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10 bird species that need our help now

Kenya’s Taita Apalis lives in the country’s Taita Hills, home to two other rare endemics: Taita Thrush and Taita White-eye. Protections for one help all three birds. Photo by Peter Steward

Taita Apalis

Where it lives: Kenya

Estimated population: less than 200

In southeastern Kenya, the ancient Taita Hills rise up from the savanna, providing refuge for several rare, endemic species of plants and animals, including the Taita Apalis, a so-called cisticola warbler with a preference for forest edges. [Read more about the apalis in BirdWatching, March/April 2017 issue.]

Over the past 200 years, the Taita Hills have lost roughly 98 percent of their original forest cover. Much of what’s left is protected, yet the apalis population has kept on declining for reasons scientists don’t entirely understand. “There is serious need for continued research,” Ndang’ang’a says, adding that, in addition to habitat loss, the known threats include low breeding success (possibly due to habitat fragmentation) and climate change.

Conservationists are currently working to purchase or lease the last bits of unpreserved apalis habitat, at a cost of about $8,000 per acre. They’re also restoring habitat, largely with an eye toward better connecting the hills’ various forest patches. Policy advocacy and community engagement are part of the mix as well.

Luckily, as Ndang’ang’a points out, the apalis “can withstand some level of disturbance and thus can be found living side-by-side with communities as long as disturbance isn’t extreme and habitat isn’t destroyed.”

Any efforts to protect the Taita Apalis will also help the Taita Thrush and Taita White-eye, two other birds endemic to the area with extremely low populations.

How to help: Donate to BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme, writing “to help save Taita Apalis” in the comments section. BirdLife is likewise seeking a “species champion” for this bird. Nature Kenya, a BirdLife partner, also does apalis fundraising. Email [email protected] for more info.

Gurney’s Pitta (female at left, male at right) lives in lowland forests in southern Myanmar. Habitat loss and volatile national politics leave its future uncertain. Photo by Red Ivory/Shutterstock

Gurney’s Pitta

Where it lives: Myanmar

Estimated population: 1,000

A gaudy albeit elusive songbird, the Gurney’s Pitta occupies the lowland forests of southern Myanmar, which over the past 20 years have been ravaged by the palm-oil industry. The bird has already lost about 80 percent of its habitat in Myanmar, and scientists fear the remaining 20 percent — none of which is fully protected — could disappear within a decade or two.

Gurney’s Pittas used to reside in neighboring Thailand as well. But by 2014, they were declared functionally extinct there, the victim of the same forces affecting them across the border. “[There’s] definitely no chance of returning to Thailand because there is no suitable habitat left,” says Nay Myo Shwe, a Gurney’s Pitta researcher who serves as Fauna & Flora International’s program manager for the Tanintharyi region of Myanmar.

Shwe believes securing political support will be “crucial” for saving Myanmar’s last pitta strongholds. Yet a volatile political situation complicates matters. Most Gurney’s Pittas live on land controlled by the Karen ethnic group, which has long fought against the central government. Despite a ceasefire signed in 2012, tensions remain high.

Should the political obstacles be overcome and reserves created, locals would then ideally receive a financial incentive to keep them intact. As a result, Shwe envisions pairing them with a program of community-based ecotourism.

How to help: Donate to BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme, writing “to help save Gurney’s Pitta” in the comments section. Fauna & Flora International and the Karen Wildlife Conservation Initiative also do Gurney’s Pitta conservation work.

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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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