South American bird feeding- a conservation initiative

Birding feeding has been popular with birders and non-birders alike for many years now. In the UK and the US many thousands of people feed birds to help them through the harsh northern hemisphere winters. Here in South Africa too, encouraging birds to our gardens is a favourite pastime of most birders- just witness the popularity of the bi-monthly  Garden Watch  feature in Africa Birds and Birding.

However it is In South America  and particularly Ecuador where bird feeding has been taken to  extraordinary lengths.  Most lodges have hummingbird  feeders and birders spend many hours watching otherwise very difficult to see hummingbirds  at close quarters.  Even birds like the range restricted Marvellous Spatuletail  now comes to feeders in Peru saving birders what once used to be a nine hour hike to its favoured habitat.

Many lodges have fruit feeders for the tanagers, honeycreepers, barbets and toucans giving photographers marvellous opportunities for close up shots of what are mostly canopy feeders.

And finally there are corn, grain and worm feeders for birds as varied as wood quail, crakes, rails, forest doves and even tinamous. At Copalinga lodge in Southern Ecuador a two year programme filled with trial and error has finally brought results with a Grey Tinamou now being regularly fed and seen on a daily basis.

After taking shots of this tinamou – rated as one of the most difficult to see birds in Ecuador I was told that not more than a handful of people have ever photographed this bird.

Ecuador first made world headlines when a local farmer successfully started feeding  antpittas on his tropical rainforest property ( where he also grows blackberries commercially) at Refugio Paz de las Aves in the Milpe area of the Western Andes. Angel Paz and his female Giant Antpitta affectionately known as Maria started a trend which has spread across Ecuador

Maria is now unfortunately dead- taken by a forest falcon but Angel still feeds her offspring as well as Yellow-breasted, Ochre breasted , and Moustached Antpitta.

More feeding projects are run by the Jocotoco foundation, a non profit  conservation organisation which has bought significant tracts of forest in Ecuador and now runs 10 different ecological reserves covering 14000 hectares. These reserves are known to support populations of over 800 bird species , 50 of which are globally threatened and more than 100 are restricted range or endemic species. It has built 3 eco lodges where birders can stay and watch bird birds from the patios or explore the forest trails. These lodges are staffed by the local people who benefit financially and of course part of their revenue is used for local conservation. The Foundation takes its name from the rare and highly localised Jocotoco Antpitta which was only discovered in 1997 by Robert Ridgely at Tapichalaca in Southern Ecuador

Angel  Paz was invited by the Foundation to train local guides in Antpitta feeding, a painstaking exercise in patience and perseverance. Today a trip to the Tapichalca Jocotoco lodge to see the Jocotoco Antpitta is a highlight of any trip to Southern Ecuador.

This feeding strategy eliminates the negative effects of the over-use of bird calls by visiting birders; insread the birds are rewarded for their response to the feeders with a daily supply of food. The Tapichalaca Jocotocos are now breeding twice a year as a result of this abundant food supply.

How can we learn from this example in South Africa?

Well Wakkerstroom could be the place to start. It makes huge sense to think about building lodges- in key IBA areas -not luxury lodges but of sufficiently high standard to be acceptable to the huge numbers of overseas birders who visit South Africa every year. How about feeding Flufftails? I believe it has been done before in the Cape. Why can’t we start feeding francolins, korhaans, and cranes .

Imagine be able to watch from your stoep the endangered Cape Parrot at  fruit/nut  feeders or enjoy the antics of our spectacular Touraco’s and Barbets. If Ecuador can do it surely it is possible here?