BIRD OF THE WEEK: November 30, 2018
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Columbina cyanopis
POPULATION: Estimated at just 16 individuals
IUCN STATUS: Critically Endangered
HABITAT: Tropical savanna of eastern Brazil
With a population estimated at just 16 birds, the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove is one of the rarest birds in Brazil, a country that's home to many rare species found nowhere else, including the Stresemann's Bristlefront, Grey-breasted Parakeet, São Paulo Marsh Antwren, and Cherry-throated Tanager.
This small dove is named for its vivid blue eyes, which match the spots on its wings and contrast with the rest of its rich tawny and rufous plumage. The species was considered extinct until 2015, when ornithologist Rafael Bessa made the discovery of a lifetime.
The Blue-eyed Ground-Dove was previously known only from a few scattered records from the cerrado (savanna) of the interior of Brazil. It had not been seen since 1941. But then Rafael Bessa — doing field work in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais — heard a mysterious, repetitive bird call. Immediately, he suspected he was onto something exciting.
Bessa recorded the call and played it back, bringing a Blue-eyed Ground-Dove into view. This 2015 sighting was the first in 75 years and took place well to the east of this species' known range.
Scientists have now stepped up study of the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove's biology in a bid to save the species. The remaining population appears to exist in three distinct groups, each separated by more than a mile. Small flocks of up to five doves have been seen, and the birds appear to remain faithful to a relatively small territory. They are reluctant to fly and rarely flush from cover.
Like other ground-doves, the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove gleans seeds and small insects from the soil. It seems to require the presence of the native grass species Lagenocarpus rigidus, which, when mature, produces many seeds. Close proximity to fresh water also seems to be key. Observers have even seen the birds foraging in shallow water!
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Since the dove's rediscovery three years ago, American Bird Conservancy (ABC) partner SAVE Brasil has been working to find and protect remaining individuals. After intensive searches, a single breeding group was located in Botumirim, a small municipality in the north of Minas Gerais. In 2017, SAVE Brasil and Rainforest Trust created the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove Reserve (Reserva Natural Rolinha-do-planalto) there. This reserve protects other endemic birds as well, including the Swallow-tailed Hummingbird, Caatinga Antwren, and Minas Gerais Tyrannulet.
In July 2018, Brazil established the 88,175-acre Botumirim State Park in Minas Gerais to develop the area's ecotourism potential. The park preserves Atlantic Forest habitat as well as stretches of tropical savanna, or cerrado, that are home to the ground-dove.
ABC's International program is supporting partner SAVE Brasil's development of a Species Action Plan for the ground-dove, funding a workshop that brought 19 experts together. Among other commitments, participants agreed to create a fire emergency protection system for the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove Reserve; assist Botumirim State Park with Blue-eyed Ground-Dove conservation plans; and consider a captive breeding program.
The next decade will be a crucial time for stabilizing the species' tiny population so this bird does not vanish once again. Ongoing support will be needed from concerned birders and conservation groups.
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