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The Birds of Paradise: Good and Bad News
Dennis W. Boddy

GOOD NEWS: The USA government removed the peregrine falcons from the endangered species list of organisms. The peregrine falcons were one of approximately 1500 species of plants and animals the US Fish and Wildlife Service has placed on the list and have been actively trying to save.

This species, like the brown pelicans, had been very susceptible to the pesticide DDT. DDT interfered with the calcium metabolism in the birds, leaving the eggshells brittle and highly susceptible to breakage prior to hatching. This brought about a dangerous decline in the population.

In 1975 it had been estimated that there were only about 324 nesting pairs in the entire North American continent. These beautiful birds are important in the "balance of nature," preying on sick, weak, or defective individuals in populations of such species as doves, gulls and numerous others. For various reasons, the American government banned the use of DDT in 1972.

This action brought about a recovery of the brown pelican population, and now it is considered that the peregrine falcon population has recovered sufficiently with about 1650 pairs breeding in the USA and Canada. Perhaps other species of birds have also been positively influenced by the ban on the use of DDT.

BAD NEWS: Peregrine falcons have been recorded locally over the years in small numbers. Information on the population, however, is meager. I have seen them along the coastal areas of the bay and particularly at Punta de Mita. I remember one particularly interesting sighting at what is now the Marina Vallarta. The yacht basin was being dredged and mud was being hosed from the bottom of the basin up onto the decimated mangrove swamps.

On a Sunday no work would go on and I could drive out among the piles of drying mud and observe many species of birds feeding on material incorporated into the mud. I had on several occasions observed a peregrine falcon perching on a snag that still remained in the area.

One Sunday that bird was on the ground facing a crested caracara a few feet away. Between them was a dead bird, perhaps a tern or pigeon, undoubtedly captured by the falcon. The caracara, as is characteristic of the species, was trying to take the prey away from the falcon. I went on through the piles of mud.

When I returned, the dead bird had apparently been torn apart and the falcon and caracara were sharing the carcass. The bad news is that there is no conscious effort locally to protect these valuable and interesting birds. With the rapid development of the area, the species may have already been eliminated.

MORE BAD NEWS: The beautiful little Least Terns may have already been exterminated from the area. During the twenty years that I have watched the birds inhabiting the Banderas Bay area, the least terns have been one of my favorites. They didn't reside in the area for the entire year, but came only to nest and then depart, entering the region quickly in the spring than departing just as quickly after their nesting activity was over.

While the birds were here, they could be seen along the entire coastline that I patrolled in my ornithological investigations. The least terns are swift and graceful flyers, quite different from their stodgy relatives the gulls, and even the more closely related heavy bodied terns such as the big Caspian terns. The least terns hunted for food, small aquatic animals, both along the seashore, but also freshwater ponds.

As soon as they arrived in the spring they sought out appropriate sites to raise their young. The preferred sites would be in the grassy or gravelly areas just above high tide. They even utilized grassy areas at Punta de Mita near the edges of the cliffs at ocean side. They didn't actually construct a nest but laid their eggs on the ground among pebbles. When the eggs hatched, the adults actively hunted for food to nourish the chicks and worked to keep the fledgling safe in their allotted site.

I remember once, at Punta de Mita, seeing an adult trying desperately to keep its single chick and me apart. The tiny chick became visible to me only as it scampered away, its mottled color blending in with the environment when not moving. More conspicuous was the adult, several yards away, seemingly trying to distract me. This was an area popular with campers, surfers and whale-watchers and I wondered how successful the terns could be in surviving in that environment.

That area has more recently been taken over by exclusive resort installations and is not open to bird-watchers such as myself to see the fate of the nesting least terns. With the reported construction of golf courses, helipads, artificial lakes and other tourist facilities such as tropical gardens, it is hard to believe the terns have survived.

The luck of the terns has been no better in other areas around the bay where they preferred to nest. Prior to the development of Marina Vallarta, the beach along that region was a major nesting site for the terns. The construction of resorts has, however, totally destroyed the nesting area of the terns.

Another site the terns liked to nest was along the beaches in Nuevo Vallarta, south of Bucerias. I remember how, during one nesting season, seeing bulldozers churning up the area while the terns were nesting. The adult birds could only look on, unable to distract the workers, as the single adult had been able to distract me at an earlier time in Punta de Mita.

Migratory birds are notorious for returning to their regular nesting sites year after year. If their nesting sites have been destroyed, their population can only suffer, and probably eliminated. Without new generations, there can be none to return to the area. Such has probably been the fate of the least terns locally.

The least terns have suffered over most of the coastal areas of North America, their nesting sites prized by humans for their own entertainment, not procreation. The problem has been tackled successfully in some other parts of the continent, with nesting areas for the terns being protected. Sorrowfully, this has not happened locally.

IS THERE MORE BAD NEWS? There has been very little local effort to protect the wildlife of the area. The destruction of the local mangrove swamps unquestioningly has harmed the population of several species of birds dependent on that specific habitat. Perhaps several species have already been exterminated. Our studies have not been enough to know for sure.

IS THERE ANY MORE GOOD NEWS? I think so. There has been a decided increase in the activity of individuals, including sections of the tourist industry, to try to save some of the wonderful local wildlife. There is, however, much to be done. More attention must be focussed on the value of nature to a tourist-centered area such as this.

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