New species of cotinga in Bolivia

Ther are now two species of striking cotingas with forked tails now that Palkachupa Cotinga's true status has been identified. Photo: Juan Carlos Atienza SEO/BirdLife
Ther are now two species of striking cotingas with forked tails now that Palkachupa Cotinga's true status has been identified. Photo: Juan Carlos Atienza SEO/BirdLife

Another exotic subspecies has now been shown to merit recognition as a species in South America, and yet again is already under threat.

The Bolivian subspecies of the Swallow-tailed Cotinga Phibalura flavirostris is a full species, says Bennett Hennessey, Executive Director of BirdLife’s Bolivian Partner Asociación Armonía, in a paper just published in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.

Now reduced to fewer than 600 individuals in a few fragments of forest within an area of just over 1,000 km2, the 'Palkachupa Cotinga' will be a candidate for a high threat category in the 2012 Red List update by BirdLife International. Unrecorded for 98 years, P. f. boliviana was rediscovered at the edge of a small forest fragment near Pata, north-west of the municipality of Apolo in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park, in September 2000.

Hennessey rediscovered the bird, and is now leading Armonía’s efforts to conserve it. It is still relatively common in patches of good habitat, but with so little good habitat remaining the overall population is very low. A stronghold of the population has been found at the original collection site, near the village of Aten. 

"Without more support, we have another dry season on the horizon, during which more of Palkachupa’s habitat will be cut and burnt for pasture land," says Bennett Hennessey. Armonía is seeking donations of $3,000 to $5,000 to protect the bird.

In June 2010, Armonía achieved the first step toward the creation of a Palkachupa Nature Reserve with the purchase of 59 ha near Aten. Negotiations with landowners continue, and they hope to purchase additional land. "The area requires complete boundary fencing to prevent further cattle grazing, and to allow reforestation. Restoration of savannah breeding habitat is needed, and for this we will first need to work with neighbouring landowners on fire management. Isolated trees will be planted to improve nesting habitat", said Hennessey.

 “We will initiate a programme of protecting Palkachupa Cotinga nesting trees in the Aten area by purchasing the protection rights of important trees. These trees will be fenced off, and signs will be placed declaring these small areas as sanctuaries for the species.”

It would not be possible to protect the Palkachupa’s habitat without the support and cooperation of the people of Aten. Armonía is working with a former Madidi park guard and Aten native, William Ferufino, to coordinate research and outreach activities with the local communities. Local people have responded enthusiastically, and images of Palkachupa play a prominent role in annual Independence Day celebrations. Four high school students are working with William Ferufino as volunteer field assistants. In recognition of this important support, and to build greater local participation, Armonía provided assistance for improvements to the Aten school, including construction of three additional classrooms.

The Near Threatened Swallow-tailed Cotinga has traditionally been considered to consist of two subspecies with disjunct ranges.  The nominate race is found in south-eastern Brazil, and also perhaps in north-east Argentina and east Paraguay, though there have been no records from these countries since 1977. 2,500 km separate the nearest known population of the nominate subspecies from the area in central-western Bolivia, where three specimens of the taxon known as P f boliviana were collected in 1845 and 1902.

Evidence presented by Hennessey in The Wilson Journal (123: 454-458) indicated that the Bolivian population should be treated as a separate species, Phibalura boliviana. The plumage is distinctly different: boliviana males have longer tails than flavirostris, and their body plumage is significantly less sexually dimorphic. The iris of boliviana is mustard yellow, distinct from the blood red iris of flavirostris, and boliviana has orange-yellow feet while those of flavirostris are pink. Only one vocalisation type is recorded for flavirostris, whereas at least five calls and a song are known for boliviana, which vocalises significantly more often. The Brazilian flavirostris has strong seasonal movements, whereas boliviana is sedentary. The proposed common name proposed for the species comes from the indigenous Quechua language: palka meaning fork and chupa meaning tail.

“On first speaking with the people of Aten, their comment was that they did not know Palkachupa was so rare” said Hennessey. “Being so common in their village they assumed it was found everywhere.”

Armonía is seeking donations of $3000 to $5000 to protect the Palkachupa Cotinga. Please contact abhennessey@armonia-bo.org if you wish to help efforts to save the species from extinction.

Hennessey, B. 2011. Species rank of Phibalura (flavirostris) boliviana based on plumage, soft part color, vocalizations, and seasonal movements. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 123: 454-458.