Birding in Cuba


I have chosen a special place for you," said Rivera with a smile. "Can you climb a tree?"

Only if you hold a gun to my head, I thought to myself. An ugly accident in Africa has left me with a leg full of metal and an unambiguous fear of heights. But of course I beam at him, thank him profusely for his special effort on my behalf, and hide my sweating palms in my pockets.

We are here to count Cuban parrots and parakeets, and a Caribbean population of sandhill cranes. The Cuban parrot (which is also found in the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands) was recently moved from the critical to the threatened list, though in fact it's still unknown how many parrots remain in Cuba. The Cuban parakeet, another endemic, is known to be critically endangered with estimates putting the number of birds at about 1,300. The parakeet, or"catay," only nests in a few species of palm and can be drastically affected by hurricanes, which often decimate the palms.

In addition to these endemic psittacines, Cuba is the only island in the Caribbean where sandhill cranes are found, and then only in a handful of coastal areas. Three years ago it was thought that less than 100 lived in Cuba; with new information that number has been revised to about 300, and new sites have been discovered. It's encouraging, but it's not enough.

Taking the Bird Census

This is the second such census. In 1996 the event took place on the Isla de la Juventud, when about 1,100 parrots and 115 cranes were found. This year it's the turn of Ciego de Avila province, which straddles the narrow waist of Cuba east of Havana and stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. Twenty or so scientists and a like number of foreign visitors have been brought together by the Cuban Empresa Nacional Para la Conservacion de la Flora y la Fauna, the Philadelphia-based Wildlife Preservation Trust International, and the International Crane Foundation, in an effort to determine the status of these birds and chart a course for Cuban conservation. The country is home to a high rate—up to 42 percent—of endemic species, including about 30 bird species. But no one knows their exact status, which is why we're here.


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