In a Puerto Rican forest, a researcher watches as an amber-bellied bird soars on the wind, with only a gentle rustle of her delicate plumes.
“One bananaquit,” he notes.
The birds are common in the Caribbean islands, but each and every one is valuable to the scientists who are studying avian populations in critical – but often ignored – habitats.
In recent years, ecologists have conducted many studies on birds in temperate, urban environments. But, studies on birds in tropical, urban climates have been rare. Scientists in Puerto Rico have surveyed migratory birds in the island’s southern and eastern forests. Cities have been all but neglected – until now.
Fort Buchanan, a United States Army Reserve-funded Installation in the San Juan metropolitan area, is conducting migratory bird surveys.
Such surveys ensure Fort Buchanan’s compliance with federal, Department of Defense and Army regulations regarding avian conservation, and they protect the birds that provide essential ecological services to the island.
Victor Rodriguez Cruz, an Environmental Protection Specialist at Fort Buchanan, said that birds have many roles.
Birds pollinate our plants, and they scatter fruits and seeds, helping the forest regenerate.
Birds also control vermin such as mosquitoes and rodents. By regulating these nuisances, birds prevent the spread of pest-borne illnesses, and they control the populations that harm agricultural commodities.
Last, but not least, birds add cultural value to their communities. “Birding and nature photography are very popular these days,” Rodriguez Cruz noted. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation discovered that nearly 46 million people watch birds for recreation, and bird enthusiasts invest 36 billion dollars in such activities every year.
While birds benefit our environment and our economy, they face many threats at the hands of humans – especially habitat loss. Farmers in Puerto Rico leveled land for agriculture in the 19th century, and developers razed forests for construction in the 20th century. In fact, 11 percent of the island is now urban.
Fort Buchanan, however, remains a viable habitat for migratory birds. Even in the midst of Puerto Rico’s largest city, the Installation boasts 70 hectares of fragmented forests. The Directorate of Public Works actively manages these forest patches for endangered animals such as the Puerto Rican boa, and birds have reaped the advantages of these practices.
Fort Buchanan and the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ Research and Development Center conducted their first migratory bird surveys at the Installation in March, April and October of 2016 to correspond with spring migration season, breeding season and fall migration season. They observed 60 avian species and 1,760 individual birds during those surveys.
The scientists noted Antillean grackles and bananaquits most commonly among native birds and white-winged parakeets and saffron finches most commonly among non-native birds. Surveyors also observed herons, pigeons, doves, woodpeckers, thrashers and rare West Indian Whistling Ducks.
Some of the documented birds are species of “regional conservation concern.” But, their relatively robust presence on Fort Buchanan is a testament to the Installation’s continuous efforts to protect their forest patches and the island’s unique natural resources. For instance, populations of the Puerto Rican flycatcher and the white-crowned pigeon have declined throughout Puerto Rico, but surveyors detected the birds relatively often on the post survey.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in the fall of 2017, Fort Buchanan initiated another round of migratory bird surveys to determine the impacts of the storm on their avian populations and their habitats. So far, Rodriguez Cruz is optimistic about their future. “Tropical forests are very resilient and tend to recover at a faster rate than other forests in other biomes,” he said. “The forest habitats on the Installation are already beginning to recover.”
According to Rodriguez Cruz, the birds can rely on Fort Buchanan’s ambitious conservation plans for generations to come. “[We will strive to] maintain the forest patches as intact as possible to benefit the species,” he said. “And, if projects arise that may have negative impacts to those habitats, [those projects] will be accompanied by potential mitigation measures, such as reforestation, to ensure the long term conservation of our avian species.” The Installation will also protect habitats by ensuring that no pesticides or chemicals are released into the environment.
Rodriguez Cruz said that the community on and around Fort Buchanan can contribute to the efforts to protect and conserve migratory birds, too. Individuals can support local or national bird conservation programs, reduce waste, protect forests, create landscapes around their homes and limit their use of chemicals – especially pesticides. “Most importantly, our communities should become educated about the natural resources around them and the impacts of their actions on the environment,” he said.
So, if you visit Puerto Rico and hear the distinct trill of that bananaquit, listen close. Her melody may be praise for Fort Buchanan and their efforts to protect their avian communities. A verdant oasis in the middle of a bustling city, the Installation is – and will continue to be – quite literally for the birds, and that certainly gives our feathered friends a reason to sing.
Article by Jonelle Kimbrough, Strategic Communicator
Army Reserve Sustainability Programs