Privately-owned land in the forests of Costa Rica can help support the same number of vulnerable bird species as the nature reserves they border, according to a new study from the University of California, Davis.
Collaborating with local landowners to conserve or restore forests in the working landscapes of Costa Rica can help protect local wildlife, the study reports. Working landscapes are cohesive units of land that are ecologically, socially, and economically connected. Rural areas, which often are dominated by intensive or extensive agricultural, forestry, or other natural resources based economies, are generally a part of a working landscape. In Costa Rica, working landscapes include forest patches, crops, pastures, and small towns. Private lands in regions that are wetter and already have a degree of natural forest cover would help local bird species the most, it adds.
Can’t see the forest for the patches
“With sufficient forest cover, working landscapes — even if degraded and fragmented — can maintain bird communities that are indistinguishable from those found in protected areas,” said lead author Daniel Karp, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology.
“This means that private landowners have great power to improve the conservation value of their lands through reforestation.”
As part of a larger project funded by National Geographic, the team looked at the state of Neotropical birds at 150 sites across Costa Rica’s northwest over a two-year period.
Agricultural lands in the area host diverse bird communities, the team reports, but not the same species that live in protected areas. These field-dwelling species also had large distributions, meaning they are of lower conservation value (‘not-as-threatened’) as the species in protected areas.
Interestingly, the privately-owned patches of forest in the studied area stood out quite sharply from their surrounding fields. Despite their advanced state of degradation — these plots of forest were degraded by logging, hunting, and fires — they housed the same species of birds as the protected areas. The patches were also better at supporting bird populations in wetter and more forested areas. The team estimates that reforesting the wettest sites would increase bird similarity to protected areas four-fold compared to a two-fold increase in the driest sites.
In a related study, Karp showed that the amount of local forest within about 150 feet of a site was the biggest determinant of the species of birds found there.
“Tropical birds respond very strongly to the amount of forest in their immediate vicinity,” Karp said. “That’s encouraging because it means forest restoration on a small scale, even in small patches, can be really effective in safeguarding vulnerable bird species.”
Costa Rica has experienced decades of forest decline, which prompted the state to offer monetary incentives for landowners who maintained forest on their private lands in the early 1990s. That’s how these patches of forest the study focuses on came to be.
The paper “Remnant forest in Costa Rican working landscapes fosters bird communities that are indistinguishable from protected areas” has been published in the journal Journal of Applied Ecology.