Their odd elongated nests hang down from the coastal trees on Isla Palenque, an island in the Gulf of Chiriqui and a sanctuary for one of Panama’s quirkiest native bird species.
I’m talking about the crested oropendola, named for the sack-like nests they suspend from the branches of Panama’s trees. Oropendola translates to “golden pendulum” but while the pendulous nests themselves are unremarkable brown woven compositions of vines and fibers, the yellow tail feathers of this midsized blackbird reward onlookers with a flicker of gold whenever the crested oropendola alights.
The flock of oropendolas on Isla Palenque seems to favor one particular tree near the orchard, broadcasting their vibrato song full of clicks, clacks, and brrrs from the jungle’s edge. And these noisy birds only get noisier during breeding season, as our friend Mark Scherr recently discovered.
“Very colorful – and very hyper!” says Scherr of the oropendolas he and his family observed during their visit to Panama earlier this year. The oropendolas were positively hopping last April as the Scherrs explored Gamboa and the surrounding environs of Lake Gatun. “It was the right time of year to see them at their most hyper.”
As I began poking around the web to learn more about these fascinating birds, I stumbled across a new report by Stanford University biologists, recently featured on Futurity accompanied by a big image of our yellow-tailed friend, the oropendola.
Entitled Intensive agriculture erodes β-diversity at large scales, the report (which appeared in the June 21 issue of Ecology Letters) proposes a solution to the dual problems of shrinking biodiversity and increasing global food demands: “low-intensity agriculture.”
The study bases its conclusions on data compiled by ornithologist Jim Zook, who has been monitoring bird species in Costa Rica for over ten years. According to Zook, intensive agriculture is often to blame for the disappearance of bird species from regions they would normally inhabit. However, careful cultivation that integrates with the surrounding wild environment has been proven to preserve biodiversity – often producing higher yields and healthier harvests to boot. This “low-intensity agriculture” appears to be a win-win both conservationists and farmers can endorse.
While this report essentially gives us a gold star for the careful way we are developing The Resort at Isla Palenque, the fuzzy feeling fades when I consider how other areas of Panama stand to witness diminished biodiversity if irresponsible development and intensive agriculture continue unchecked. In ten years, the oropendolas near Panama City that made Scherr’s kids giggle at their hyperactive antics could be AWOL.
Panama is known for its pristine wilderness and the abundance of species sheltered in its jungles and cloud forests. But if farmers and developers fail to heed this report’s wise (and completely reasonable) recommendation to work with the natural environment, not against it, then the experience of future travelers to Panama will be severely lacking.
The eco-resort on Isla Palenque provides a good model for anyone looking to develop in Panama. The Resort at Isla Palenque’s award-winning master plan demonstrates how building delicately within the existing jungle can be accomplished with relative ease, and with benefits for both wildlife and guests of the resort.
No offense to our oropendolas, but there are many more species worth preserving on our wild island – howler monkeys, armadillos, iguanas, agoutis, frogs, and countless indigenous and migratory birds that suffuse our jungle canopies in brilliant color and lively song. By building carefully and situating buildings within the landscape to clear as little land as possible and preserve the island’s tall old-growth trees, we’ve avoided disruption of Isla Palenque’s ecosystems.
Even the on-island organic farm will observe principles of permaculture to ensure that its impact on the environment is a positive one. I was fascinated to learn that healthy diversity in the local bird population complements farming efforts, since birds aid in fruit dispersal, pest control, and pollination. All freebies for a successful organic farming effort! Also, intact ecosystems adjacent to cultivated lands help maintain the purity of natural water resources and keep nutrients cycling.
With the fate of those goofy oropendolas, as well as countless other unique bird species, hanging in the balance, it’s easy for me to do my job of spreading the word about what we’re creating on Isla Palenque. Nature already did the hard part – producing an unbelievable array of wild creatures for us to observe and protect. The rest is up to us.