Galapagos Finches Just Want to Keep Flying

Photo by Carolina Xavier Billboard urges Galapagos drivers to keep their speed down

But They Have to Dodge
Speeding Cars and Trucks

Five years ago, hundreds of finches and other small birds were getting killed in the Galapagos Islands by cars speeding on the airport road on the island of Santa Cruz.

The deaths were not attracting much attention. But Luis Moreno, a 55-year-old pharmacist who has lived in the Galapagos most of his life, decided that something needed to be done. He inspired a campaign that has sharply reduced the number of birds being killed.

The main reason for the deaths was speed. Some of the birds were being knocked out of the air. Others were being run over. Experts say the birds could not see the cars coming because they lacked depth perception.

Because of Moreno, the Galapagos, in the Pacific Ocean 600 hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador, introduced speed limits for the first time.

The government began a publicity campaign to show the people of the islands that the birds were one of the reasons that tourists came to the Galapagos and it began holding meetings to show taxi drivers –who the government says were among the worst offenders –that a loss of the birds could be bad for business.

“Now the mortality of the birds is low,”said Washington Paredes, a National Parks guide and the vice mayor of Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz with about 12,000 people. Before the measures were taken to protect the birds, he said, there were smashed bodies on the road everywhere.

“But now,”he said, “it’s rare to see a dead bird on the ground”most of the year.

The finches of the Galapagos have a special place in history and in the theories of evolution. Much of the work of Charles Darwin centered on Galapagos finches and how their beaks evolved in different shapes, depending upon where they lived in the islands and what they could find to eat.

The government campaign, developed by the Galapagos National Park, encourages people to use taxis and buses on the nearly 30-mile trip to the airport from Puerto Ayora to the airport on the adjacent island of Baltra.

A National Park official said that using taxis and buses was expected to reduce the number of cars on the road and that the government thinks it has a better chance of enforcing speed limits with taxi and bus drivers because it issues special business licenses to them.

Alvaro Salazar, 28, who works in a tourist information office for the National Park, said that the Park is planning to post signs along the airport road to alert drivers to be on the lookout for birds.

Moreno, the father of the bird protection campaign, said that he became concerned when he noticed that lots of birds were being killed and that nothing was being done. He got people to sign a petition and took his case to the government. To draw attention to the campaign, the government has been using the catch-phrase, “I want to keep flying,” which in Spanish is, “Quiero seguir volando.”

Moreno said that when he was a child in the islands, the “Galapagos was paradise.”

“That is why it makes me sad,” he said, to see the birds dying, “because I lived with the animals. It was much better before, you can’t imagine what was here.”

The problem of birds being run over started about 25 years ago, with the construction of the airport road. The road is the only land route to the airport, which was initially built by the United States during World War II as a base for surveillance aircraft patrolling the Panama Canal.

Carolina XavierCarolina Xavier Photo by Joseph B. Treaster

Christian Sevilla, 34, a conservation specialist for the National Park, said the worst time of the year for bird deaths has been the nesting season between November and February. During that time, he said, “We have seen 200 to 300 dead birds.” Most of the deaths, he said, occurred on the airport road.

“The birds go to the road to rest, to get food and, when it rains, to get water,” said Paredes, the National Park guide. He said he has seen some heart-breaking scenes. Sometimes, he said, a mother bird gets killed and its chick stands there on the road with the body, not knowing what to do. Then they get run over, too.

Some birds have been run over by cars and trucks on streets in the town of Puerto Ayora, where there is usually more traffic but less speed.

Carolina XavierPortrait of a FinchPhoto by Nick Sirio

 

One morning on a macadam street, in Puerto Ayora, Paredes, the National Park guide, found a crushed yellow warbler, one of the 13 kinds of finches in the Galapagos. It’s yellow, gray and white feathers were splayed on the street like a broken fan, some of them red with blood.

On one side of the street was a public school. On the other, a church. It was about 8 a.m. on a Tuesday. There was a steady flow of cars and motorcycles and an occasional bicycle. Most of the vehicles seemed to be going at a modest pace. But at least one driver must have been going faster.

Salazar, who works in the Park’s information office in Puerto Ayora, has lived in the Galapagos for eight years. He said that everyone working to protect the environment has been touched by the loss of the birds.

“To see birds dead on the streets hurts us, hurts a lot,” Salazar said. “I have faith that this problem will end because of the good energy and predisposition that the National Park and other institutions, both public and private, have for this cause. They made people be aware of the problem and now we are all doing our parts for this to end.” #

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