A plea to protect Jamaica's wild birds

The elegant Grey Kingbird, known in Jamaica as the Petchary. Photo by Wendy Lee, used with permission.

Jamaica's Wildlife Protection Act states that “all native birds are protected.” This includes the island's native parrots and parakeets, owls, seabirds and shorebirds. Even the migratory birds that are only resident for a short period are covered under the legislation, though domesticated birds like chickens are omitted.

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) — commonly called “John Crows” — were the first Jamaican species to be protected, by law, way back in 1687. Though large in size, these birds were deemed “harmless,” not to mention useful in their role as consumers of carrion. The fine, 436 years ago, was GBP 5 (just over USD 6 dollars), half of which would be given to the person who reported the infraction. The value of the sum, however, would be equivalent to just under USD 500 today.

Citing the fairly common childhood practice of shooting birds with slingshots, birding enthusiast and Global Voices contributor Emma Lewis says Jamaicans have had a “rather edgy relationship with wild birds,” though she does admit that with the advent of technology, the popularity of the convention is dying off:

Young [boys] have adopted a sedentary lifestyle, which perhaps gives the birds a little break.

Biologist Damion Whyte, however, recently shared two videos on social media that Lewis says “shocked [her] to the core”:

In one, a young man was boasting that he could catch a bird “with his bare hands.” The bird in question was a juvenile Northern potoo [Nyctibius jamaicensis], sitting quietly on a tree branch and resting. It panicked when it suddenly realised it was in danger. The young man grabbed it and probably hurt the bird. I don’t know whether it survived. Under the Act, you are not only not allowed to kill or injure native birds – you are supposed to leave them alone.

Because Potoos are nocturnal, they spend the day with “eyes closed, completely motionless and erect, in a kind of meditative trance.” Though its name is often confused with the local name for an owl (Patoo), it is a completely different species. The bird only lays one egg, making it even more urgent to protect the species.

The second video, meanwhile, appeared to show a man proudly displaying a dead Grey Kingbird (Tyrannus dominicensis) on a string. Known in Jamaica as the Petchary, which is, incidentally, the name of Lewis’ blog, it's a summertime migratory bird that flies from South America to the Caribbean in order to breed. These types of trappers often “gum” tree branches — an illegal practice — in order to capture the birds when they alight on the branches. They become stuck, “struggling and in agony, until they die or are collected by the humans.”

Lewis suspects that these bird stalkers piggyback on the hunting season, even though only four species of doves are allowed to be shot during this time, and in limited numbers. Jamaica's shooting season, which Lewis dubs a “neocolonial throwback to the days when the English upper classes went shooting birds,” opened on August 19 and will end on September 24. It is strictly regulated by the National Environment & Planning Agency (NEPA), which has already cited at least three hunters for disobeying the rules, including shooting outside the prescribed times of day and shooting near a residential area.

In contrast, in areas where birds are not fearful for their survival, they thrive. Lewis’ bird-friendly garden, for instance, recently hosted two migratory species: the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) and the Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor), both nesting in an overgrown privet hedge she has renamed “The Warbler Hotel.” She surmises that they will stay until March or April 2024, then head slightly north, to Texas or Louisiana, to breed.

Citing a pearl of wisdom from American ornithologist and naturalist Roger Tory Peterson, Lewis noted the importance of protecting the bird community:

All native birds are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act. End of story.

Our birds are in trouble. Let’s protect them.

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