This discussion was first published as part of the 2016 Red List update. At the time a decision regarding its status was pended, but to enable potential reassessment of this species as part of the 2019 Red List update this post remains open and the date of posting has been updated.
Saffron-cowled Blackbird Xanthopsar flavus is restricted to a few sites with wet grasslands and marshes in southern South America and distributed in four disjunct areas in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay (Birdlife International 2015).
It is currently listed as Vulnerable, because it was not believed to approach the threshold for Endangered under any of the IUCN Red List criteria during its last assessment. Its declining population trend is currently estimated at 30-50% in 14 years / three generations (A2cde, A3cde) and the global population size is estimated at 2,500-7,000 mature individuals (continuing decline and all subpopulations small so also listed as VU under criterion C2a(i). However, most information used for these estimations were gathered or estimated between 1986 and 2008 (see IBAs data at Birdlife International 2015).
Recent extensive fieldwork in Argentina revealed a sharp decline in numbers of all known populations, increased fragmentation/isolation of subpopulations, and confirmed the loss of all known breeding colonies in the IBAs. Fieldwork also showed a rapid increase of known threats such as loss of breeding habitat by drainage of wetlands and marshes, intensification of forestation (i.e. pines and eucalyptus trees over grasslands), agriculture and livestock farming, increased risk of nest parasitism by Molothrus bonariensis, bird trapping for trade, and lack of protected areas or other tools for providing protection for nesting sites.
It is possible that the threats observed in Argentina could be also occurring in other subpopulations in Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay. Then, a very rapid and on-going population decline is suspected for the global population owing to habitat loss, lack of protected nesting sites (colonies), increased risk of parasitism and fragmentation of populations.
During the recent Red List assessment for birds in Argentina (Aves Argentinas 2015) Saffron-cowled Blackbird was uplisted from Endangered to Critically Endangered based on the application of the IUCN Red List Criteria at Regional and National Levels (IUCN 2012) and on the basis of new data obtained during 2013-2014 in extensive fieldwork along all subpopulations of the country. Preliminary data were obtained by Rosendo Fraga and others in Entre Rios province (Fraga et al. 2013), Adrian Di Giacomo and others in Corrientes province, and Ernesto Krauczuk and others in Corrientes and Misiones provinces. Consequently gathered data was compared with previous published work from Fraga et al. (1998), Codesido and Fraga (2009) and Di Giacomo (2005). As a result of the analysis of this new data, a reduction in the species’ population size was estimated at -80.4% between 1998-2012 (3 generations; criteria A2cde and A3cde for CR; see Annex 1) in Argentina. The population in Argentina was estimated at c.500-600 individuals with a smaller number of mature/reproductive individuals. These declines were evident for all known subpopulations, and even three of the subpopulations are currently considered extirpated (IBA Azara, IBA Puerto Valle, IBA Rincon del Socorro/Ibera). All known breeding sites (colonies) have been lost during the last years and no breeding sites are currently protected in Argentina. During 2015 a group of institutions in Argentina have done a great effort to identify current breeding sites at IBA Cuenca del Río Aguapey in Corrientes province and IBAs Perdices and Ñandubayzal-El Potrero in Entre Ríos province. It was resulted in discovery of six small colonies with 3-21 nests each (total: 60 nests, data provided by Adrian Di Giacomo). The overall nesting success was 4% and the percentage of parasitized nests was 63%, when previous estimates from Fraga et al. (1998) were 8% and 29% respectively. In addition to the low recruitment (8 chicks fledged in 60 nests) and low percentage of adults breeding (1/2), in two of the colonies in roadsides from the IBA Perdices several adult birds were trapped by illegal bird trappers.
In Paraguay, the main populations may well show a similar pattern of decline to that in Argentina and probably some of the small subpopulations have been lost in 1998-2004 when estimates for population sizes in the IBAs were made (Rob Clay com. pers.), especially when taking into consideration that several IBAs where the species occurred ave been converted into ricefields (Arne Lesterhuis and Rob Clay com. pers.).
In Brazil and Uruguay there are no population estimates based on recent extensive fieldwork to compare with last estimations available from 1986-2002, however threats are increasing for the species (Bencke et al. 2003, Silveira and Straube 2008, Azpiroz et al. 2012a, 2012b).
The recent Brazilian Red List assessed the species as Vulnerable ounder crtierion C1, on the basis of a population of <10,000 mature individuals and an estimated continuing decline of >10% in three generations, although further data are not presented.
In Uruguay the regional population is probably <1,000 individuals (Azpiroz et al. 2012b). Currently, in Paraguay and Brazil there are no known active breeding colonies in protected areas (see Bencke et al 2006, Fonseca et al. 2004, Dias and Mauricio 2002). In Uruguay there is a nesting site protected at Reserva Potrerillo de Santa Teresa (A. Azpiroz com. pers.).
Currently, in southern South America there is considerable concern about the loss of natural grasslands that is driving population declines in threatened grassland birds (see review Azpiroz et al. 2012a). Up to 50-75% of natural grassland habitat has been lost over the past century, and continue disappearing for agricultural use, forestation, intensive livestock farming, dams, and urban development. Only 1% of remnant natural grasslands are protected and these protected areas are not protecting breeding sites of Saffron-cowled Blackbirds (Azpiroz et al. 2012a, Di Giacomo et al. 2010). As the species is restricted to several sites in this region, and loss of habitat being suspected as the key threat to the species at critical breeding sites, trends in the Argentina population are thought to be representative of the overall global trend.
At the global level, considering the numbers of individuals estimated for each subpopulation in the IBAs (see Birdlife International 2015, Bencke et al. 2006, Clay et al. 2008, Di Giacomo 2005, Dias and Mauricio 2002, Codesido and Fraga 2009, Fonseca et al. 2004) from Argentina (2013-2014), Brazil (2008), Uruguay (1986-2008), and Paraguay (1998-2004), the global population size approaches <2,500 mature individuals, declining, with most subpopulations having <250 individuals suggesting it may warrant listing as Endangered under criterion C2a(i).
Comments on this proposal, including trends from elsewhere within the species range and threats to the species are welcome.
Proposal submitted by Adrian di Giacomo, edited by Andy Symes
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