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SELVA: Colombia's Education and Conservation Powerhouse

SELVA—it’s Colombia’s tiny-but-mighty grassroots biological research force focused on education and conservation efforts in the Neotropics.

They study a lot of birds!

And their habits and habitat.

The biologists at SELVA use lots of cool math and automated radio telemetry technology to understand where birds are and how they’re living. Through rigorous science, SELVA advocates for maintaining biodiversity in Colombia and all of the Neotropics.

What’s the Neotropics?

It’s the world’s most biologically diverse landmass comprised of portions of Mexico, Central America and most of South America and is home to as much as a third of all bird species worldwide and also boasts the greatest number of endemic mammal families.

Many plants and animals living in the Neotropics live nowhere else on the planet.

Since 2009, a core group of SELVA scientists have been diligently studying the jungles and varied habitats of Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala to learn more about endemic birds—ones that live mainly in one place—and migratory species. Migratory birds, of course, are the ones like hummingbirds, indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles and so many more that we look forward to seeing again each spring in North America.

The beautiful mystery of migration is a research area that SELVA is particularly keen on. Their studies on how migratory birds need and use habitat help to ensure may species’ continued survival—because no habitat, no birds.

Did you know that since 1970, North American bird species, endemic and migratory, have declined by 30%? That’s about 2.9 billion individual birds gone in 50 years. Migratory species have been hardest hit because they depend on specific kinds of habitat in two different places—often two different continents—plus necessary stopover spots with adequate food and shelter to rest and re-fuel during their long flights.

But SELVA is on it!

The organization operates two programs dedicated to studying migratory birds and migration—Crossing the Caribbean and the Neotropical Flyways Project. Both are in partnership with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—yeah, Cornell, the jewel in the crown of all things flying and feathered!—and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Some of the organization’s research has focused on the yellow-billed cuckoo, a bird common in hardwood forests in the South East and known to many farmers and rural folk in the Midwest as the rain crow.

This species is an incredible long distance flyer with some birds crossing in excess of 5,000 miles one-way during migration. The cuckoo’s range is extensive. In summer, they can be found in parts of northern Minnesota, and during winter, or non-breeding season, yellow-billed cuckoos go as far south as northern Argentina.

This reclusive bird’s call was once a common summer sound in the Midwest. As a child growing up in rural Indiana, I knew its familiar sound—a series of descending percussive notes, or like a tractor engine trying to turn over. So common in summer, I knew this sound before I realized it was a birdcall.

Here’s the thing: yellow-billed cuckoos are especially sensitive to changes in their preferred habitat, and if its regular habitat is altered, the bird will move on in hopes of finding a suitable home elsewhere.

But what happens if the cuckoo’s habitat is disturbed, it flies in search of someplace new but doesn’t find anything suitable or sustainable? It doesn’t breed.

That’s the problem.

Habitat loss is the biggest issue right now facing many bird species, migratory and endemic. In fact, habitat loss due to human activity and climate change is currently imperiling a range of animals, not just birds, around the globe.

But there’s hope.

SELVA also works in partnership with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and international coffee giant, Nespresso, to increase sustainability and biodiversity on land where coffee is grown. SELVA’s work continues to help determine best practices to benefit biodiversity within shade grown coffee landscapes.

The research that SELVA leads with the Smithsonian and Nespresso helps benefit birds, plants and many other animal species living in some coffee growing landscapes within Colombia.

Which is a win for biodiversity!

If you check out SELVA’s webpage, you’ll get a better understanding of their different projects and scientific focus areas. Plus, the website features a lot of great photos of birds and more Colombian plant and animal species. The images are a portal through which you can glimpse some of Colombia’s awe-inspiring natural beauty.

And here at Josephine Johnson Sings, we support SELVA by donating a portion of our yearly proceeds to the organization, funding education initiatives and migratory bird research.

Important links:

2019 “Science” article detailing how three billion birds have disappeared since 1970:

What’s Cornell Lab of Ornithology? Check it out here:

And if you really, really want to get bird-nerdy with me, check out some of SELVA’s research published in 2020 about migration strategies for crossing the Caribbean Sea. Yellow-billed cuckoo is a star research subject:


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