, in obtaining the latest literature, and impaired communication with professional allies located in other countries. Cuba has set aside many preserves yet does not have the manpower or resources needed to protect and study them adequately.

A Yellow-headed Warbler pauses amid a sea of branches. Photo by Dominic Sherony (Creative Commons)

Cuba’s endemic species

The names of endangered or vulnerable birds are linked to their profiles on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Gundlach’s Hawk

Zapata Rail

Blue-Headed Quail-Dove

Cuban Parakeet

Cuban Screech-Owl

Cuban Pygmy-Owl

Bee Hummingbird

Cuban Trogon

Cuban Tody

Cuban Green Woodpecker

Fernandina’s Flicker

Cuban Vireo

Zapata Wren

Cuban Gnatcatcher

Cuban Solitaire

Yellow-headed Warbler

Oriente Warbler

Cuban Grassquit

Zapata Sparrow

Red-shouldered Blackbird

Cuban Blackbird

In many cash-strapped countries, collaboration with foreign scientists who have access to funding saves the day. In this case, U.S. policy has created roadblocks that make it inconvenient at best and at times simply impossible for American researchers to do meaningful work in Cuba. Some examples:

— Americans, even scientists, must apply for a license to travel to Cuba from the U.S. Treasury Department. Only certain types of travel are allowed. While ornithological research is considered permissible, the licensing process is slow, and without formal guidelines, requirements sometimes seem arbitrary.

— Donations to individuals or organizations must not exceed $200 in value and can contain only certain items. Supplies that are needed by field ornithologists are not on the approved list.

— Cash donations are allowed only by special license to independent non-governmental organizations. In Cuba, Castro’s government runs virtually every entity, and most ornithological research is performed under several governmental units.

— Research projects that include U.S. federal monies are likely to be prohibited from doing work in Cuba. The most stunning example is the Neotropicai Migratory Bird Conservation Act, passed by Congress in 2000. It provides $5 million a year for conservation initiatives, emphasizing that “conservation efforts are especially important in the Caribbean region,” yet the application specifically excludes any project located in Cuba, the only exemption.

This is not to say Cuban ornithologists have suffered in total isolation. Determined donors have found ways around the restrictions on donations, and a number of foreign organizations have sponsored research in Cuba. Probably the most significant ornithological project has been a joint venture of the Canadian Wildlife Service (through Long Point Bird Observatory/Bird Studies Canada), the Canadian Nature Federation, and Cuba’s Instituto de Ecologia y Sistemática.

For 10 years beginning in 1988, the project trained Cuban ornithologists and initiated bird banding and point counts in several areas in Cuba. The studies provided baseline data on the status of migrant and resident birds in different forest types and confirmed that the number of migrant birds at such sites was as high as at other survey sites in the Caribbean and Mexico.

With the importance of Cuba to migratory birds scientifically established, long-term monitoring of population trends must be initiated. Critical areas need to be identified and preserved. Cuba had the lowest deforestation rate in Latin America after the revolution (in fact, forest cover actually increased), but recent economic hardship has weakened Cuba’s conservation efforts. Habitat is being destroyed via illegal timber harvesting, charcoal production, and subsistence farming. Cuba has turned to tourism as its salvation, and resorts and hotels are nibbling away at formerly untouched habitats. Migratory-bird conservation dollars will be wasted if we continue to neglect Cuba’s vital role in the ecology of these species.

Prior to my involvement with Cuban birds, it never occurred to me that the United States’ foreign policy could have such a profound impact on bird conservation, much less undermine my own dedicated efforts as a migrant bird ecologist. Like most Americans, I had little understanding of the situation and viewed U.S.-Cuban relations as a stubborn standoff with little personal relevance. I now realize the pervasive implications of this stagnant, ineffective policy that is older than I am. A revamping of the U.S. agenda toward Cuba is long overdue.

What’s needed is something that will constructively meet stated goals without doing so much harm to people and the environment. It’s also time for us as American citizens to quit ignoring the Cuban situation, before we begin to see the consequences in our forests, grasslands, and wetlands, and even in our own backyards.

Birds that nest here and winter there

The birds listed in English (black) and Spanish (red) nest primarily in North America and are considered common in Cuba in winter. Many more species are less common in winter or only stop over on the island during migration. They and species that also have a nesting population in Cuba are not listed. Status from Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba by Orlando H. Garrido and Arturo Kirkconnell (Cornell University Press. 2000).

Northern Pintail     Pato pescuecilargo

Blue-winged Teal    Pato de la florida

Northern Shoveler     Pato cuchareta

American Wigeon     Pato lavanco

Ring-necked Duck     Pato cabezon

Northern Harrier     Gavilan sabanero

Sora     Gallinuela oscura

Black-bellied Plover     Pluvial cabezon

Semipalmated Plover     Frailecillo semipalmeado

Greater Yellowlegs     Zarapico patiamarillo grande

Lesser Yellowlegs     Zarapico patiamarillo chico

Solitary Sandpiper     Zarapico solitario

Spotted Sandpiper     Zarapico manchado

Ruddy Turnstone     Revuelvepiedras

Sanderling     Zarapico blanco

Semipalmated Sandpiper     Zarapico semipalmeado

Least Sandpiper     Zarapiquito

Short-billed Dowitcher     Zarapico becasina

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker     Carpintero de paso

White-eyed Vireo     Vireo de ojo blanco

Tree Swallow     Golondrina de arboles

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher     Rabuita

Gray Catbird     Zorzal gato

Cedar Waxwing     Picotero del cedro

Northern Parula     Bijirita chica

Magnolia Warbler     Bijirita magnolia

Cape May Warbler     Bijirita atigrada

Black-throated Blue Warbler     Bijirita azul de garganta negra

Yellow-rumped Warbler     Bijirita coronada

Yellow-throated Warbler     Bijirita de garganta amarilla

Prairie Warbler     Bijirita galana

Palm Warbler     Bijirita común

Black-and-white Warbler     Bijirita trepadora

American Redstart     Candelita

Worm-eating Warbler     Bijirita gusanera

Northern Waterthrush     Senorita de manglar

Common Yellowthroat     Caretica

Indigo Bunting     Azulejo 

Julie Craves is supervisor of avian research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory in Dearborn, Michigan, and a contributing editor of BirdWatching magazine (formerly Birder’s World). She visited Cuba at the end of February 2002 on a trip licensed by the U.S. Treasury for the purpose of surveying birds. This article appeared in the December 2002 issue of Birder’s World.