In many parts of the world, goats damage fragile bird habitat. With the right balance, though, animal husbandry can benefit threatened bird species. Case in point: Kirtland’s Warblers on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera — one of the few places where the recently delisted, range-restricted songbird winters.
Edrin Symonette is a goat and sheep farmer, artist, and citrus grower on the island. “My father farmed when I was a kid,” he says. “At the time, I hated farming. Then I had the opportunity to go to school on a scholarship and run track at Hampton University in Virginia. When I came home one holiday, I fell in love with goats and animal husbandry, and then later returned to farming.”
One day 18 years ago, Symonette met two biologists who had tracked Kirtland’s Warblers to his farm with radio telemetry. The birds had been tagged in Michigan and tracked down to their wintering grounds on Eleuthera. “I really first learned about the Kirtland’s Warbler through Dave Ewert from ABC and Joe Wunderle from the U.S. Forest Service,” Symonette says. He invited the biologists to set up mist nets and monitor the warblers on his properties. Students from the University of The Bahamas sometimes joined them; some of them now work for ABC’s partner Bahamas National Trust (BNT).
Symonette mows pastures annually for two reasons: to keep vegetation low and lush for the goats, and so he and his livestock can easily spot intruding free-ranging dogs. This arrangement also provides fertile feeding grounds for wintering Kirtland’s Warblers.
“The goats take the local vegetation they want — native grasses, legumes, etc. — and leave a lot of what the warbler feeds on: black torches, snowberry, and white sage bushes, which have the berries,” says Symonette. He doesn’t let his animals chew vegetation to the ground. Instead, Symonette closely monitors the weather and plants, moving the animals between pastures depending upon rainfall and the lushness of the vegetation.
“When I first learned about the birds, I said, ‘It’s nothing that I do,’ but Dave and Joe told me that what I’ve been doing over the years, not even knowing it, helps the birds. I was just managing the land and food sources. But that helps the birds, which is very cool.” Symonette continues to work with ABC, BNT, and others and mentors Bahamian ranchers on how to manage pastures as he does. — Howard Youth
This article was first published in the July/August 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine.