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Saving Venezuela’s Famous Red Bird by Planting Coffee


In this Oct. 24, 2018 photo, a Venezuelan male red siskin bird perches on a branch in Vargas, Venezuela. Once flourishing in the millions, as few as 300 remain in the wild in Venezuela, although scientists say it's difficult to estimate their numbers in the politically turbulent and dangerous country. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Saving Venezuela’s Famous Red Bird by Planting Coffee
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Pictures of the bird called the red siskin appear on Venezuela’s money, on products and in school books. The “Little Cardinal,” as the bird is known, is loved by Venezuelans.

But the small song bird is disappearing from the wild. It has become the victim of shrinking forests and poachers who want to sell their bright red feathers.

That threat has brought together an international team. The team includes scientists from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and coffee farmers in Venezuela's mountains. They hope to save the bird. The plan is to have farmers plant organic coffee plants. Such coffee plants are covered with branches which make good nesting places for the birds.

"They don't have many years left, unless we do something right now," said Miguel Arvelo. He is an animal doctor for the nonprofit group Provita in Caracas. It is one of the groups leading the effort.

Once found in the millions, as few as 300 red siskins remain in Venezuela. However, scientists say it is difficult to estimate their numbers now because of Venezuela’s current economic crisis and violence.

An effort to save the birds

The Red Siskin Initiative began about three years ago on a budget of less than $100,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private groups in the U.S. and Venezuela.

Planting organic coffee crops with branches stops farmers from increasing production by thinning their coffee crops to let more sun onto their fields.

Farmers who meet the project's rules will win the right to sell their beans with "Bird Friendly" labels. They will be able to set prices for such “high quality” products that can be five times higher than legal prices set by the socialist government.

At the same time, a red siskin breeding center is being built at a private zoo in Venezuela. There, 200 birds are expected to be born next year. This number will be added to the 25 siskins at the Smithsonian Institution. Red siskins from the center will be placed in the coffee groves. These efforts could prevent the birds from disappearing.

There are reports of early success. About 40 farmers in the mountains of Carayaca, northwest of the capital Caracas, have stopped cutting down trees, a move that will help the siskin.

The male siskin is valued for its red feathers and black head. Breeders cross them with yellow pet birds to create babies with colorful feathers.

Protection under Venezuelan law has not stopped poachers from catching the birds to sell on an illegal international market.

Poor Venezuelan families often catch and sell the birds. The money they receive can feed their children for months, said biologist Jhonathan Miranda, a Provita researcher.

Michael Braun is co-founder of the Red Siskin Initiative and a research scientist at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. He said Venezuela's economic crisis has hurt the project. Researchers and scientists have been robbed or shot by Venezuela’s growing poor population.

It is difficult to get people to travel to or to stay in Venezuela and work on the project, Braun said.

Scientists keep the places where the birds are known to live a secret to protect them from poachers. They permitted The Associated Press to photograph a small number of birds at one of those secret places.

Twelve or more of the small, red birds flew into sight just as the sun appeared.

"It's the first time I've seen so many together," said Miranda. "It gives us hope."

I’m Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Shand adapted this story for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

poacher – n. one who catches an animal illegally

feathers – n. any one of the light growths that make up the outer covering of the body of a bird

branch – n. the arm of a tree

label –n. a piece of paper, cloth or other material that is attached to something to identify and describe it

breed – v. to produce offspring by sexual reproduction

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