Bare-faced curassows return to Argentina’s Iberá after 50-year absence

Biologist Sofía Zalazar wasn’t born yet the last time a bare-faced curassow was seen in the Iberá forests in Argentina. The bird began disappearing from the wild in the 1970s, surviving only in small populations in forest areas in the provinces of Chaco and Formosa, in the northeast of the country.

A couple of years ago, Zalazar started to investigate the presence of bare-faced curassows (Crax fasciolata) in Iberá National Park as part of her doctoral research. But the information she got from locals was scant and vague. “A big black bird that sings,” elders told her. “The last records are from more than 40 years ago,” park rangers said.

She understood then that the bird wasn’t just disappearing from the forests, but also from the collective memory of the community. “We didn’t find anyone who could describe it accurately,” Zalazar said. “It’s been a long time without the species.”

The bare-faced curassow is the largest fruit-eating bird in Argentina. Image by Matías Rebak.
The bare-faced curassow is the largest fruit-eating bird in Argentina. Image by Matías Rebak.

A reminder to help jog that fading memory came in February 2021, with the hatching of three bare-faced curassow chicks. Given the species’ long absence from the region, it had taken two years, since 2019, for the reintroduction strategy to pay off, Salazar said.

“Seeing how a species carries out its role in the forests and how it starts reproducing is a very important step in the recovery of an ecosystem,” she said.

The bare-faced curassow chicks were the latest new wildlife births to be recorded in the park as part of reintroduction projects in the past 14 years, all carried out by the Rewilding Argentina foundation.

Others include jaguars (Panthera onca), giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), red-and-green macaws (Ara chloropterus) and giant otters (Pteronura brasiliensis).

The chicks born in February 2021 and their parents were captured by biologists to keep them safe in their first weeks of life. Video courtesy of Rewilding Argentina.

Tracking the bare-faced curassow

In her doctoral research, Zalazar found that the main causes for the decline of the bare-faced curassow, the largest fruit-eating bird in Argentina, were hunting and loss of habitat due to deforestation.

Resembling a giant chicken, a fully grown curassow can reach more than 80 centimeters (31.5 inches) in height and weigh up to 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds). “That’s why they are wanted for their meat,” Zalazar said.

At the same time, the loss of their habitat to agriculture and ranching cuts them off from sources of water. “The [bare-faced curassow] needs vast territories with forest mass and a good conservation state,” Zalazar said. “This is an inconvenience because it can’t live in any impoverished forest.”

A male bare-faced curassow. Image by Matías Rebak.
A male bare-faced curassow. Image by Matías Rebak.

Iberá National Park forms part of a larger reserve alongside Iberá Provincial Park, which together contain 700,000 hectares (1.7 million acres) of subtropical plains. At its heart lie the Iberá Wetlands — a portion of which has been designated a Ramsar Site — that meld into different landscapes like rainforest, plains and pastures. Over the past century, threats to native species like the curassow and the jaguar have led to an ecological imbalance in the region, which scientists from Rewilding Argentina are trying to address.

“An ecosystem isn’t healthy if it doesn’t have all its pieces. It works as an engine that has many parts that make it functional,” Zalazar said. “We want to see Iberá as it was 10 years ago.” For this to happen, though, the species that play key roles in the ecosystem would need to return, including the bare-faced curassow.

Fruits make up 80% of the bird’s diet. And because it’s a big bird, it eats big, fleshy fruits that other smaller birds and mammals can’t eat. This makes it the main seed spreader in Iberá. “By defecating the seeds in different places, it helps to regenerate the forests. At the same time, by breaking other hard and abundant seeds in their stomachs, they control and keep the heterogeneity of the environment,” Zalazar said.

Eighty percent of the bare-faced curassow’s diet is made up of fleshy fruits. Video courtesy of Rewilding Argentina.

In 2019, the reintroduction project went from paper to action. The plan called of bringing in individual birds from other places. Brazilian-Paraguayan energy company Itaipu Binacional, which operates the Itaipu hydropower plant upstream of Iberá, donated the captive animals that were key for the project.

Talía Zamboni, conservation coordinator for Rewilding Argentina’s Iberá Project, said she remembers the arrival of the nine bare-faced curassows from Itaipu Binacional’s Bela Vista Biological Refuge in Brazil. Before the scientists could move on with the rewilding, they needed to ensure that the newcomers were healthy, so they prepared a space for the birds to quarantine.

“They were isolated and we carried out health checks,” Zamboni said. “We sedated them and took blood samples, which we analyzed in a lab to make sure they weren’t carrying serious diseases.”

During this time, they also fitted the birds with small transmitters to allow for their monitoring later. Then they moved the birds to a cage 14 meters (46 feet) high to acclimatize to their new environment for the next 40 days. Because the birds were born in captivity, they also had to be trained to feed in the wild. “In that time, we offered them native fruits and seeds, which is what they were going to find in the surroundings,” Zamboni said.

The team at Rewilding Argentina moves the curassows brought from Brazil to the Correntino forest. Image by Matías Rebak.
The team at Rewilding Argentina moves the curassows brought from Brazil to the Correntino forest. Image by Matías Rebak.
The animals were trained to survive in the wild in this cage. Image by Matías Rebak.
The animals were trained to survive in the wild in this cage. Image by Matías Rebak.

The release of the birds didn’t happen right away. They got familiar with their new surroundings progressively. Zamboni said the team opened the cage doors weeks before the final goodbye “so that they could leave and come back when they wanted.” Finally, in February 2020, the nine individuals were released into their new home.

Flying to a new home

The release area the team selected is Yerbalito Natural Reserve, a 1,200-hectare (3,000-acre) protected area in the north of the greater Iberá reserve. The place is considered favorable for bare-faced curassows due to its expanse of forest and link to the Paraná River. “It has a great amount of trees with fruits and forests associated to internal lagoons. It is a very appropriate environment, where [curassows] used to live in the past,” Zamboni said.

The released birds explored their new home during the first few months. The scientists noticed that they traveled across the reserve and to its borders. After that exploration time, there was some good news: they had two breeding pairs. However, their monitoring also showed some unfortunate events.

After 50 years without any bare-faced curassows, three chicks were born in Iberá in February 2021. Image by Matías Rebak.
After 50 years without any bare-faced curassows, three chicks were born in Iberá in February 2021. Image by Matías Rebak.

From this group of nine individuals, four didn’t survive their new life in the wild. They were hunted by wildcats, foxes and weasels. This experience allowed the scientists to design a training method for the prerelease cage, which they’ve since used with a different batch of bare-faced curassows that they plan to release in September.

Zalazar, who is now responsible for the monitoring, said that, “with this second group, we’ve strengthened training. We show them their future predators so that they recognize their presence and can escape in time.”

In spite of the early loss, the project gained momentum with the new breeding couples. Once consolidated, they started to build nests, and one pair completed the 30 days of incubation in November 2020. The Rewilding Argentina team followed the entire process. However, the outcome they had been hoping for was delayed yet again: “When the eggs hatched, the chicks jumped to follow their parents but they were automatically eaten by predators,” Zalazar said.

This was something she’d already seen when monitoring wild curassows in Argentina’s Formosa province. Because the birds only lay two eggs at a time, the challenge was to preventing the next clutch from also being lost. “We learned that we had to take care of the chicks because they are vulnerable,” Zalazar said. The scientists got ready for the next laying, which had a happy ending in February 2021. This time, when the eggs hatched, the chicks and their parents were recaptured and isolated in a prerelease enclosure so that they could survive the most vulnerable period of the young birds’ lives.

The scientists used camera traps to monitor the individuals released in the greater Iberá reserve. Video courtesy of Rewilding Argentina.

Seeing a species grow in an ecosystem from which it had disappeared was an exciting scene for those involved. They expressed high expectations for the release of 10 curassows that arrived from the Criadouro Onça Pintada jaguar reserve in Brazil. “The arrival of these bare-faced curassows highlights that we need to continue working during these pandemic times, specifically for conservation, since these pandemics are the result from the environmental crisis,” said Gustavo Solís from Rewilding Argentina in a recent video.

The second release happened in October 2021, when the curassow’s breeding season started. Zalazar, who takes a long-term view of the project, said she’s hopeful that within a decade, Iberá will be populated by bare-faced curassows again. She said she wants to build self-sufficient populations in other places from where the bird has disappeared or where only a few individuals remain.

A third release of bare-faced curassows, also from the Criadouro Onça Pintada jaguar reserve, took place at the beginning of January 2022.

Bare-faced curassows return to the Gran Chaco

This includes the Chaco region, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) west of Iberá. Zalazar’s research indicates that small groups of bare-faced curassows persist there, but scientists don’t know the exact population of the species in Argentina. The best estimate they can agree on is 2,500 individuals. Given the perilous decline of the bird and its categorization as endangered in Argentina (globally, the species is listed as vulnerable), scientists with Rewilding Argentina say they support local initiatives to boost the population.

On June 5, 2021, they were able to record another small win for the species: the first release of two bare-faced curassow pairs raised in captivity in the Chaco.

When they arrived from Brazil, the curassows underwent health checks to detect diseases. Image courtesy of Rewilding Argentina.
When they arrived from Brazil, the curassows underwent health checks to detect diseases. Image courtesy of Rewilding Argentina.

Marta Soneira, the Chaco regional secretary for territorial development and environment, described the release as a “historic milestone” in the province’s environmental agenda. Jorge García, director of the Sáenz Peña Ecological Complex, where the birds were raised and trained, added that “it’s an unusual and beautiful event that every time we open a cage, an animal has the chance to live free.”

Rodrigo Fariña, the species coordinator for the educational program of bird conservation group Aves Argentinas, recalls the day as a happy event and highlights the many parties who made the release possible: the Chaco provincial government, the Sáenz Peña Ecological Complex, the National Parks Administration (Conicet), Rewilding Argentina, and Aves Argentinas.

“Different initiatives that had been in the works for years came together. Conicet’s previous research highlighted the need for reintroduction projects to strengthen the reduced populations,” Fariña said.

There are small isolated populations of the species in the Chaco and Formosa forests. Image by Matías Rebak.
There are small isolated populations of the species in the Chaco and Formosa forests. Image by Matías Rebak.

Along with the conservation projects, the groups are trying to mitigate the impacts of hunting in the area. Because the bare-faced curassow was declared a natural monument in the provinces of Formosa and Chaco, it’s important to talk about the threats the bird is facing. “These rules determine that hunting them is illegal, and promote the species,” Zalazar said.

Park rangers and scientists interact with residents of nearby towns to educate them about the threats the bare-faced curassow faces. “I’m excited because many people in the Chaco region recognize it and want to contribute to its conservation,” Zalazar said.

The Iberá and Chaco forests are once again home to the bare-faced curassow and have recovered a native species. The growth of these populations will be key in the coming years to ensuring the species’ conservation.

This article by Oscar Bermeo Ocaña was first published by on 17 January 2022 | Translated by Maria Angeles Salazar. Lead Image: A bare-faced curassow, a nidifugous bird, which means the chicks leave the nest quickly to follow their parents. Image by Matías Rebak.

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The lighthouse evolves

Thursday 27th January comments: The year 1816 was a significant year for the Isle of May as the new lighthouse designed and constructed by Robert Stevenson became fully operational. As with all lighthouses, many stories followed and the isle of May Stevenson lighthouse was no different…

Looking through the history certain dates stick out and as in 1843 the original fixed beam light was replaced by a revolving flash operated from oil but in 1885 that all changed. Work began to alter the light to operate on electricity and on the 1st December 1886, the Isle of May lighthouse became the first lighthouse in Scotland to be powered by this form of energy.

Converting to electricity was not cheap, to a fine tune of £16,000 but the new light had some impressive power as it beamed at 25,000 candle-power and gave four quick flashes in quick succession followed by an interval of 30 seconds. The highest recorded distance at which the light was visible was an impressive 61 nautical miles.

As a result of this change, more staff were needed and additional accommodation complete with boiler house, engine rooms and workshop were constructed in a small valley nearby. This also included a small dam to produce a fresh-water loch for cooling of engines. The engine room was then fitted with two 4.5 ton steam-powered engines which powered the light. These buildings later became known as Fluke Street and still stand today as they are home to the reserve staff who live on the island.

A total of seven families were required to live on the May as a result of these extra engines and during this time two fog horns were constructed at the north and south end of the island. These fog stations were powered by compressed air, generated from the island’s power plant in the centre of the island, and delivered by cast-iron pipes laid on the ground. The North horn provided a single blast of 7 seconds duration every 2¼ minutes and the South horn provided four 2½ second blasts of the same pitch every 2¼ minutes. The North and South horns did not blast together, being approximately one minute apart.

Despite all of this technology, not everything went according to plan as ships still ran into difficulty but more on that soon….

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Country diary: The hair-trigger pigeons are up again, more dance than flight

Hove pigeons heave to. A sudden move and up they go, an applause of them, airborne. They lift above the kiosk roof, above the dog and the sign that says No Dogs, above parked cars, trees and lawns down to the sea startled by its own light.

How many times a day do the pigeons do this? Disguised in their pigeon-ness, cooing, pecking at invisible stuff, they’re only waiting for a clap to make the thunder. How do they decide who goes first? This one, that one, all.

The sudden reclamation of their ancestral rock-dovery rises before Regency-windowed cliffs of the seafront – savage little shadows in a polite breeze. Caught in the act, at shutter speed, their grey-on-blue silhouettes are like joyfully cast underwear. What is it to be wound so tight that the slightest quiver scares you into the sky?

Danger wears feathers, too. Death flies a falcon, drives a van, monitors through the beady eyes of gulls, who stand aloof on chimney pots in winter quiet. A couple of jays (Leonard and Kenneth, apparently) in their pieds, pinks and blues, attend to street elms. People, lifted by class A sunshine, keep their little familiars on leads.

What is it to see as a pigeon sees? Unlike the three-cone types of our retinas, pigeons have four – red, green, blue and ultraviolet; some cones contain coloured oil droplets allowing them to see even more colours than we can. What is it to feign panic but never touch, only smack wings together above and below the body on takeoff; clapping the moment, not the cause of the moment; clapping not being dead but deft. To speed through lanes of air, around buildings and trees, more dance than flight.

To map which way is up and down, north and south, prospect and refuge, home. To have all that data spooling around the mind as feathers fly in and out of jeopardy. To wear a memory, coded in the iridescence around their necks, of a lost world of wild coasts hidden under the pavement, never found because every time they search for it, there’s a sudden move and they’re airborne again.


Secret site of chequered skipper butterfly’s English revival revealed

Nature lovers will be able to enjoy the high-speed flight of the chequered skipper butterfly in an English woodland for the first time in more than 45 years this summer.

Such is the success of a four-year reintroduction programme to return the rare insect to the woods of Northamptonshire, where it fell extinct in 1977, that its secret site can be revealed to the public.

The exact location of the butterflies was previously a closely guarded secret to protect fragile populations, but the charity Butterfly Conservation, which leads the project, has now announced that the public will be able to see the butterfly in Forestry England’s Fineshade Wood.

Last year 65 were spotted in the woods, after adult butterflies were brought from Belgium in 2018 and 2019. The English offspring have successfully bred for several years and have increased their range by 20 hectares, with the wider woodland being carefully managed to create the sunny ridges and glades that the species requires.

Dr Dan Hoare, the director of conservation for Butterfly Conservation, said: “We have had to keep the exact location of these butterflies secret for the first few years following their introduction to allow them time to get established. While our work to secure the future of this population of chequered skipper continues, we are delighted to be able to reveal their location so that butterfly enthusiasts can come and enjoy spotting them in the wild in England for the first time in more than 40 years.”

While the chequered skipper is flourishing again thanks to the Back from the Brink project, Susannah O’Riordan, the chequered skipper project manager for Butterfly Conservation, said they hoped the butterfly would expand further across its traditional stronghold of Rockingham Forest in Northamptonshire. The chequered skipper’s only other British population is in the Highlands of Scotland.

“It’s always a work in progress and we’ve still got to maintain the population size,” said O’Riordan. “They are such a difficult butterfly to monitor because they are so fast, and sneaky about where they are. We’re definitely only seeing a proportion of the population on site.”

The butterfly typically emerges at the end of May and visitors to Fineshade Wood will be supervised by two “skipper rangers” as well as Butterfly Conservation volunteers and Forestry England staff. Visitors are being urged to stick to marked footpaths and not trample long grass, which the butterfly’s caterpillars feed on.

“It can be a problem if people aren’t respectful of their habitat,” said O’Riordan. “But we’ve been doing a lot of management in nearby woodland and we hope as numbers increase that the butterfly will colonise some of the additional woodlands in the area. That’s always been our aim through the project – to create lots of habitat for the chequered skipper to colonise naturally. There’s a lot more open habitat and sunny spaces for the butterfly to expand into.”


Major new study shows role beavers could play in restoring Scotland’s rivers

Beavers could make an important contribution to improving the condition of Scotland’s rivers, including helping to improve water quality and limiting the effects of drought.

The positive role they can play in water resource management, as well as in creating habitat, carbon sequestration and river restoration, is highlighted in a report produced by scientists at the University of Aberdeen and the James Hutton Institute. They have collated evidence from 120 studies of beaver populations worldwide, as part of a large-scale review of their effects on streams and rivers.

In Scotland, beavers have already taken up residence in a few areas, including Tayside and Knapdale. While sometimes their presence has been welcomed, in other situations there has been conflict, for example where their activity affected intensively managed landscapes.

Until now, evidence of the role of beavers in helping to manage river ecosystems in Scotland has been minimal. But by identifying trends associated with the effects of beaver dam building on water quantity and quality—while factoring in the characteristics of Scottish rivers—the scientists who produced the report have provided detailed evidence to help policymakers consider the benefits and limitations of beaver expansion in Scotland, including where trade-offs are required.

In November last year the Scottish Government announced a revised beaver policy which included the development of a new national strategy for beavers. The research leading to the publication of the report was requested by NatureScot and funded by the Scottish Government via the Centre of Expertise for Waters.

Dr. Josie Geris, from the University’s School of Geosciences, led the study. She said: “We found that, by modifying physical processes in streams and rivers, beaver dam building could help to address several important water management challenges in Scotland, including water supply and, by trapping sediment and contaminants, water quality.

“Locally, beaver activity may also limit the effect of extreme events such as drought, which is expected to increase with climate change and can carry an economic impact—for example during the dry summer of 2018 when numerous private water supplies to communities and businesses were affected.

“Achieving the potential of the positive effects of beaver activity may involve some challenges and the need to find solutions. And while most of the evidence points to positive contributions to river ecosystems locally, the report recommends that more work is needed on understanding how the effects of beavers across multiple sites sum up to affect rivers at larger scales.”

Angus Tree from NatureScot said: “This is a significant study that clearly demonstrates the unique ways in which beavers engineer ecosystems. It backs up evidence we’ve gathered over the years and will help our work with stakeholders as we develop the best ways to live with, and benefit from, beavers. We are committed to continuing work to restore and manage beavers, as one important way to protect Scotland’s environment and respond to the climate emergency.”

This article by The University of Aberdeen was first published by on 17 January 2022. Lead Image: Until now, evidence of the role of beavers in helping to manage river ecosystems in Scotland has been minimal. Credit: Shutterstock/ZIDO.Pictures.

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Fish growth slowed by high temperatures and plastic chemical BPA, research shows

Fish grow slower when exposed to higher temperatures and a common chemical in plastic, according to new research. It suggests that a combination of plastic pollution and global heating could have concerning impacts on marine populations.

Scientists at the University of Sydney have found that fish exposed to the industrial chemical bisphenol A – commonly known as BPA – require more energy to grow in high-temperature waters.

BPA is a common chemical used in plastics manufacturing and is known to disrupt hormone signalling, with impacts in marine animals on metabolism and growth. In humans, it has also been linked to reproductive and developmental dysfunction. Millions of tonnes of the compound are produced globally each year.

The researchers exposed zebrafish to a level of BPA commonly found in waterways.

They discovered that the chemical decreased the amount of energy the fish needed to grow at 24C, but hampered growth for those in 30C water – a temperature the animals would be likely to experience more often in their natural habitat under global heating.

The study’s corresponding author, Frank Seebacher, a professor of biology at the University of Sydney, said the finding urgently highlighted the need for both climate change mitigation and plastic waste reduction.

“The combination of high temperatures and BPA increases the energetic cost of growth – how much food animals have to eat to produce a given amount of biomass,” he said, adding the problem would be more pronounced for larger fish and predator species.

“Because there’s a trophic cascade … [higher up the food chain] you’d expect to find fewer and smaller animals,” he said. “There’s a potential problem for sustainability in catch rates, if that combination [of warming and BPA] results in reduced stock.”

Seebacher said BPA was released into the marine environment from manufacturing effluent as well as from plastics breaking down.

“Wherever you have lots of manufacturing plants, lots of plastic pollution, you will find reasonably high levels of BPA,” he said, estimating such concentrations to be four to five times higher than the level used in their study.

The researchers also modelled the risk of warming and plastic pollution in coastal areas in combination with current fishing intensity.

Their analysis predicted that south-east Asia had the highest risk of decreased fish biomass as a result of warming and pollution.

“Southern North America and northern South America [are also] going to be really affected,” Seebacher said.

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One limitation of their findings is that the team conducted the study in zebrafish, a small freshwater species commonly used as a model organism in scientific research.

Seebacher said he expected the findings to be similar in other fish species, although more research would be needed to determine this for certain.

“All the endocrine systems … are highly conserved amongst vertebrates, so it’s unlikely that you’d have a massive divergence among vertebrates in how they respond [to BPA], but the possibility exists and has to be verified,” he said.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.


Plan to use crossbows to kill nuisance deer in Nova Scotia town challenged by critics

HALIFAX – Fed up with nuisance deer raiding gardens and colliding with vehicles, a town in central Nova Scotia has hired four crossbow hunters to kill up to 20 of the animals inside town limits.

“There been a lot of property damage, and it’s not just gardens,” said Mike Dolter, Truro’s chief administrative officer. “Trees are getting eaten, and they’re adapting to plants thought to be deer-resistant …. We’ve had aggressive deer, particularly in rutting season with bucks in yards, and people have been afraid to go outside.”

But a British Columbia-based group dealing with the same problem and a prominent Nova Scotia biologist both say the upcoming municipal hunt, believed to be the first of its kind in Canada, won’t solve anything.

Bob Bancroft, president of Nature Nova Scotia, says Truro’s white-tailed deer will continue to be a bother as long as local residents keep feeding them.

“When you end up with 30 animals in one backyard and people are throwing carrots out the window, it’s ridiculous,” said Bancroft, who worked for 15 years as a wildlife biologist with the provincial government.

Bancroft said the looming cull — the town prefers to call it a hunt — will be only a temporary solution, because the surviving deer will soon be joined by others that will move into town to take advantage of the easy meals provided by residents.

“It’s happening all over North America,” Bancroft said in a recent interview, referring to the fact that 300 years of industrial forestry has displaced large populations of deer from their natural habitat. “When you degrade the forest and the soils, you wind up with regeneration that is very poor in nutrition for the deer. They end up moving into private lands that are ecologically more healthy.”

Dolter, Truro’s chief administrative officer since 2017, said municipal officials have studied the problem for years, and they’ve mounted public education campaigns to stop residents from handing out backyard goodies. But the campaigns haven’t worked, and the deer keep coming.

The decision to employ crossbow hunters was based partly on the fact that long guns can’t be used inside the town’s boundaries. Dolter says the designated hunting locations — each baited with apples — are at least 800 metres from any schools or built-up areas and have been set up so crossbow projectiles, known as bolts, will end up in the ground or nearby hay bales if they miss their target.

Deer roam through Truro, N.S. on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022. The town is planning to bring in hunters armed with crossbows to kill 20 female deer to deal with a deer population that is not manageable. ANDREW VAUGHAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Deer roam through Truro, N.S. on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022. The town is planning to bring in hunters armed with crossbows to kill 20 female deer to deal with a deer population that is not manageable. ANDREW VAUGHAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS

“We have no illusions that we’re going to take 20 deer and suddenly see a big drop in the population,” he said. “This will take a number of years to achieve.”

Dolter said the crossbow plan has angered some local residents. “Some people are not in favour of this and think it’s cruel,” he said. “But the evidence we have is that it is not.” He added that the town dismissed the idea of trapping and relocating the animals because they often suffer and go into shock.

In Longueuil, Que., a plan to capture and kill most of the deer living in a local park was initially shelved after a strong public backlash that included a petition, a protest and threats against the former mayor. Michel-Chartrand Park is home to about 70 deer — more than five times the number of animals it can comfortably support.

The suburb south of Montreal considered other options, including relocating the deer or reducing their numbers with birth control, but it concluded the only viable option was to capture and euthanize all but 10 to 15 animals, and it has said it will proceed with the cull this year.

In recent years, the town of St. Andrews in southwestern New Brunswick — at one point home to 13 deer per square kilometre — has approved an annual nuisance deer hunt, but it takes place on private land during the regular hunting season.

In Oak Bay, B.C., a community of 18,000 east of Victoria, an innovative birth control program is showing promising results.

The project, led by the Urban Wildlife Stewardship Society, followed public outage sparked by a cull in 2015 that saw 11 black-tailed deer trapped in a net-like device and killed with a bolt gun — the same device used to slaughter cattle.

“It was pretty brutal,” said Kristy Kilpatrick, president of the three-year-old volunteer organization that includes community members, scientists and wildlife experts. “They came together, determined there had to be a better way and it needed to be rooted in science.”

Using an array of about three dozen motion-activated cameras, the group determined the area was home to about 100 deer or more. In 2019 and 2020, 120 does were tranquilized with a dart gun and injected with an immunocontraceptive.

“At this point in our research, it’s looking incredibly positive,” Kilpatrick said in a recent interview. “The data so far tell us that the birthrate has been reduced by 60 per cent.” She said there have been few complaints from residents, other than a few comments about the lack of fawns in the area.

Like Bancroft, Kilpatrick said culls don’t work.

“When you remove a large number of deer from any given area, what happens in a fairly short period of time is that more deer move in and the birthrate goes up,” she said. “You’re actually exacerbating the problem unless you do it year after year.”

This article by Michael MacDonald was first published by The Star on 16 January 2022. Lead Image: Deer roam through Truro, N.S. on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022. The town is planning to bring in hunters armed with crossbows to kill 20 deer to deal with a deer population that is not manageable. ANDREW VAUGHAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS.

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Support ‘Fighting for Wildlife’ by donating as little as $1 – It only takes a minute. Thank you.

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Western monarch butterfly numbers in California rebound after dismal year

The number of western monarch butterflies overwintering in California rebounded to more than 247,000 a year after fewer than 2,000 appeared, but the tally remained far below the millions that were seen in the 1980s, leaders of an annual count said on Tuesday.

The Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count revealed the highest number of butterflies in five years but it is still less than 5% of the 1980s population, said Emma Pelton, senior endangered species biologist with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

Pelton said she was ecstatic about the turnabout but cautioned that it did not indicate a recovery of the species.

“It will take multiple more years to understand if this is the beginning of a trend or just a blip,” she said in an online news conference.

Western monarchs, the population found west of the Rockies, overwinter in groves along the Pacific coast from northern California’s Mendocino county south to the northern edge of Baja California, as well as in a few inland locations. Monarchs east of the Rockies migrate deep into Mexico for winter.

The western monarch count is conducted by trained volunteers over several weeks around the Thanksgiving holiday. It dates to 1997 and has observed a loss of more than 95% of a population that according to earlier studies once numbered in the low millions.

The count released a year ago was the smallest ever seen, and the reasons for the turnabout are elusive, according to Pelton. Not only was there the largest one-year increase ever seen, but the butterflies were found at 283 sites, the most ever.

“The question of the day that we’re getting is really, why are we having this uptick? And we don’t have a single definitive answer for you,” Pelton said.

A butterfly sits on a leaf at Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, California, on 10 November 2021.
A butterfly sits on a leaf at Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, California, on 10 November 2021. Photograph: Nic Coury/AP

Factors could include good weather, the amount of milkweed the monarchs rely on and some interchange between the western and eastern populations, but the monarchs have a complex migratory cycle with multiple generations over a complex landscape, she said.

Pelton said she believed the numbers were going to continue to fluctuate until underlying causes for the huge declines over the decade are dealt with. “And the root of those are habitat loss, both at the overwintering sites in California and elsewhere, and then migratory breeding habitat,” she said.

Despite the hopeful bounce back in the numbers, scientists see the shifts as a warning sign. “The butterflies are just very adaptable and strong,” David James, an entomologist at Washington State University who has spent decades studying the species told the Guardian before the official tally was done last fall. “But they are giving us a warning too – and we need to take heed of that,” he adds. “Their decline is going to affect other organisms.”

But he also believed there was a chance the devastatingly low numbers counted last year might be more due to dispersion rather than death.

“When we only had 2,000 overwintering at the traditional sites, at the same time there were many reports inland in San Francisco and the LA area of monarch butterflies reproducing in people’s backyards and parks and gardens throughout the winter,” he said, noting that when they are not clustered they are more difficult to count.

This year, the count showed that overwintering sites trended to the south.

California’s central coast usually sees the most monarchs, and the San Francisco Bay Area normally has significant numbers as well. In the latest count, however, Bay Area sites had few or no monarchs.

The most monarchs – more than 95,000 – were found in Santa Barbara county, including one site on private property that had 25,000 butterflies. Farther south, Ventura county had nearly 19,500 butterflies and Los Angeles county had more than 4,000 – numbers that hadn’t been seen since the early 2000s.

But even if last year’s dismal numbers were caused by changes in behavior, that’s still a sign climate crisis is posing problems. “They are indicating to us that things are going wrong,” James says.

  • Gabrielle Canon contributed reporting


Seeing 1,000 glorious fin whales back from near extinction is a rare glimmer of hope

Good news doesn’t get any more in-your-face than this. One thousand fin whales, one of the world’s biggest animals, were seen last week swimming in the same seas in which they were driven to near-extinction last century due to whaling. It’s like humans never happened.

This vast assembly was spread over a five-mile-wide area between the South Orkney islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. A single whale is stupendous; imagine 1,000 of them, their misty forest of spouts, as tall as pine trees, the plosive sound of their blows, their hot breath condensing in the icy air. Their sharp dorsal fins and steel-grey bodies slide through the waves like a whale ballet, choreographed at the extreme south of our planet.

The sight has left whale scientists slack-jawed and frankly green-eyed in envy of Conor Ryan, who observed it from the polar cruiser, National Geographic Endurance. Messaging from the ship on a tricky connection, Ryan, an experienced zoologist and photographer, says this may be “one of the largest aggregations of fin whales ever documented”. His estimate of 1,000 animals is a conservative one, he says.

“We were about 15 miles north of Coronation Island,” Ryan reports, with “four large krill fishing vessels working the same area”. The vessels’ presence makes clear the reason for this party. The whales were feeding on a grand scale, sucking up tonnes of tiny shrimps.

Fin whales are surprisingly slender, serpentine creatures when you see them underwater, and so long that they seem to take for ever to swim past. Like blue, humpback and minke whales, they’re baleen whales, distinguished by food-filtering keratinous plates in lieu of teeth. Unlike toothed whales, such as sperm whales and killer whales, they are not usually seen as social animals. In Moby-Dick Herman Melville classifies the fin whale as “not gregarious … very shy; always going solitary … the banished and unconquerable Cain of his race”.

Factor in their tremendous size – at up to 27m long, only just short of the blue whale’s 33m – and you come close to appreciating the astonishing intensity of this eruption of marine life.

So, is it really good news? In this same ocean, at least two million whales were slaughtered in the past century. Given that we now know fin whales can live for up to 140 years, the effects of that cull are still being felt in their culture. It may be that our assumption that fin whales aren’t “social” animals actually stems from the fact that they amended their behaviour to evade the whalers, as sperm whales did in the 19th century. Scientists suspect that baleen whales also learned not to gather in large groups to stay one step ahead of the hunters. Only now, perhaps, are they returning to old foraging grounds.

Ryan delights in calling himself a “whale nerd”; he and his best friend, Peter Wilson, were just 14 years old when they published their first peer-reviewed scientific paper on killer whales in 2001. When he gets home from this trip, he’ll be writing another paper. Despite his 20 years’ experience at sea, Ryan has never seen anything like this. “Words fail me,” he says. “I have seen maybe 100 fins here before in previous years. Thousands of chinstrap penguins, petrels, and albatrosses, too … It was unusually calm weather,” he adds, “and unusually good visibility.”

We found about 1000 fin whales over a 5×5 mile area off South Orkney. Blue and humpback also mixed in. Mind completely blown 🐳 @LindbladExp #NationalGeographicEndurance

— Conor Ryan (@whale_nerd) January 14, 2022

If Ryan considers himself blessed, then so should we. Whales still face many threats, mostly from us. And we would do well to remember that the protests that saved the whales in the 1970s and 80s will be outlawed if the new police and crime bill passes into law. In a world constrained by woe and threats to democracy (it’s a good job whales don’t have to apply for the right to assemble), 1,000 fin whales can’t help but lift our hearts. They might even convince us that, as another species of (supposedly) sentient mammal, we still stand a chance of getting through “all of this”. So long as we stick together and send up a few protest spouts of our own.

This article by Philip Hoare was first published by The Guardian on 17 January 2022. Philip Hoare is the author of several books, including Leviathan, The Sea Inside and Albert and the Whale. Lead Image: Spouts from fin whales near the South Orkney Islands in the Southern Ocean. Photograph: Conor Ryan.

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Shark attacks increased around the world in 2021 after years of decline

Shark attacks increased around the world in 2021 following three years of decline, though beach closures in 2020 caused by the coronavirus pandemic could make the numbers seem more dramatic, officials in the US said on Monday.

Researchers with the International Shark Attack File recorded 73 unprovoked incidents last year compared to 52 in 2020, according to a new report administered by the Florida Museum of Natural History and the American Elasmobranch Society.

The International Shark Attack File manager, Tyler Bowling, pointed out that 52 bites in 2020 were the lowest documented in more than a decade. The 73 bites in 2021 more closely align with the five-year global average of 72.

“Shark bites dropped drastically in 2020 due to the pandemic.“ Bowling said. “This past year was much more typical, with average bite numbers from an assortment of species and fatalities from white sharks, bull sharks and tiger sharks.”

Researchers saw 11 shark-related fatalities last year, with nine considered unprovoked. Australia had three unprovoked deaths, followed by New Caledonia with two. The US, Brazil, New Zealand and South Africa each had a single unprovoked fatal shark attack.

Provoked attacks are defined as when humans initiate contact, such as divers trying to touch a shark or fishermen removing a shark from a fishing net, according to the International Shark Attack File.

Florida has led the US and the rest of the world in unprovoked shark bites for decades, and the trend continued in 2021, researchers said.

Florida had 28 unprovoked bites last year, compared to 19 in the rest of the US and 26 total outside the US. This is consistent with Florida’s most recent five-year annual average of 25 attacks. Of Florida’s 28 unprovoked bites, 17 were in Volusia county, which includes Daytona Beach.

The single fatal unprovoked shark attack in the US in 2021 was in California. A man was killed while boogie boarding in Morro Bay on Christmas Eve.

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