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Hooray For Our Fine Feathered Friends in Belize

10 January 2014 One Comment

Hooray For Our Fine Feathered Friends

Belize-Birds-Birding-Conservation-Ecotourism

Former US President Jimmy Carter is universally respected for his work with Habitat for Humanity, and justly so, as the organisation goes around the world building houses for people.

Not so well known is Michael Keys who, with his son, Larkin, hikes deep into the savannas of Belize to build houses for birds. Trudging in with ladders and chain saws, they climb up trees to carve holes into which they insert a wooden box.

Voila – a new home for yellow-headed parrots, who will hopefully nest and produce offspring to boost the population of this endangered species.

Mr Keys is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, stationed at Florida’s St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. He and his son are coming to Belize later this month, where they’ll spend some 18 days clambering some 30 feet up trees and installing the birdhouses.

“This is a species that could go extinct and I have this one specialised skill that can help,” Keys said. “I’m not a heart surgeon or anything. So this is my contribution to helping the habitat.”

And we want to point out that the Keys are doing this independently, although Michael said he welcomes contributions (see how below).

This is the second time Mr Keys has made the trip to Belize. Back in January 2012 he spent two weeks installing ten bird boxes at Payne’s Creek National Forest, and hopes to install another ten this time around, with Larkin, 19, recording it all for a documentary.

“(Ten boxes) sounds like a small number, but it’s challenging logistically; you spend most of your time getting there,” Keys said. “But our project was successful the first time. So the goal is to keep expanding it.”

And that’s a great boon for Belizean wildlife from someone who knows what he’s doing. In the face of declining habitat and parrot populations, Mr Keys has been building such avian accommodation since 1990 when he was stationed at the Francis Marion National Forest and scientists got the idea that such artificial cavities could help red-cockaded woodpecker populations rebound. Since then he’s built dozens of artificial cavities at the wildlife refuge and Tall Timbers Research Station in Leon County in Florida.

And it worked a treat for the red-cockaded woodpeckers, whose population, due to logging and hurricanes, had dropped to fewer than 10,000. Thanks in part to the tree house project, there are now more than 14,000 red-cockaded woodpeckers in Southeast Florida.

One reason for the increase is the fact that male woodpeckers take 12 to 18 months to build a nesting cavity, but they don’t mind inhabiting the artificial cavities Keys produces in a few hours.

“Artificial cavities are very attractive to the birds,” Keys said. “It’s like if someone built a new house in your neighborhood and nobody moved in and it was free, you might move in.”

Red-cockaded woodpeckers, which mate for years, produce only a few eggs per nesting season. Yellow-headed parrots average one offspring every two years, and they too are facing pressures that reduce their habitat.

It’s been estimated these pressure caused a 90 percent decline in Belize’s prized yellow-headed parrot, one of several birds pictured on the $100 note. Poaching is partly responsible, as yellow-headed parrots are some of the most talkative parrots around and respond well to training, if they are young enough.  So people love them, poachers love the money, and it’s one more pressure on the bird populations.

Keys was recruited to Belize by Steve Morrison, a forester with the Nature Conservancy in Lake Wales who spent ten years teaching Belizean foresters the methods and benefits of prescribed burning. Also heavily involved was Michael Andreu, a forestry professor with the University of Florida who is establishing a training program for UF forestry students in Belize.

All three men are working to improve the health of Belize’s open, savanna pine forests, which have been reduced from logging, hurricanes and bug infestations, cutting down the habitat of Belize’s jaguars, mountain lions, white-tailed deer, tapirs and those talkative yellow-headed parrots.

Mr Morrison hails Mr Key’s work.

“Nobody had been working on this leg of the problem (more nesting sites), so Michael really has been part of the solution,” Morrison said. “It would be a great loss for such a spectacular and unique parrot to disappear from the face of the earth.”

Belizean workers build the boxes, each about a foot wide, a foot deep and 2-3 feet high,, and Mr Keys then climbs up a pine tree and uses a small chain saw to hollow out a section of tree to install them.

We think what’s really cool is the Michael and Larkin doing this for free. They spend holiday time in Belize to help save another of the country’s beautiful birds, rather than kicking back to get a nice tan on the beach or visit the Maya temples and check out the abundant wildlife that includes flocks of parrots. And while we’re all for kicking back, chilling out and generally enjoying the pleasure of Belize, as you do, we think the Keys should be heartily commended.

Although he does it all out of a sense of true philanthropy, Mr Keys said he doesn’t mind donations to help carry out the work.

You can help, or just learn more by visiting his blog belizeparrotnestbox.blogspot.com or Yellow-headed Parrot Facebook page or even ring him on 850-559-0028.

We’re sure that if the parrots could speak for themselves they’d say, “Thanks Michael and Larkin.”

Instead, we’ll do it for them. Thanks guys. It’s people like you who make a huge difference in Belize and the world.

More and more people are using their holiday time to do good works in developing countries, and this is a trend we applaud. If you’re interested in responsible travel and volunteerism, Chaa Creek welcomes you to join in the effort to make Belize a better place. Check out http://www.chaacreek.com/an-ecotourism-package-for-responsible-travelers/.

To keep up with such news in Belize, check out: http://world.einnews.com/news/belize-science-technology.


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  • Mark said:

    Just want to note that the image is courtesy of Michael Keys…
    Also, I think it’s a great project and very worthy of contributions. I love the yellow heads and applaud the work of the Keys father and son team.

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