Report #3: I'm Not Here to Eat Your Birds!
By Justin Nobel, Columbia University Earth and Environmental Sciences Journalism Student
My first impressions of Africa came from reading National Geographic articles like those in 2000 and 2001 chronicling ecologist Michael Fay's African "megatransect." His 2,000-mile, 456-day trek across the rainforests of the Republic of the Congo, Cameroon and Gabon described an impenetrable wilderness unspoiled by man.
Fay's experience, however, is a far cry from the transects I walk every day, where I am often recording bird life alongside farmers in their fields or beside paths busy with children walking to school and women with sacks of maize balanced on their heads headed for market.
Less than 100 years ago western Kenya, including Sauri, was part of the jungle Fay traversed. Today nearly all of western Kenya's original rainforest has been cleared for agriculture. My research in Sauri aims to determine what type of avian diversity this modified landscape supports.
I have surveyed wildlife in the past, but never birds, so before leaving for Kenya I sought advice from ornithologists and ecologists at Columbia, the American Museum of Natural History and Cornell University. Many scientists have focused on studying uninhabited biodiversity hotspots, but I learned from those I spoke with that a more relevant research question today is: How is biodiversity affected in land dominated by humans?
In Sauri, hedges, dwindling marshlands and wood-lined rivers provide a semblance of past forests. The hedges were initially meant to mark property, hold in livestock and protect crops from wind damage during thunderstorms. My hypothesis asks whether they also provide habitat for forest birds. I often see woodland and garden species like the yellow-throated leaf-love and bronze sunbird in the hedges, but most forest species appear to be gone. Understanding how the plant diversity within these hedges affects the birds found there is something I will examine after I return home.
A shortcoming of my study is that I'm only here for two months, and the almost 100 birds I've recorded on my survey sites and around Sauri is likely far short of the area's actual species count. In July more birds will arrive to feast on the ripening maize; come late October and November, migratory birds from Europe and Asia will begin to appear. Carrying out longer studies still will not ensure that all species will be accounted for, as some remain quietly hidden in bushes, only come out at night or visit an area every other year.
One novelty about researching birds in Sauri is sometimes they actually come to me. Word of my work has spread around the village, and several residents have excitedly presented me with birds they found on their farms. Many villagers are convinced my research involves eliminating birds they consider pests or catching them for food. Last week the security guard at the guest house where I'm staying brought me two quails, birds that people in Sauri commonly trap and eat. The elderly guard, nicknamed Soldier, was somewhat confused when, after accepting his gift, I set the birds free.