Welcome to the Red Siskin Initiative Newsletter –
Written by: Valentina Cedeño, Miguel Arvelo, Kathryn M. Rodríguez-Clark, Ada Sánchez-Mercado and Brian Coyle.
Venezuela is going through one of the greatest political, economic and social crises in its history, and it has deepened in recent months. However, we continue doing our work with optimism; the Venezuelan crisis has been an opportunity to find ways to use our time and resources more efficiently and to focus on getting tangible quality results. In this edition of the RSI newsletter, we proudly share our work over the last six months. Great progress has been made in research on the genetics and natural history of siskins in Venezuela, in expanding and consolidating our network of strategic allies, in fundraising and in publicizing RSI. We could not do this without you and your support: thank you!
Collaborating with the community of Piedra de Cachimbo for bird-friendly coffee certification
Initiated in 2017, RSI’s USCAFE project aims to preserve critical habitats for migratory and resident Venezuelan species via the Smithsonian Bird Friendly coffee certification program. In November, RSI and USCAFE project coordinators, Miguel Arvelo and Luis Arrieta, along with Provita’s Director of Education, Carlos Pelaez, formally presented the project to the Piedra de Cachimbo community, who will be our main collaborators in north central Venezuela. Miguel and Luis outlined the community and biodiversity benefits of this project, and the coffee roaster Tierra de Gracia joined us as a key partner to confirm the attractiveness and effectiveness of the proposal.
In addition to launching community collaboration, in January we also joined roasters to begin testing new harvesting techniques to improve coffee quality on a pilot farm, which has already improved profits as a result. January also saw the start of our baseline biodiversity stakeholder surveys, to enable us to later measure and improve project impacts. We are grateful to the US Fish and Wildlife Agency Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act Fund (NMBCA) and to the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) for their support for this project!
Welcoming new team members to Provita
As part of Provita’s continual growth and improvement, this year Dr. Ada Sánchez-Mercado joined the team as the Director of Applied Conservation Actions. Ada has more than a decade of experience in studies of tropical biodiversity and using models to understand species distributions and threats. As a part of RSI, she has developed ecological models of suitable habitat and current conditions as inputs to evaluate potential sites for future reintroductions. Ada also leads our work to understand the forces driving the unsustainable harvest of Red Siskins in Venezuela.
We also welcomed Dr. Laurie Fajardo as a new member of the RSI team. An expert in ecological restoration, Laurie has extensive experience in the recovery and restoration of tropical dry forests. In particular, she has worked with farmers to use mycorrhizal fungi, native plant nurseries and other techniques in ecological agroforestry to achieve the recovery of these ecosystems which are so crucial to Red Siskin survival. Currently, she leads the evaluation of shade coffee farm vegetation in the USCAFE project.
Our third new arrival was Luis Arrieta, who joined us as USCAFE project coordinator. In addition to being a formally-trained agronomist, Luis was born and raised on a coffee farm in Piedra de Cachimbo and maintains many personal ties there, and so is uniquely positioned to truly collaborate as an equal with the farmers of the region. He is also intimately familiar with coffee plantations and is able to work proactively with producers. In the project, he will be responsible for working with the farmers to improve production rates by implementing organic and bird-friendly practices.
Luis is joined by Elida Moreno, who has come on board as USCAFE project manager. A specialist in project management, Elida brings us 15 years of experience and great energy to organize, document, administer, control and monitor all activities to fulfill project objectives, be they agronomic, social, ecological or commercial.
On the ecological side, Dr. Pablo Lau will monitor migratory birds for the USCAFE project along with RSI team member Jhonathan Miranda. Pablo has 20 years of experience with ornithological fieldwork in Venezuela, is a university professor, and has served as the director of the Ornithology Collection at the
Museo de Historia Natural La Salle in Caracas.
Finally, Silvia Gómez will lead socio-economic evaluation of changes in the Piedra de Cachimbo community and their livelihoods. Silvia is an anthropologist with professional experience in cultural management and public policies; coordination of cultural, ethnographic and museum projects; and coordination of registration and documentation of cultural processes at the national level. Welcome everyone to the team!
We thank the IUCN Species Survival Commission and all the projects that, along with the Red Siskin Initiative, build up Provita for providing space in the new offices to give our team a comfortable home. Every day brings us closer to reaching our goals to save the Red Siskin and it’s habitat and we appreciate everyone’s enthusiasm and energy, even in challenging circumstances.
Understanding the unsustainable harvest and trafficking of Red Siskins
From March to October 2017, the Venezuelan RSI team visited several areas in central and western Venezuela to study Red Siskin trafficking. Dr. Ada Sanchez-Mercado designed interview instruments and a sampling strategy, while field technicians including Arlene Cardozo interviewed different actors (trappers, breeders, merchants, informants and ornithologists) and conducted online surveillance of aviculture websites and WhatsApp and Facebook groups. They are presently integrating field and social network data to identify the most influential actors and their characteristics and motivations, in order to design methods for reducing national and international Red Siskin trade. Their most important discoveries include that at least 2,906 individual Red Siskins were traded in 2016; the main part with a wild phenotype (70%), mutations and hybrids were 17% and 12%, respectively. Venezuela was the country of origin for most transactions (51%), followed by Brazil (21%) and Spain (14%); and was also the most frequent destination country suggesting an important domestic market.
This research has also brought us closer to aviculturists with extensive experience in captive breeding, allowing us to integrate their knowledge in the design of breeding protocols for conservation. We are grateful for funding for this project from the Neotropical Bird Club, as well as logistical support from the Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Cientificas (IVIC), RSI team member Leonel Ovalle at Parque Zoológico y Botánico Bararida, INPARQUES, Reserva Ecológica La Guáquira, Lermit Torres from Grupo Mangle, Ecoparque “Ojo de Agua,” and Mr. Junior Rojas from the municipality Bruzual (Yaracuy, VE). Thank you all for your collaboration!
Are you an aviculturist? The Red Siskin’s fate is closely linked to aviculture, we would love you to learn more, join us and help us conserve this amazing species. Not sure how? Read this communication!
Building an Integrated Conservation and Education Center for Red Siskin conservation in Caracas
We are thrilled that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA – USA), has chosen the RSI to support with their Conservation Grant Fund (CGF), in order to design and build the first Red Siskin Conservation Center in Venezuela.
The center will be multi-functional, and will serve to rescue Red Siskins confiscated from the illegal trade, to support research and education and to house a
flock as long-term insurance against extinction.
We are now developing the designs and generating new strategic alliances to support this enormous step forward for RSI in Venezuela.
Sharing new findings about the unsustainable harvest of Red Siskins at Provita
The RSI field technician, Arlene Cardozo, presented her research results in February at Provita’s offices in Caracas, though several team members joined from other countries via teleconferencing.
The presentation addressed three key questions about the traffic chain: “Who?” “How?” and “How much?” and presented analyses of the trade network structure, as well as the motivations driving trade participants, and dollar values of the domestic and international markets.
Everyone in the RSI team and at Provita was pleased and eager to find out more about this project.
Stay tuned for news about upcoming presentations at public events!
Neotropical Bird Club’s 25th anniversary
This month in Caracas, Chris Sharpe, a co-founder of the Neotropical Bird Club, gave a talk about the 25th anniversary of the Club. Chris talked about the history and growth, and their work conserving birds in Latin America and the Caribbean. He encouraged the audience to apply for the Club’s funding opportunities and emphasized NBC’s particular interest in projects and initiatives researching endangered bird species from the Neotropics.
We are very grateful for recent funding from NBC, which supports our work to understand the socio-economic context and stakeholder motivations in the unsustaintable harvest and illegal traffic in Red Siskins.
Advances in the Red Siskin Conservation Center at Bararida Zoo continue
Bararida Zoo’s upcoming Center, to be built in the heart of the Red Siskin’s historic distribution in Venezuela, is now in its final stages of design and engineering.
This work is being led by Venezuelan architects Dianora Briceño de Alvarado and Gabriela Alvarado, with a team of Venezuelan engineers, as well as Will Ruhl, the Center’s architect of Ruhl Walkers Architects, and Leonel Ovalle Moleiro, a veterinarian at Bararida Zoo.
We are looking forward to final blueprints soon!
Capacity building and genetic research at the Smithsonian Institution
As part of the capacity-building activities for the RSI team, Elida Emperatriz Gamero García, a molecular laboratory technician in Caracas at the Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas (IVIC), visited the Smithsonian (Washington-DC, USA) from October to December, 2017. During her stay, Emperatriz helped develop genomic tools to analyze family relationships, inbreeding, geographic origins, and possible hybrid ancestry in the Red Siskin. She worked with other RSI team members Brian Coyle, Kate Rodriguez-Clark, and Jesus Maldonado, as well as other Smithsonian scientists including Dietrich Gotzek, to receive specialized training which she will be able to apply to other similar Venezuelan species. Emperatriz was hosted by the Laboratory of Analytical Biology (LAB) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH); where she isolated genomic DNA from samples and then prepared and enriched genomic libraries. She received additional training in the theory and practice of genomic library preparation at the University of Georgia in the laboratory of Travis Glenn, a former graduate student of another RSI team member, Mike Braun. Thank you Travis!
Reaching Latino communities in DC through Zoo Fiesta!
As a part of Hispanic Heritage Month, The Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park held its annual Zoo Fiesta on the last Sunday of September 2017, with the slogan “A day of animal fun for the whole family.” Offerings included live music and educational activities focused on wildlife conservation in Central and South America. RSI’s US coordinator, Brian Coyle, and team member Jesus Maldonado, ran a stand presenting RSI, with posters to help the public understand the Red Siskin, why it is threatened with extinction, and how they can help. We look forward to deepening our relationships with Latino communities in the DC area and beyond at similar events in the future.
We are very pleased with the excellent work and with the support of the entire RSI team and collaborators at the Smithsonian, particularly Erica Royer, Warren Lynch, and Paul Marinari at Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal, who provided important samples from the Red Siskin research colony for development of these genomic tools.
Emperatriz’ visit would not have been possible without a key donation from the Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) Round Up for Conservation program, as well as much-appreciated support from Jerry Hauser, Liza Goitein, Caroline Jacoby, and Howard Wellman.
Siskins from SCBI to Zoo Miami
Four precious Red Siskins are now in their new home! New RSI ally Zoo Miami will soon have these Front Royal birds on display at their facilities. We are so excited about our new partnership with Zoo Miami, with the opportunities they offer for close collaboration on flock management, as well as public education and outreach to the Venezuelan expatriate community in Florida. Congratulations and many thanks to all the people and RSI team members who were involved in the logistics for transferring these birds safely: Mike Braun, Brian Coyle, Erica Royer, Jim Dunster, Caroline Efstathion and Robert Horsburgh.
Searching for Red Siskins in Puerto Rico
We are saddened by the loss of life and devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in September 2017 but thankful that members of the RSI team and their loved ones living in PR made it through the storm and are recovering. RSI team member Mike Braun is planning a March trip to resume the search for Red Siskins there with Brian O’Shea, of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Sergio Colon, of the Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña (SOPI), and Jack Eitniear, from the Center for the Study of Tropical Birds. They will visit areas where the Red Siskin was reported in 1980s and several new sites based on compelling but unconfirmed reports over the past two years. Good luck team! Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña, Inc. (SOPI) is helping to make birders and others aware of this effort and to encourage all to report any sightings of Red Siskin to the RSI team.
Building RSI Alliances
Scientists from the Smithsonian and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago have joined with the Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations and Conservation Commons to hold a series of events with the Guyana embassy in Washington – DC to explore opportunities for future conservation work in Guyana, including the RSI and much more. Following two meetings at SI in 2017, Ambassador Riyad Insanally hosted an evening of presentations and discussion in January at the embassy, which was attended by scientists active in Guyana, members of the Guyana expatriate community, and embassy staff. On February 23rd, these and other groups gathered for an elegant celebration of Guyana’s Republic Day, with an evening reception at the Smithsonian Castle focused on biodiversity research and applications.
Spreading the word about RSI science: recent article is among the top five mentioned in SI metrics!
The Altmetric Attention Score integrates weekly information about the scientific papers most talked about in social (and/or mainstream) media. The Smithsonian featured our article “How to deal with ground truthing affected by human-induced habitat change?: Identifying high-quality habitats for the Critically Endangered Red Siskin” (Sánchez-Mercado et al) during the week from January 15th to 22nd. Its 17 mentions in one week made it one of the top five most mentioned of all Smithsonian publications that week. Congratulations to all the authors!
Presenting the Red Siskin on Venezuelan Television
On November 19, Venezuelan television network Globovisión premiered a program featuring the Red Siskin. Hosted by Karen Brewer, this episode in the Rio Verde series “Explorando Maravillas” presented interviews with RSI Venezuela project coordinator, Miguel Arvelo, and field biologist Jhonathan Miranda. It included amazing new footage of wild Red Siskins nesting, as well as information related to their biology, behavior and conservation. We helped Rio Verde focus their message on how Venezuelans can take practical steps to help us save this endangered species. Sit back, relax, and click this link to watch the complete episode with subtitles.
Please share your comments about the program through our websites and our social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram): What did you like? What else would you like to know about the Red Siskin?
Spreading the word through “Nuestros Pájaros” magazine
In its November 2017 edition, the magazine “Nuestros Pájaros” of the Confederación Ornitológica Española (COE) published a very complete article about the RSI written by Miguel Arvelo, Jesús Morales and Valentina Cedeño. Thanks to Roberto Jurado, who contacted us through our website, the Spanish public had the opportunity to learn more about the Red Siskin initiative. This link has an excerpt of the article we welcome you to explore.
The RSI and the rediscovery of the long-lost Tachira Anttpita
In 2017 the Global Wildlife Conservation Initiative “Search for Lost Species” traced the stories of ten rediscoveries of lost species announced this year. In their annual summary of successful stories, they mentioned the RSI team, highlighting the rediscovery of the species Grallaria chtonia, known as the Táchira Anttpita, which has been feared extinct since 1956. This highlights the RSI’s breadth in conservation, and our ability to help, not only the Red Siskin, but also of other species threatened with extinction.
The Search for Lost Species noted: “The team traveled by foot on steep and narrow Andean trails in the dark to reach the bird’s habitat by dawn, when team members heard the distinctive song of an antpitta they had never heard before.” The initiative will continue in 2018 with several expeditions to find and protect the 25 “most wanted” species, and the Global Wildlife Conservation Initiative will continue to publicize stories of rediscoveries from around the world.
You can learn more about the rediscovery this year, click here.
The Red Siskin Initiative invited to family Sunday at Caracas’ ecological gardens, Topotepuy
The Jardines Ecológicos Topotepuy team invited us to promote the Red Siskin Initiative on their special Sunday family activities. We were thrilled to take them up on their invitation on February 25th, where we had an ecological stand offering RSI-themed items like our coffee chocolate bar, as well as t-shirts and accessories. We projected a short video about the RSI team members, had Red Siskin origami activities for the children, and Miguel Arvelo, our RSI coordinator in Venezuela gave a talk about RSI conservation efforts in Venezuela. We enjoyed meeting many curious visitors and showing them the Initiative’s work, and received many positive comments in return. Thanks to Topotepuy for the invitation and the team that made this an unforgettable day!