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Rare Andean Bird escapes brush with extinction

Posted on 11. July, 2011.

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The Pale-headed Brush-Finch – once considered extinct – has been downlisted from Critically Endangered to Endangered on the IUCN Red List of globally threatened birds after of more than a decade of sustained conservation action.

The announcement came following news that the brush-finch has increased in number from fewer than 40 to over 100 pairs thanks to an international conservation collaboration involving Ecuador’s Fundación Jocotoco, the US-based American Bird Conservancy (ABC), World Land Trust-US and others.

“We are indebted to our many partners and individual donors in making these remarkable gains,” says Zoltan Waliczky, Executive Director of Fundación Jocotoco. “For a long time, everyone thought that this bird was extinct. When it was rediscovered in 1998, conservationists realised we had been handed a unique second chance and were determined not to waste it. Sustained, focused international cooperation is what has made the difference.”

The Pale-headed Brush-Finch has likely always been a rare bird with a tiny range, restricted to two arid rainshadow valleys in the Andes of southern Ecuador. In the late 1960s, however, agriculture began to destroy its limited habitat, and the species was not seen for more than 30 years.

Then, in 1998, ABC funded an expedition led by experts from Jocotoco and Aves y Conservación that found a tiny population of the brush-finch in a 60-acre patch of scrub woodland in the Río Yunguilla Valley near Girón. Fundación Jocotoco moved quickly to purchase the land, establishing the Yunguilla Reserve. Several years of intensive research revealed that the brush-finch population was suffering not only from habitat degradation, but also from parasitism by Shiny Cowbirds, the population of which had increased due to fragmentation of the land by agriculture and the increased food supply associated with increasing agriculture.

Following establishment of the reserve, and with management of the cowbirds and restoration of the habitat, the brush-finch population began to slowly increase. As small land parcels adjacent to the reserve became available, they were purchased by Jocotoco. Today, the area under active management stands at more than 370 acres.

The Yunguilla reserve is also home to the threatened Little Woodstar and the rare Buff-fronted Owl. Apart from birds, the reserve is also important for amphibians given its unique location bordering several different ecological zones. Two new species of frogs have recently been discovered at the site by Ecuadorian experts.

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