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10 bird species that need our help now

Antioquia Brushfinch of Colombia faces many problems, including habitat loss. Photo by Sergio Chaparro-Herrera

Antioquia Brushfinch

Where it lives: Colombia

Estimated population: 100

In 2018, an agronomist walking to Mass in the Colombian Andes, not far from the city of Medellín, made a thrilling discovery: He spotted and photographed an Antioquia Brushfinch, a towhee-like species previously known only from museum specimens.

As it turned out, the brushfinch was barely scraping by on a few isolated strips of scrubland surrounded on all sides by cattle pasture and crops. “Most of the habitat is just hammered,” says Wendy Willis, deputy director of international programs at American Bird Conservancy, who has twice visited Colombia on behalf of the brushfinch. “You drive around, and you feel like you’re on a huge golf course.”

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, which put everything on hold, conservationists were racing to identify the best remaining brushfinch habitat; their goal is to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to preserve it. They likewise hope to work with landowners on habitat enhancement. Time is running short: Already, the site of the bird’s original discovery has been converted for agriculture.

To solicit donations for brushfinch conservation, Willis hiked almost 400 miles of the Appalachian Trail in 2019, after which she dyed her hair the same rufous color as the brushfinch’s crown. “You have to have an element of humor,” Willis says, adding that “there’s a real opportunity to do something and make a difference here.”

The case of a close relative, the Pale-headed Brushfinch of Ecuador, offers some hope. Once down to a couple dozen birds, that population has since bounced back to around 250.

How to help: Donate through ABC’s website or mail a check to American Bird Conservancy, P.O. Box 249, The Plains, VA 20198.

Liben Lark occurs in two remaining locations in southern and eastern Ethiopia. Photo by Agami Photo Agency/Shutterstock

Liben Lark

Where it lives: Ethiopia

Estimated population: 50-250

In contrast to the other five inhabited continents, mainland Africa has never recorded a modern bird extinction. Unfortunately, the Liben Lark, a shy, nondescript ground nester, threatens to be the first.

Ample swaths of prairie where this bird lives have been lost outright to cropland and scrub encroachment, while overgrazing has severely degraded the rest. Without much waist-high grass to hide in anymore, nesting females in particular are vulnerable to predators.

A Somali population is presumed extirpated, and the bird appears to have sharply declined at its two remaining locations: the Liben Plain in southern Ethiopia and the Jijiga Plain in the country’s east.

To stem the tide, conservation groups set up community-managed nature reserves, known as kallos, with help from a U.K.-government grant. “During the wet season, grass inside the kallos grows to suitable heights and structure for breeding of the Liben Lark,” says Kariuki Ndang’ang’a, head of conservation at BirdLife Africa. “At the same time, the grass forms good forage for cattle — this is harvested during the dry season, when the larks aren’t breeding.”

The larks seemed to like the kallos, which totaled about 865 acres, and so, too, did local pastoralists. The kallos even purportedly saved human lives during a drought, when livestock fodder was otherwise scarce.

Since 2019, however, they have “faced major disrepair,” Ndang’ang’a explains. Extended drought and local conflicts took their toll just as international funding was drying up. Tens of thousands of dollars are needed annually to keep the kallos going, Ndang’ang’a says, and broader measures to sustainably manage the grasslands would be even costlier.

“The challenges are many, but I feel hopeful,” Ndang’ang’a says, pointing out that residents of the Liben Plain are proud of the species and appreciative of the (little) income it brings in through tourism and conservation projects.

How to help: Donate to BirdLife International’s Preventing Extinctions Programme, writing “to help save Liben Lark” in the comments section. For those with deeper pockets, BirdLife is also seeking a “species champion” for this bird. Questions should be sent to [email protected].

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Jesse Greenspan

Jesse Greenspan is a Berkeley-based freelance journalist who writes about history and the environment. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, Audubon, the History Channel, and other outlets.

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