Costa Rica Rainforest Birds Find Sanctuary in Farms Featuring Natural Landscapes

In March 2018, a captivating image of a royal flycatcher bird at the Las Cruces Biological Station in Coto Brus, Costa Rica, was generously provided by researchers. Their groundbreaking 18-year study, published on September 4, 2023, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sheds light on the remarkable role played by small farms enriched with natural landscape elements such as shade trees, hedgerows, and intact forest patches in safeguarding various tropical bird populations.

For nearly two decades, ornithologist James Zook painstakingly compiled extensive data on nearly 430 tropical bird species inhabiting small farms, plantations, and pristine forests throughout Costa Rica. While undisturbed rainforests remain the optimal habitat for avian life, Zook observed that certain species usually associated with forests can establish thriving populations in “diversified farms.” These farms replicate elements of a natural forest environment, providing essential features like secure and shaded nesting spots and a diverse range of food sources. Nicholas Hendershot, an ecologist from Stanford University and co-author of the study, emphasized the significance of farming practices, stating that diversified farms foster long-term growth in bird species with specialized requirements. This trend stands in stark contrast to the adverse effects of intensive agriculture, as witnessed in monocrop pineapple and banana plantations.

The findings may seem intuitive, but Natalia Ocampo-Penuela, a conservation ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was not part of the study, highlighted the rarity of having comprehensive, long-term data from tropical regions proving the sustainability of forest bird populations in varied farming landscapes.

The study’s 18-year data provides a robust foundation, demonstrating that 75% of the 305 species encountered in diversified farms maintained stable or expanding populations over the study’s duration. These species include the collared aracari, a small toucan-like bird with a yellow chest and an impressive beak, as well as several members of the manakin family—colorful forest birds renowned for their elaborate courtship displays. Ruth Bennett, an ecologist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, who was not involved in the research, celebrated this discovery, emphasizing that it’s a significant contribution to know that certain birds are not merely passing through these areas but establishing permanent populations with growth potential.

However, the study’s authors cautioned that such habitat sanctuaries cannot offset the overall population declines resulting from the conversion of primary forests into plantations. As James Zook succinctly put it, a pineapple plantation is essentially a “bird desert.”

In February 2018, a striking image of a white-tipped sicklebill bird in San Vito, Costa Rica, was also provided by researchers. This bird, typically a forest specialist, frequently ventures into diversified farms in search of specific flower species that align with the shape of its bill.

In June 2017, an image captured a bare-throated tiger heron guarding its nest in a tree on the edge of a rice farm in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, illustrating the importance of these natural landscape features for bird conservation.

The study also utilized mist nets on a coffee farm in Las Brisas, Coto Brus, Costa Rica, in September 2023 to capture and tag birds as part of the ongoing research into the long-term impacts of alternative farming practices on wildlife populations.

In June 2017, another image showcased a white-winged tanager at Las Cruces Biological Station in Coto Brus, Costa Rica, highlighting the population increases observed in forest habitats.

The study conducted a portion of its research in the lush canopy of the Las Cruces Forest Reserve in Coto Brus, Costa Rica, with the Golfo Dulce and the Osa Peninsula, including Corcovado National Park, forming a scenic backdrop. This location exemplifies the vital role of natural landscape features in providing refuge for tropical bird populations.

Increasingly, scientists emphasize that species conservation necessitates attention to landscapes impacted by human activities, not solely pristine, untouched areas. As Natalia Ocampo-Penuela from the University of California pointed out, modern conservation efforts must extend beyond protected areas and encompass agricultural and even urban environments that hold potential as habitat for some species.

In conclusion, the study’s comprehensive findings underscore the importance of diversified farms and natural landscape elements in sustaining tropical bird populations, while also emphasizing the critical need for broader conservation efforts across various landscapes. The study’s long-term data offers valuable insights into the dynamics of avian life in agricultural and natural settings, ultimately contributing to our understanding of biodiversity conservation.

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