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The search for the Kinglet Calyptura

Kinglet Calyptura, as painted in the 1800s. Photo thanks to Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The Kinglet Calyptura has vanished twice in ornithological history, and hasn’t been seen in 20 years. Are any still alive? If so, what could be done to save one of the rarest birds on earth?  An expedition launches this October to find answers. This exciting endeavor is being spearheaded by our partners at the Instituto Butantan, one of the primary collaborators on eBird BrasilThe Kinglet Calyptura expedition is part of a larger effort to search for lost birds initiated by American Bird Conservancy with partners across South America. The expedition members will be eBirding all of their sightings as they search for the calyptura, and you can follow along with their findings by seeing the latest lists from Luciano Lima’s eBird Profile Page. The fun starts on Oct 10—we know we’ll be watching here from eBird HQ!

Brazilian ornithologists and birders search for the Kinglet Calyptura, the twice vanished species

Virtually nothing is known about the Kinglet Calyptura, an endemic of the Atlantic Rainforest of Brazil. There were sightings and 55 specimens collected in the late 1800’s, then 100 years passed without any records. In 1996, a pair was observed for three days at Serra dos Órgãos, Rio de Janeiro. After that the species vanished again. The reason why it disappeared remains a mystery that ornithologists and birders are trying to solve. With only one published record from the last 120 years, Kinglet Calyptura is one of the world rarest birds, and the “holy grail” among the Neotropical birders.

The Kinglet Calyptura is unfortunately not a unique story. Proudly and sadly, Brazil is one of the countries with the highest number of birds and the world leader in endangered species of birds. According to the IUCN world list of threatened species, 165 Brazilian birds are at risk of extinction, representing 12% of the total of the world threatened bird species.

Habitat destruction is the major threat for the Brazilian bird fauna. The situation is especially dire for the Atlantic Rainforest species, as habitat conversion during the last 500 years reduced this domain to only 12% of its original area, and 30% of the 231 endemic birds there are considered threatened.

Three specimens of Kinglet Calyptura from the Finnish Museum of Natural History. Photo by Luciano Lima.

Establishing protected areas is the most significant action to bird conservation. But according to Luciano Lima, researcher at the Instituto Butantan – Bird Observatory, the lack of basic knowledge is for some species a threat even greater than habitat destruction. “We know so little about most of our bird species that we are not certain if they are extinct, and conservation action is not possible before we answer this question”.

This year marks 20 years since the last record of the mysterious Kinglet Calyptura. A team from the Bird Observatory at Instituto Butantan will conduct an intensive search for the species in a specific region on Rio de Janeiro. The Instituto Butantan expedition is supported by American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and the Environment Agency for the state of Rio de Janeiro (INEA).

The expedition is coordinated by Lima, who explains how this specific area has been chosen: “We put together information from the few specimens that have precise information about collection locality, mostly based on the knowledge about the expeditions of the 19th century naturalists.” Based on that, the forests in the center-north of the state of Rio de Janeiro constitute the most likely area for this species to occur, where Lima believes that some individuals could persist.

During 15 days in October a team of ornithologists of the Butantan Bird Observatory, together with a team of birders will explore all the forest remnants in the area. According to Erika Hingst-Zaher, coordinator of the Observatory, the main goal of the project goes beyond the quest for this particular species. “In 2014 the Brazilian Government declared three bird species as extinct, all of them endemic to the Atlantic Rainforest. This fact did not get any attention from the media, the scientific community or the general public. The quest for the Kinglet Calyptura is a way to call attention to the wave of extinction that is wiping out the Atlantic Rainforest birds, as we understand that forgetting is also a form of extinction.”

Follow expedition updates here.