Brazil's most trafficked endangered bird makes a comeback with rewilding success

A male great-billed seed finch in the Port Cajuero reserve, Minas Gerais.

The great-billed seed finch (Sporophila maximiliani), thought to be the most trafficked endangered bird species in Brazil, has long been coveted in the caged-bird trade, which has caused the local extinction of the species over most of its former range in the Cerrado savanna.

— One conservation project is working to conserve the species holistically through research and environmental education, while collaborating with bird keepers and breeders to bring the species back to the wild.

— With support from these experts and local communities, the species is being reintroduced in the Cerrado within the Grande Sertão Veredas region between the states of Minas Gerais and Bahia.

As the door of the wire enclosure is unlatched, a small coal-black bird hops forward.

For a moment, it perches at the threshold and cocks its head quizzically at its newfound liberty, then flits into the undergrowth of the surrounding savanna.

Within just a few minutes, its mate, a chestnut-brown female, follows suit.

These two great-billed seed finches are part of a decades-long conservation project that aims to reintroduce one of Brazil’s most endangered species into a part of the Cerrado grassland that used to be its home before poaching for trade wiped out the birds.

Sentenced by song

A native of savanna ecosystems, the great-billed seed finch (Sporophila maximiliani) , feeds on flowering grasses and sedges, particularly on sword grass (Paspalum virgatum) and plays an important role in seed dispersal.

Although it occupies a broad range across parts of Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, the Guianas and Brazil, it’s rare wherever it occurs and is categorized as endangered on the IUCN Red List.

In Brazil, where the species clings on in small areas of the Cerrado and the southern Brazilian Amazon, it’s considered critically endangered.

Even optimistic population estimates are dire, at fewer than 2,500 mature individuals and no more than 250 in any given population.

According to Luis Silveira, curator of ornithological studies at the University of São Paulo’s Museum of Zoology, the situation may be far worse: “A few years ago, there were probably no more than 100 wild birds left in all of Brazil.”

While habitat loss and fragmentation resulting from agricultural conversion are believed to have impacted the great-billed seed finch, its greatest threat comes from its popularity as a caged bird.

Despite its plain appearance, with monochrome plumage and a bulky beak, which inspired its local name bicudo, or “big beak” in Portuguese, the male’s song — a silky warble used for territorial defense and attracting females — has made it one of Brazil’s most coveted songbirds.

A female great-billed seed finch after release
A female great-billed seed finch after release. Image by Flavio Ubaid.

Traffickers employ networks of poachers to locate and trap males in the wild in Brazil and, increasingly, in neighboring Bolivia, then sell them illegally in rural towns and cities across the country.

“People have been keeping bicudos since at least the 19th century for their song and singing competitions. Like all rare things, these birds tend to bring prestige to their owners who will pay high prices to own them,” Silveira says.

The average price for a great-billed seed finch is $800, but male birds that exhibit exceptional singing prowess may sometimes fetch up to $8,000.

Though the birds can be legally bought and easily bred in captivity, the high demand and lucrative profits to be made from the sale of great-billed seed finches have led to a thriving black market for wild-caught birds.

“We can see the impact of trafficking on the species in the data and it’s alarming,” says Nadia Moraes, science coordinator of Freeland, an NGO that monitors and combats wildlife trafficking.

“From our reports based on annual interceptions of wildlife trafficking rings, the bicudo is the most frequently seized endangered bird in Brazil and ranks second in the number of confiscated individuals.”

Due to these pressures from poaching, male birds have disappeared from many localities, leaving populations heavily skewed or, in some cases, entirely composed of females.

“There are now large stretches of available habitat, with all the typical species of the veredas [Brazilian humid grasslands], except for the bicudo, which has gone locally extinct,” Silveira says.

A conservation project takes flight

In 2008, ornithologist Flavio Ubaid, now a researcher at the State University of Maranhão, began a long-term field study to map the distribution of the great-billed seed finch in Brazil.

But after three years of exhaustive searches in national parks and protected areas across the country where the species had occurred historically, he found barely a trace of the birds.

“It was a wake-up call,” Ubaid says. “We realized that the bicudo had been under so much pressure over the years from poaching that there were almost none of these birds left in the wild.”

Two birds are assessed while upside down on two hands
Birds must undergo a rigorous selection process before being considered for the reintroduction program. Here, a breeding pair is assessed for its suitability. Image by Flavio Ubaid.

Subsequent analysis by Ubaid and his colleagues suggested that the species’ population had suffered a 90% decline. This galvanized efforts by the ornithologist, along with Silveira and biologist Gustavo Malacco, to create in the late 2000s Projeto Bicudo, a conservation initiative aiming to avert the species’ extinction in the wild.

“There were thousands of these birds in captivity, so we knew that the first place to begin was to establish connections with aviculturists,” Ubaid says.

Allies in aviculture

Research from 2020 showed that, according to IBAMA, Brazil’s federal environmental protection agency, there were more than 181,000 captive great-billed seed finches in the possession of more than 49,000 registered breeders of the species in Brazil. Most of these bird owners are concentrated in the country’s southeast, mainly in the state of São Paulo.

“Most breeders keep and sell these birds legally, so they are not the enemy,” says Malacco, the biologist. “But there are some hobbyists who don’t respect the law and will do anything to obtain these birds, and that’s what drives trafficking.”

A bird sits on top of a leaf
Image by Flavio Ubaid.

Still, it wasn’t hard for the conservationists to find allies among the registered breeders by appealing to a mutual love of the bird.

“They have expertise with this species, everything from its husbandry to veterinary care to genetics, so they are indispensable for our project,” Malacco says.

One breeder who’s become involved in Projeto Bicudo is João Paulo, based in Bauru, São Paulo. “The reintroduction project brought a lot of hope and optimism about breeding these birds for the preservation of the species,” he says.

Picking the right birds for reintroduction is essential. Working with captive and confiscated birds, the team has to ensure not only the selection of the healthiest individuals and a diverse gene pool, but also to screen out hybrids — a challenge as bird growers commonly cross-breed great-billed seed finches with closely related species to produce offspring with better singing abilities.

“I select birds for captive breeding based on my knowledge in breeding and management, which I’ve acquired over many years of breeding,” Paulo says.

Reintroduction efforts began with a pilot project in São Paulo state, but bureaucratic challenges and habitat conditions pushed the team to find an alternative site: Port Cajuero, a private natural heritage reserve, or RPPN, in the Grande Sertão Veredas region.

Bringing back the ‘big beak’

The Grande Sertão Veredas, on the border between the states of Minas Gerais and Bahia and named after a famous novel by the writer Guimarães Rosa, spans 230,853 hectares (570,450 acres) of sprawling Cerrado savanna.

“We decided on the reserve because it met all of our criteria,” Ubaid tells Mongabay. “It was within the historic range of the species, habitat conditions were optimal for reintroduction, and pressures from poaching were nonexistent.”

Historically, conditions in the park hadn’t always been so hospitable for the bird. For more than half a century, the species had been locally extinct due to poaching. “When I was a child, it was common for people to trap the bicudo to sell,” says Anizio Costa de Nogueira, a farmer and lifelong resident of the park. “But there came a time when there weren’t any left to catch, and we didn’t see them again.”

The local community quickly embraced the conservationists’ proposal to reintroduce the bird and for residents to participate in the conservation efforts. In 2018, the first great-billed seed finches were released into the reserve. “People were happy to see them return here after so long,” Costa de Nogueira says.

Since then, more than 300 of the birds have been released into the park. Post-release monitoring has shown that most of the birds have adapted well to the wild and have even begun to breed and nest. However, the team has yet to observe a hatchling grow to maturity, though not for lack of effort by the birds.

“There’s been a lot of nest predation by rodents and opossums, which is a natural occurrence in the wild,” Ubaid says. “Seed finches suffer high chick mortality from predators, but the hope is that as we release more birds, we’ll see more fledglings survive.”

To achieve this aim, a captive-breeding center has been established within the park, expediting breeding and releases. Every month, an average of three breeding pairs are reintroduced into the reserve after a period spent in an enclosure to adapt them to the sights and sounds of their natural habitat.

“By 2030, we hope that the reserve’s population will be self-sustaining,” Malacco says.

In addition to its work with the great-billed seed finch, the project aims to generate an income for the reserve’s community through ecotourism and training locals as bird-watching guides. The team has ambitions beyond its efforts in Grande Sertão Veredas.

“Our long-term goal is to ramp up our reintroduction efforts across Brazil,” Ubaid says, “and to bring the bicudo back to other regions where it has disappeared.”

This article was originally published by Mongabay.

Header image by Flavio Ubaid.

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