BIRD OF THE WEEK: December 13, 2019 SCIENTIFIC NAME: Atlapetes blancae
POPULATION: 50-100 individuals
IUCN STATUS: Critically Endangered
TREND: Decreasing
HABITAT: Native scrub and forest edge

Antioquia Brushfinch range map, Cornell

Antioquia Brushfinch range map, Birds of North America, maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The Antioquia Brushfinch was first described in 2007, but only on the basis of three museum specimens. A live bird was not found in the field until 2018, when an unfamiliar brushfinch was spotted by a keen-eyed agronomist on his way to weekly mass on the outskirts of Medellín, Colombia.

This newly rediscovered relative of Ecuador's Pale-headed Brushfinch joins the ranks of some of the rarest birds in the Western Hemisphere, including the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove, Bahama Nuthatch, and Stresemann's Bristlefront.

A Race to Rescue Habitat

The scarcity of this species is mainly due to habitat loss. The little native habitat that remains is found only in small patches of native scrub dotting the pastoral countryside outside of Medellín. Seventy-three percent of the land where the Antioquia Brushfinch was first discovered has been converted to cattle pasture, and the remaining habitat is under severe threat of conversion.

Although four populations of this species have been identified, fewer than 50 individual birds have been found so far.

Naming a New Brushfinch

The Antioquia Brushfinch belongs to a group of Neotropical finches found in humid mountain forests from Mexico south to Argentina. It's a large, sparrow-like bird with a rusty crown, a contrasting black mask around the eyes, and a white throat. Except for a few subtle fieldmarks, the Antioquia Brushfinch resembles the more widespread Slaty Brushfinch, with which it was initially confused.

The Antioquia Brushfinch's species name, blancae, refers to the bird's pale underparts. It also refers to the Colombian lepidopterologist Blanca Huertas, the wife of ornithologist Thomas M. Donegan, who described the new bird.

Antioquia Brushfinch_by Yovany Ochoa

Antioquia Brushfinch by Yovany Ochoa

A Successful Template for Saving a Species

Similarly range-restricted and related species provide prime examples of how this species can be saved. ABC's partner in Ecuador, Fundación Jocotoco, was able to bring back the population of the Critically Endangered Pale-headed Brushfinch through timely habitat protection and management. When that species was rediscovered in 1998, fewer than 70 individuals remained. The total population of Pale-headed Brushfinch now numbers more than 200.

Critical Conservation Efforts

ABC has been supporting and joining local researchers to search remaining habitat for the Antioquia Brushfinch and to identify areas suitable for its protection. This work is part of ABC's larger effort to rediscover and conserve “lost” bird species. In June 2019, ABC's Deputy Director of International Programs Wendy Willis hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail as part of her campaign to raise funds for additional Antioquia Brushfinch conservation efforts.

In October 2019, ABC, partners, and 85 volunteers joined forces to look for new locations for the Antioquia Brushfinch. This buscatón (big search) found about 25 Antioquia Brushfinches in five new locales. The next step will be identifying the best areas to conserve as a stronghold for the species. Although land outside of Medellín is expensive, ABC and multiple partners are working to identify the most suitable places to protect.

Meanwhile, ABC is working with the local community to promote the species' conservation. Among the enhancement techniques being planned is silvipasture — a balanced use of trees, forage plants, and livestock. Conservation on working lands will help increase habitat for the Antioquia Brushfinch and connect currently isolated populations. Local silvipasture experts at the Colombian agricultural research organization CIPAV are collaborating in this effort to educate local dairy farmers, taking them to exemplary silvipasture farms so that they can see firsthand examples of this form of sustainable agriculture.

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