Just before the birth of Luís Pacheco in 1992, a mysterious man began to appear near his family’s house on the Portuguese island of São Miguel. The man was looking in the woods for a small gray songbird with a crown, tail and black wing tips, arousing the curiosity of locals. “When I was young my dad and my uncles would talk about this guy, wondering what he was doing in the forest,” Pachecho told me. “It was very strange for the people of the island!
As it turned out, the man was biologist Jaime Ramos, who launched what has become a decades-long effort to save the Azorean Bullfinch, an endemic songbird that was already in trouble when it arrived. The locals knew the bird as the Priolo, but paid little attention to it at the time. Their attitude changed considerably over the course of Pacheco’s life, and today, thanks to the efforts of environmentalists, volunteers and supportive residents, the recovery of the Priolo is hailed as a rare achievement in a difficult period for European avifauna. .
In early October, I set off in search of the bird, starting with the Priolo Environmental Center at the eastern tip of São Miguel, a 290 square mile island 1,000 miles west of Portugal on the Azores archipelago. The center is a testament to the bird’s status on the island as a source of both pride and concern. After passing through a silent and dense stand of towering trees planted in tight military formation, I emerged on a trail among native junipers, laurels and heather. As the day alternated between sun and rain, I spotted finches, gray wagtails and common wax beaks, but the Priolo remained elusive.
The closest to a Priolo was inside the center, where Pacheco, now an interpretive guide, led me through the history of the species’ conservation as its melodious call sang from a high- portable speaker. Pacheco, who has assisted in the conservation of Priolo since his internship with the Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds (SPEA) eight years earlier, recounted how birds were abundant when humans first settled on the island hundreds of years ago. But by 1900 they were scarce, mainly because humans had reduced their natural habitat, replacing the endemic forest with pastures and dense Japanese cedar plantations. Non-native species that had been planted for beauty or utility, such as Chilean rhubarb, Kahili ginger, lily of the valley, and Australian cheesewood, have become invasive, choking out the native laurel forests upon which the Priolo depends.
In the 1990s, while digging in the forest while studying for his doctorate, Ramos began the first surveys to understand the bullfinch population. When it became clear that the species was in decline, Ramos experimented with keeping a few birds in captivity, curious about the breeding potential. But unlike other finches who readily accept sunflower seeds and other foods offered, the Priolo was picky and wouldn’t accept anything other than food collected from the forest. Ramos decided that getting the Priolo used to captivity would take time and effort that they didn’t have. The species was listed as “endangered” on the IUCN Red List in 2000 and “critically endangered” in 2005, with only a few hundred birds.
At this time, SPEA took the lead in Priolo’s conservation efforts, which were led by Coordinator Azucena de la Cruz Martín and Head of Terrestrial Conservation Rui Botelho. In 2005 and 2006, they tried to set up a network of feeders to compensate for the loss of native plants, but they encountered the same problem Ramos had when considering captive breeding. The feeders attracted a lot of birds, but not the bullfinch. In the end, it became clear that habitat restoration was the most crucial.
“While preserving the habitat, we are preserving Priolo,” explains de la Cruz, “and while preserving Priolo, we are preserving the habitat.”
Even after zeroing this strategy, it took years to find a way to repel invaders and better care for native plants. To complicate matters, years of encroachment by invasive plants has resulted in the loss of the soil’s natural seed banks, so starting nurseries has become another key part of the habitat restoration equation.
Meanwhile, support for the restoration of native forest and Priolos has increased, said de la Cruz. SPEA employees and partners have disseminated knowledge about the unique songbird through school programs, and restoration efforts have created new jobs on the island, home to 45,000 people.
Today, 1,100 acres of laurel forest at various elevations have been restored. These expanses, which lie within the 15,000-acre Pico da Vara / Ribeira do Guilherme Special Protection Area, are again teeming with Macronesian holly and Portuguese laurel, Azorean cedar and Azorean blueberry, all endemic to the island and essential for the feeding of the bullfinch. Although the bird has adapted to feed on some non-endemic species during the lean winter months, it is entirely dependent on native plants for most of the year, feasting on tree seeds, buds flowers, seeds of fleshy fruits and even ferns. fronds, from 37 different plant species. This diverse diet is probably one of the reasons the feeders failed. “What we have learned from the Azorean bullfinch,” de la Cruz explains, “is that by reclaiming habitat and food sources, we can stabilize the population.”
And Priolo’s population of around 1,000 birds is indeed considered stable. In 2016, the species was downgraded to “vulnerable” on the IUCN list. “[It’s] are now becoming a symbol of the territory and a symbol of a wider conservation of the biodiversity of the Azores, ”said de la Cruz.
Recovery efforts have been so successful that the Azorean bullfinch was highlighted as one of the few bright spots in the European Bird List 2021 report, released by BirdLife International in October. Of the 544 species assessed, 37 species have been reclassified as more at risk since the previous report, published in 2015. While 47 species were considered to be less at risk than before, many of their populations continue to decline. Overall, a third of all European bird species are in decline and one in five is threatened or near threatened with extinction.
The takeaway, said Claire Rutherford, conservation manager of BirdLife Europe, in a press release, is that “bird populations in Europe are declining mainly because they are losing their habitats.”
As the Azorean bullfinch shows, if you bring back the natural habitat, the birds will bounce back. Yet while Priolo’s population is considered stable, the term is relative in these difficult times for birds. Even as the estimated 970 individuals latch on, invasive plants continue their foray, threatening to undo all conservation work done so far.
“I feel divided about the downgrading,” says de la Cruz. “On the one hand, this is good news and it shows that catering is working. On the other hand, it can send the message that there is no longer a need to act.
Ramos, now a conservation biologist at the University of Coimbra in central Portugal, agrees the gains are precarious. “Invasive species are very aggressive and controlling them is a long-term project,” he says.
The SPEA is determined to maintain its habitat gains and to focus more on restoring vegetation in watersheds and steep areas vulnerable to landslides, which frequently claim the homes, and sometimes the lives, of Azoreans. The efforts emphasize that taking care of landscapes can help humans as well as birds.
But finding financial support for the work remains difficult. Just since my visit this fall, Pacheco’s post at the Priolo Environmental Center has been cut due to budget constraints, says de la Cruz.
Despite the loss of jobs, Pacheco’s enthusiasm for the bird and its conservation has not waned. “It’s very important to have this project here,” he says. Priolos and the healthy habitat in which they live attract tourists in search of nature and scientists dedicated to the restoration of landscapes and wildlife populations. And, he says, this little songbird has given his local community a deeper sense of connection and responsibility towards this particular place on Earth to which they all belong.