Why One Idaho Woman Is Trying To Save A Rare Bird In Central America

Apr 20, 2015

An Idaho woman is studying the migration patterns of a rare bird in Central America. The three-wattled bellbird makes bell-like calls, and those sounds can travel half a mile. Some experts believe it’s the loudest bird in the world.

Robin Bjork has a day job at Trout Unlimited in Boise, but she’s also a research scientist and her passion is birds. She’s studying the bellbird because its numbers are falling thanks to deforestation and habitat degradation. Her goal is to find ways to preserve the bird's high cloud forest habitat; she says this bird shows how important habitat is to the survival of a species.

“They’re showing us that one protected area alone is not necessarily enough to save certain species because some species require a lot of different regions and these regions aren’t even necessarily in close proximity to each other,” says Bjork.

Bjork is working with the Zoo Conservation Outreach Group (ZCOG). The group secures funding for research expeditions. With a grant from Zoo Boise, Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens, and the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, Bjork traveled to Honduras. There, she and her team used special mist nets to capture the rare and elusive three-wattled bellbird. They placed special satellite transmitters on the birds and released them back into the wild. Now Bjork is following the birds via satellite to see where they go.

A map of the bellbird's movements
Credit Robin Bjork

“The Northern end of their range is Honduras, the southern end is in Western Panama,” she says. “We were able to identify the most complex regional migration of any bird species.”

They eat tiny avocados and Bjork says they may be seeking out these fruits as they migrate.

“They’re serving as linkages of biodiversity, showing us that one protected area alone is not necessarily enough to save certain species because some species require a lot of different regions and these regions aren’t even necessarily in close proximity to each other,” says Bjork.

The scientist says the birds need different regions kept safe in order for them to survive. But even protected areas in Honduras are under threat, because the country can’t afford park rangers to patrol the protected regions. People move in and cut down trees to grow beans and coffee.

A female three-wattled bellbird.
Credit Robin Bjork

“For those of us generally interested in protecting global biodiversity, bellbirds serve as an umbrella for all those creatures who do not receive attention and tell a valuable ecological story about the need for protected area networks for those species which have complex annual resource requirements.”

She says the birds are a beautiful and unique symbol.

“Bellbirds educate us about what the threats are in other important regions of the globe.”

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

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