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Studying birds in Amazonia: IBCP’s Benjamín Salazar finds a “festival of birds”

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Surveying birds in Amazonian indigenous territory in northern Peru. Photo courtesy of Benjamín Salazar.

A lifelong resident of Amazonia, IBCP Tsamajain Fellow Benjamín Salazar leads research on birds in forests managed by indigenous Aguaruna-Jívaro communities in northern Peru. Forests in Amazonian indigenous territories are extraordinarily rich in biodiversity, and many scientists recognize their critical role in global conservation, but in northern Peru they have received very little scientific study to date. Aguaruna-Jívaro people in this region have a cultural heritage that includes highly developed knowledge of bird taxonomy, ecology, and conservation. In collaboration with leaders of multiple Aguaruna-Jívaro communities, Benjamín has been conducting field surveys to create an area bird inventory including scientific, Aguaruna-Jívaro, English, and Spanish names. In addition to documenting bird species, Benjamín and colleagues are investigating birds’ ecology, behavior, conservation needs, and cultural significance. Birds and bird-human interactions are prominently featured in Aguaruna-Jívaro traditional beliefs, and play key roles in legends and stories. This is significant, as cultural attitudes and indigenous knowledge have major implications for biodiversity conservation.

Blue-headed Parrot (Pionus menstruus), a species known in the Aguaruna-Jívaro language as “tuwish.” Photo by Benjamín Salazar.

Aguaruna-Jívaro people and places are often named after birds, including the community of Saasa, which is named after a remarkable bird, the Hoatzin. During recent work in Saasa, Benjamín documented 186 bird species belonging to 37 families, including charismatic species such as the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Blue-headed Parrot, and endemic Orange-throated Tanager. Among other observations, community members described an avian behavior phenomenon called “pishak saayu” in the Aguaruna-Jívaro language, which is known to biologists as mixed-species flocking. Here, Benjamín reports, “many species forage together, like a festival of birds. Birds take turns acting as a lookout, or ‘yakakao.’ With many eyes together watching for danger, birds in the flock show striking boldness and lack of fear. This is how the bird community functions, moving with unity.” Benjamín summarized his findings for the community of Saasa, as he does for other collaborating communities, in presentations and a written report for their records. To our knowledge, Benjamín is the only biologist currently investigating birds in this region, and the only indigenous Amazonian scientist to have done so to date. IBCP looks forward to continuing to make discoveries through his work!

Benjamín Salazar providing a bird report to the Aguaruna-Jívaro community of Saasa in northern Peru. Photo courtesy of Benjamín Salazar.

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