If you would like to make your day a little bit happier, use an online search engine to find images of the Black-breasted Puffleg. Knowing that this gorgeous little bird, one of 120 species of hummingbird in Ecuador, shares the world with us is almost certain to help make you glad to be alive.
If, instead, you are determined to be miserable today, then have a look at the IUCN’s description of the current state of the world for the Black-breasted Puffleg. You will read that “around 93% of the suitable habitat within its probable historic range has been degraded or destroyed… Human-induced fires threaten large tracts of forest during the dry season…The construction of a pipeline… led to habitat destruction for the pipeline itself, an access road and a depressurisation station despite the known presence of the hummingbird.”
With a population of less than 1000 individuals, and a global distribution of just sixty-eight square kilometres, all within Ecuador, the Black-breasted Puffleg is considered to be critically-endangered. Restoration of suitable habitat is seen as crucial to its ongoing survival. If the puffleg is to take advantage of that habitat that we might try to restore, then it is essential that we know its preferred foods, and whether it might be willing to use habitats that are in the process of being rejuvenated. Until recently, that knowledge was lacking.
Estaban Guevara of Aves y Conservación – BirdLife in Ecuador and his colleagues sought to redress that lack of information. They wanted to know which of the available flowering plants were exploited by the Black-breasted Puffleg for food, and determine patterns of use of habitats that differed in their level of disturbance.
The study was conducted at five sites of evergreen forest on the flanks of the Pichincha volcano in northwestern Ecuador. The researchers sought out flowers with characteristics that might make them suitable for foraging by the pufflegs, and used time-lapse cameras to determine which plants were visited most frequently.
One photographic image was captured every second over nearly 3000 hours of observations. These revealed 144 visits by Black-breasted Pufflegs to seven of the twenty-one species of flowering plants monitored. A plant known by the scientific name Macleania rupestris was the most frequently visited species at one site, and Palicourea fuchsioides at another site. As if things weren’t bad enough for the puffleg, Guevara et al. described P. fuchsioides as “an endangered shrub known only from a few locations in the Andes of western Ecuador.”
Black-breasted Pufflegs were observed at only two of the sites that appeared to the researchers to be most suitable for occupation, and the birds seemed to avoid highly disturbed habitats such as forest edges. The recovery of degraded habitat, and the reconnection of fragmented patches of good habitat may be possible, but a better understanding of the natural history of key flowing plant species will be needed.
It doesn’t matter to me that I will probably never get to see a Black-breasted Puffleg. It is enough for me to know that they exist. What is important to me is that people like Esteban Guevara and his colleagues care enough about the world to try to keep our birds from slipping away.
Guevara, E., R. Hipo. C. Poveda, B. Rojas, C. H. Graham, and T. G. Santander. 2017. Plant and habitat use by Black-breasted Pufflegs (Eriocnemis nigrivestis), a critically endangered hummingbird. Journal of Field Ornithology 88:229-235.
Photo credits: Black-breasted Puffleg, photograph © Murray Cooper – www.birdlife.org; Black-breasted Puffleg, photograph © Steve Blain – www.neotropicalbirds.cornell.edu