How an invisible bird is saving the rainforest

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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In almost every interview with scientists and researchers, a question comes up about why birds are important to people. One of the most compelling answers I’ve ever heard came in an interview for a piece running in the Washington Post this week exploring the powers of bioacoustic research. 

A Puaiohi Thrush (Photo by Lucal Behnke; cover photo by Behnke as well)

The bird in question was the Puaiohi Thrush, the last few hundred of which live so far up in the cliffs on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai it’s almost impossible to see them. To try to save them, a team had to turn to special recording devices placed at the foot of the cliffs to study their range and breeding.

But why is it important to save a bird that you never see in a place people cannot even get to?

Lisa “Cali” Crampton, who manages the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, said while you rarely see the Puaiohi, its work is spread all across the island. That’s because these thrushes are one of the primary fruit eaters, which then in turn spread the around the island.

“I would hate to see us have to save only one bird, but it would be the Puaiohi,’’ she said. “We have no forest without the Puaiohi. Without forests we have no flood control. We have no drinking water. The forest is the backbone of these islands.’’

Not every bird plays such a pivotal roll. But all perform some part of the interlocking operation of nature, from pollination to pest control. 

Many people who study birds will talk about their profound beauty, or how they serve as an indicator of the environment. I love the Puaiohi story because it illustrates in such concrete terms what the impacts would be if species disappear the way many recent studies are predicting.

A bioacoustic recorder in California’s Sierra Nevadas is tracking Snowy Owls. (Photo by Connor Wood)

This week’s story in the Post is about how bioacoustic technology — basically capturing bird songs and calsl and then using technology to analyze the results — has advanced to become a powerful tool for learning about birds. Together with new uses of radar, citizen science and big data, bioacoustics helps uncover more about the complexities and threats to birds than ever before.

That knowledge makes it steadily more obvious that birds are both creatures of miraculous beauty and natural engineers that are fundamental to a healthy and functioning environment. 

That research also provides solutions for how we can keep species like the Puaiohi on the job of building the rainforests. We’ll save the details of that rescue plan — as well as many other breakthroughs from bioacoustics — for the story. Here is a link to both the Washington Post piece and a list of rescue projects using bioacoustics around the globe.

Puaiohi Thrushes (Photo by Patrick Blake)

 

 

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lizagyllenhaal January 12, 2020 - 3:52 pm

Fascinating piece in the Washington Post. Thanks for continuing to take us out to the front lines of the efforts to understand the avian world — and our role in threatening its existence.

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