ABC's Bird Conservation Projects Protect More Than One Million Acres

Updated March 15, 2022

As ABC approached its 25th anniversary, we celebrated a series of successful bird conservation projects that helped to protect more than 1 million acres of bird habitat for many of our hemisphere's rarest species.

More than a mile above the distant Pacific, an emerald mantle of cloud forest cloaks the undulating Andes in northern Peru. Spanning close to 25,000 acres of lush terrain, the Abra Patricia Reserve is one of the only places on the planet sheltering the diminutive Long-whiskered Owlet, the leggy Ochre-fronted Antpitta, the orange-headed Johnson's Tody-Flycatcher, and an all-blue hummingbird known as the Royal Sunangel.

All four species are relatively new to science, described in the 1970s or later. Established by ABC and its Peruvian partner ECOAN in 2005, the Abra Patricia Reserve was created to save these and other species and to protect watersheds vital to surrounding communities. Now the reserve also anchors ecotourism in the region, while providing a shining example of how conservation inspired the creation of additional protected areas among surrounding communities.

Through collaboration with more than 50 partner organizations like ECOAN, ABC has protected 1,161,142 acres of bird habitat at more than 100 sites in 15 countries across the Western Hemisphere. The Abra Patricia Reserve is just one of these, like a sparkling gem in a glittering crown of protected areas that ABC and its partners have secured for birds. These sites provide homes for 2,900 bird species — including 38 percent of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red-Listed Endangered and Critically Endangered species in the Americas, including, for example, the robust and rare Bay-breasted Cuckoo on Hispaniola and the dazzling Seven-colored Tanager, found only in Brazil's remaining Atlantic Forest.

Saving the rarest birds is one of ABC's core principles — an important part of conserving all birds in the Americas. Put together, these protected lands approach the size of Delaware, but when it comes to dwindling species, careful land selection and protection matters more than overall size.

These lands are important for more than just birds. At Abra Patricia, the umbrella provided by protecting four uber-rare species benefits more than 200 additional bird species, as well as the Critically Endangered Yellow-tailed Woolly Monkey and the Spectacled Bear, plus a dazzling array of orchids, tropical trees, butterflies and moths, reptiles, amphibians, and much more.

Abra Patricia Reserve, a verdant example of how strong partnerships can protect rare birds and their habitats. Photo by ECOAN

Abra Patricia Reserve, a verdant example of how strong partnerships can protect rare birds and their habitats. Photo by ECOAN

Going Where the Birds Are

ABC's first land protection project outside the United States was the creation of El Carricito Reserve in Mexico in 1998. There, 24,710 acres of highland pine-oak forest were protected via a conservation easement with our partner Bosque Antiguo and the Huichol indigenous community. The following year, the reserve was expanded by 922 acres. This reserve protects important habitat for the Military Macaw, which IUCN lists as Vulnerable, and the Eared Quetzal.

In some cases, reserves can be small, yet play a huge role in saving a species. In brush-covered hills in southern Ecuador, Yunguilla Reserve is an island of wild habitat surrounded by arid lands degraded by over-grazing goats and agriculture. Between 2004 and 2014, ABC helped Fundación Jocotoco (Jocotoco) purchase eight tracts here totaling 321 acres, including some of the first acreage. This land is essential to the survival of the highly localized Pale-headed Brushfinch. Without it, this cream-and-caramel-colored songbird would have no safe refuge and likely would have gone extinct. Instead, today the bird's future looks bright: The reserve has grown to 484 acres, habitat is being restored, and the brushfinch's population is expanding beyond the reserve's boundaries.

Abra Patricia, El Carricito, and Yunguilla are just a few highlights among the million acres ABC and our partners have protected. These protected sites pepper the Americas. But their locations are not random. In fact, it is easy to quickly spot some patterns: Much of ABC's land protection work has been focused in regions like the Andes and eastern Brazil — areas with high concentrations of endangered and endemic birds.

ABC and our partners are highly strategic in finding and securing reserves. Over the years, a priority has been protecting Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) sites — last refugia for Endangered and Critically Endangered species with 95 percent or more of their population at one site. Ecuador's Pale-headed Brushfinch is one such example. ABC also targets many other sites where imperiled bird species are now confined to scattered habitat fragments (rather than a single site), as is the case for the Orange-bellied Antwren and Seven-colored Tanager in the few remaining patches of Atlantic Forest in northeast Brazil.

Overall, 66 percent of the acreage ABC helped to protect lies in South America and 29 percent is in Mexico and Central America — reflecting critically important real estate for rapidly declining, isolated bird species. Though they make up but a small fraction of the total, 11,090 acres sit within the United States at ten sites, including Tucson Audubon's Paton Center for Hummingbirds and lands within the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri.

The Endangered Gold-ringed Tanager finds refuge at the Tangaras Reserve, established in 2009 by ABC Colombian partner Fundación ProAves. Photo by Christopher Becerra, Shutterstock

The Endangered Gold-ringed Tanager finds refuge at the Tangaras Reserve, established in 2009 by ABC Colombian partner Fundación ProAves. Photo by Christopher Becerra, Shutterstock

Varied Game Plans for Bird-Rich Real Estate

In order to protect birds where they are, we need multiple methods for protection at the ready.

One option is buying land directly. Challenges can include tricky negotiations. Landowner price expectations vary widely, and landowners can change their minds. While sellers frequently want to settle quickly, it can take six months or more for ABC to acquire the necessary funds from multiple donors to seal a deal.

Although 70 percent of individual land tracts ABC has helped protect were purchased, the majority of the acreage we protect — 72 percent — was not acquired, but rather protected via easements, conservation concessions, or other legal means without our partners owning the land.

ABC does not prefer one tactic or another, but uses the most appropriate methods determined by the land tenure practices where the birds are. Some of our partners, like Fundación ProAves (ProAves) in Colombia and Jocotoco in Ecuador, specialize in protecting private lands through land acquisition, whereas our Peruvian partner ECOAN does this in addition to protecting public lands and working with communities to help them to protect their indigenous territory.

Land tenure and protection laws vary by country, and this can provide both challenges and opportunities for conservation. Brazilian law, for example, provides tax incentives for private landowners who protect a portion of their land as permanent reserves called Private Natural Heritage Reserves, or RPPNs. All of the private land we buy with partners in Brazil is ultimately registered under this designation. This also presents a huge opportunity in Brazil to work with private landowners to protect land without buying it, or by providing financial incentives that cost less than the full price of the land. Our partner Aquasis has done this successfully to encourage protection of habitat for Gray-breasted Parakeets. We are looking into providing financial incentives to a private landowner to protect part of his land as an RPPN for the Kaempfer's Woodpecker, which was rediscovered in central Brazil in 2006, 80 years after the first confirmed bird was collected. By working in partnership with the local organization Instituto Araguaia, we have confidence that the forest protected within the RPPN will not only be respected, but will also be monitored as part of a larger wildlife conservation project in the area. In 2021, we made progress toward this goal with the establishment of a new reserve.

Sometimes multiple methods of land protection are needed to build a single reserve. This is what happened at Peru's Abra Patricia Reserve. ABC and ECOAN protected a total of 24,783 acres at Abra Patricia between 2007 and 2018 through a complex arrangement of 42 private land acquisitions and the creation of an additional 40-year conservation concession on neighboring public lands. Many, but not yet all, of the private lands acquired have already been registered as a Private Conservation Area (PCA) within the system of national protected areas in Peru.

Abra Patricia was a great step forward for conservation in northern Peru and has since become a springboard to protect much more. Funds spent by ABC and ECOAN protecting lands there helped ABC to raise additional funding for conservation projects with neighboring communities. ECOAN has planted more than 1 million trees and shade-coffee bushes in northern Peru inside or near Abra Patricia with funding mostly secured through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act grant program, which requires three dollars in non-federal funding to match every dollar this program provides. Consequently, this engagement inspired participating communities to create their own reserves and register these as PCAs. (The area is winter home to species such as Canada and Blackburnian Warblers and Swainson's Thrush.)

In 2018, ABC and ECOAN celebrated the approval of two new PCAs close to Abra Patricia, totaling 46,272 acres — almost twice the area of the Abra Patricia Reserve and protecting many of the same endangered birds.

New to science in 1976, the Ochre-fronted Antpitta now thrills birders at Abra Patricia. Photo by Carlos Calle Quispe

New to science in 1976, the Ochre-fronted Antpitta now thrills birders at Abra Patricia Reserve. Photo by Carlos Calle Quispe

Ensuring That Reserves Protect Birds

Sustaining and managing reserves is a long-term undertaking. Declaring a reserve is just the beginning of this commitment. To ensure reserves are more than just lines on a map, guards and land managers must be hired and well-trained. These staff deter poachers, settlers, and other trespassers who may want to remove timber, clear vegetation, or hunt wildlife.

They also maintain trails and nest boxes, monitor wildlife populations, and work with neighboring communities so the reserves' purpose and value are understood and respected. Some reserves require even more active management, including habitat restoration, fire control, or other interventions to help the birds that live there thrive or recover from past threats. In turn, on-site staff need housing, appliances, equipment, and in some cases, vehicles.

Ongoing management of protected lands costs money. ABC works with our partners to ensure sustainability and management of protected lands, and to strengthen our partner institutions themselves. In a growing number of cases, we are working with partners to develop innovative ways for reserves to generate income to pay for management. For example, ABC is grateful to many donors who have supported us, enabling us and our partners to build birding lodges and research stations at our reserves. Other income-generating enterprises under development include sustainable cattle ranching at Barba Azul Nature Reserve in Bolivia. In this stunning savanna dotted with palm islands, ABC and our partner Asociación Armonía (Armonía) protect the Critically Endangered Blue-throated Macaw and myriad other wildlife.

The Royal Sunangel is known only from a handful of sites in northern Peru and southern Ecuador. Photo by Carlos Calle Quispe

The Royal Sunangel is known only from a handful of sites in northern Peru and southern Ecuador. Photo by Carlos Calle Quispe

Bird-fueled Conservation

Back in Peru, Abra Patricia is a great example of how a birding lodge can help generate funds to pay for management. ABC worked with ECOAN to build the Owlet Lodge and a research center; accommodation fees paid by visitors support the reserve. Today, visitors to the 12-room lodge enjoy a network of trails, hummingbird feeders, and a canopy tower. The lodge and its reserve, in turn, are a key stop along the Northern Peru Birding Route and have inspired others in the region to conserve habitat and set up feeding stations for hummingbirds and wood-quail, as well as observation towers and other amenities for birders. Owlet Lodge now earns enough through tourism to cover ECOAN's costs to manage the reserve, making Abra Patricia one of the best examples in our network of a self-sufficient reserve.

Beyond staffing and sustainability, we rely on community support to protect our reserves and their birds. Being a good neighbor is an ABC priority, and by reaching out to nearby communities, we gain increased public support of these special places, and more eyes on the ground. For instance, several years ago, a bulldozer was discovered testing the boundaries of the El Dorado Reserve, which is managed by ABC's partner ProAves in Colombia. The local community and police from the nearby town of Minca came to the assistance of ProAves to help stop this incursion. And in Bolivia, ABC and Armonía established a regional awareness campaign that helped curb illegal trade in the endemic and Critically Endangered Red-fronted Macaw, which travels between protected nesting sites and unprotected foraging areas.

Seven-colored Tanagers are protected within Brazil's Serra do Urubu Private Natural Heritage Reserve. Photo by Ciro Albano

Seven-colored Tanagers find protected habitat within Brazil's Serra do Urubu Private Natural Heritage Reserve. Photo by Ciro Albano

From the Shadows to a Bright Future

Birds threatened by habitat loss can be protected into the future by reserves large and small. Think back to the misty wilderness of Abra Patricia, where until the 1970s, four of the endemic species the reserve protects — the owlet, the antpitta, the tody-flycatcher, and the sunangel — remained unknown to science. Thanks to timely conservation action that prevented these forests from succumbing to an expanding agricultural frontier, the future looks bright for these species. They have emerged from obscurity to regularly delight visiting birders, who contribute to the reserve's upkeep by staying at Owlet Lodge and walking the reserve's forested trails.

ABC and our partners are proud of the habitats we protect for birds and are enormously grateful to all of the supporters and donors who helped achieve our million-acre milestone. Together, we keep working hard to locate and protect prime habitats for dwindling bird species.

ABC is grateful to the many donors who have provided major support to our reserves, including: Amazon Conservation Association • Amos Butler Audubon • Beneficia Foundation • BirdLife International • blue moon fund • Kathleen Burger and Glen Gerada • Conservation International • Warren and Cathy Cooke • David and Patricia Davidson • Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund • Richard and Nancy Eales • The Moses Feldman Family Foundation • Regina B. Frankenberg Foundation • Jonathan Franzen • Robert Giles and Ana Contreras • Global Conservation Fund • David Harrison and Joyce Millen • Joan Hero • Inter-American Development Bank • IUCN National Committee of The Netherlands • Jeniam Foundation • Catherine C. Ledec • Jim Macaleer • MacArthur Foundation • Noel Mann • March Conservation Fund • The Marshall-Reynolds Foundation • Missouri Department of Conservation • Elisha Mitchell Audubon • Mitsubishi Corporation Foundation for the Americas • Leo Model Foundation • Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation • John V. Moore • National Fish and Wildlife Foundation • New Venture Fund • Benjamin Olewine • Osa Conservation • The Frank E. and Seba P. Payne Foundation • Quick Response Fund for Nature at RESOLVE • Rainforest Trust • Southern Wings • Jennifer Speers • Swarovski Optik • Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency • Larry Thompson • Tropical Forest Forever Fund at Gulf Coast Bird Observatory • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • Weeden Foundation • Western Alliance for Nature • The Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust • Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources • Constance and Jeff Woodman • World Land Trust • World Land Trust – US • The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund

Daniel Lebbin is the Vice President of Threatened Species at American Bird Conservancy. He completed his Ph.D. dissertation at Cornell University in 2007 on habitat specialization of Amazonian birds.