Archived 2011-2012 topics: Palkachupa Cotinga: newly-split and Endangered or Vulnerable?

The BirdLife Taxonomic Working Group intends to implement the split of Palkachupa Cotinga Phibalura boliviana from P. flavirostris following Hennessey (2010), who demonstrated significant differences between the resident boliviana (restricted to a small area of western Bolivia) and the nominate flavirostris 2,500 km distant in southeast Brazil (which exhibits strong seasonal movements). This taxonomic change is currently under consideration by SACC (see

The total population of boliviana has been estimated to number 600-800 individuals (ABC 2011), with the majority (400-500 individuals; Hennessey 2010) in an area surrounding the town of Apolo, and the population stronghold thought to lie around the small village of Atén, just outside Madidi National Park. The species has been found within an altitudinal range of 1,400-2,000 m, with breeding taking place from August to March, peaking in January.  Much of its range has undergone large-scale forestation clearance and burning for cattle ranching and agriculture over the past century, which continues to this day.

The species’s Extent of Occurrence has been estimated at 651 km² (see attached map). Note that, as re-emphasised recently by IUCN, EOO is a measure of the spread of extinction risk and does not equate to the actual range size / area occupied by the species, which may be much smaller). A further area of c3,900 km² contains potentially suitable moist high altitude Cerrado habitat, however it is doubtful that the species occurs within much of this area, particularly as it may depend on three tree species which are absent from much of this area (B. Hennessey in litt. 2011) and consequently this area is not  included for the purposes of the Red List assessment.

Based on an EOO of 650 km², and a population estimate of 600-800 individuals, and assuming that the species is undergoing a continuing decline owing to habitat destruction and degradation, it appears that the species should be classified as either Endangered or Vulnerable under the B and/or C criteria, depending on the subpopulation structure, degree of fragmentation and number of locations. Key questions to enable assessment of the species are:

Is the cotinga’s distribution severely fragmented?

A taxon can be considered to be severely fragmented if most (>50%) of its total area of occupancy is in habitat patches that are (1) smaller than would be required to support a viable population, and (2) separated from other habitat patches by a large distance (IUCN 2001).

Does the cotinga have multiple subpopulations, and if so, how many individuals are likely to be in the largest subpopulation?

Subpopulations are defined as geographically or otherwise distinct groups in the population between which there is little demographic or genetic exchange (typically one successful migrant individual or gamete per year or less) (IUCN 2001).

How many locations does it occur at?

“The term ‘location’ defines a geographically or ecologically distinct area in which a single threatening event can rapidly affect all individuals of the taxon present. The size of the location depends on the area covered by the threatening event and may include part of one or many subpopulations. Where a taxon is affected by more than one threatening event, location should be defined by considering the most serious plausible threat.” (IUCN 2001)

Justification for the number of locations used in Red List assessments should include reference to the most serious plausible threat(s). For example, where the most serious plausible threat is habitat loss, a location is an area where a single development project can eliminate or severely reduce the population. Given this definition, would the number of locations be estimated at 1, 2-5, 6-10 or greater than 10 for the cotinga?

Information on the likely rate of population decline would also be welcomed in order to assess the species against the A criterion. The generation length has been estimated at 4.6 years (BirdLife International unpubl. data), meaning that the species’s population trend should be assessed over a period of 14 years (three generations).  Suspected reductions in the total population of at least 80% in the past 14 years (three generations), or predicted to occur in the next 14 years, would mean the species was eligible for classification as Critically Endangered under A, whereas declines of 51-70% and 30-49% would warrant classification under Endangered and Vulnerable respectively.

With apologies for the very short turnaround period, please send any comments and information on this species by January 31st if possible – preliminary decisions on status changes to feed into the 2012 Red List update will be made then, with a final opportunity to comment before final decisions are made in mid February. Forum discussions on species for which we have not had sufficient input to make a decision will be held open with the aim of soliciting further feedback in time for the 2013 update.


ABC (2011)

HENNESSEY, A. B.  2011.  Species rank of Phibalura (flavirostris) boliviana based on plumage, soft part color, vocalizations, and seasonal movements.  Wilson J. Ornithology 123: 454-458

IUCN (2001) IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria version 3.1

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6 Responses to Archived 2011-2012 topics: Palkachupa Cotinga: newly-split and Endangered or Vulnerable?

  1. I visited Aten in 2010 and observed the bird, and was seen nesting almost exclusively on the guitarrero tree. The presence of this tree and several other key tree species in the region are perhaps restricting the Palkachupa Cotinga. Loss and fragmentation of forest is evident all around Aten. And the current land reform debate in Bolivia may result in increased pressure from private land owners clearing pasture for cattle. Frankly, I am suprised the subject heading is not asking whether the species should be Endangered or Critically Endangered.

  2. I recently visited Atén (early Dec 2011) to see the Palkachupa Cotinga. I was guided to a bird by the local Armonia employee William. We had a long discussion during which I learned a lot about problems with local Palkachupa conservation and new land redistribution laws (“saneamiento”) that are coming into effect in 2012. William has detailed records of nest numbers and other parameters. He says only 20% of the nests seem to make it through, mostly because of jay predation. This has not yet been published, and I tried to encourage William to prepare a Bird Cons Int’ manuscript.

    Perhaps quite diagnostically, he took me on a little round tour to check nearby nests and we found two nests freshly predated (with egg shells nearby) that had been intact the week before. William estimates the species may have no more than 100-150 pairs left globally, most of which are in Atén, where there is the best “campo rupestre”-like habitat. Even within his time of employment (I think he said 5 years) he has seen steep declines of this bird. The proximate cause for nest failures he observes in the field is mostly predation, but there is a chance that the ultimate cause is continuing habitat degradation by cattle, which may facilitate predation by jays.

    William contends that Palkachupa habitat, i.e. campo rupestre on the hill ridges, is sub-optimal for grazing, but the hacienda owners nevertheless move their cattle through these areas for convenience. Land is currently owned by a limited number of rich hacienda owners that have traditionally held the rights to this land since the time of colonialism. However, new laws under the Morales government have led to a process called “saneamiento”, in which land is re-distributed from absentee hacienda owners to local people. The “saneamiento” for Atén is scheduled for 2012/13. Local people are predominantly agriculturalists (not cattle owners). The rocky Palkachupa habitat will be useless for the locals’ agricultural activities, which they primarily carry out in distant river valleys. Therefore, William is hoping to convince the local council responsible for the upcoming “saneamiento” to designate the Palkachupa habitat as communal land that can be used for conservation purposes. This will only happen if local people can be convinced that the conservation efforts will benefit the whole community.

    Apolo, the capital of this far-flung district, will get a brand-new airport in 2012/2013, which will make this area accessible to birders and tour groups. If ways can be found to channel the revenues gained from the influx of avitourism and let the whole community benefit, this may give the Palkachupa Cotinga a fighting chance to ward off imminent extinction.

  3. Martin Berg says:

    After numerous observations of the Palkachupa Cotinga in the area of Apolo I strongly support a split from the Swallow-tailed Cotinga based on different ecology and morphology.
    Kind regards
    Martin Berg

  4. Having worked in and around Madidi for the last 13 years on a wide range of conservation issues and participated in IUCN categories for many of Bolivias primates including two Callicebus endemics with fragmented habitats (C, modestus and C. olallae) there is no question that the Palkachipa Cotinga should be categorized as Endangered. Unfortunately the question is whether in the near future it should be recognized as Critically Endangered.

    To clarify, based on what I know about the Apolo region and the information provided in the original submission the Palkchupa Cotinga clearly qualifies as Endangered based on the following IUCN Red List criteria: Area of Occurrence (B1a and B1b), Area of Occupancy (B2a and B2b) and Population Size (C1 and quite possibly C2ii).

  5. Verónica Avalos says:

    I know Palkachupa through different studies I’ve made (nest site selection, breeding, feeding, potential distribution..), and if it is treated as a new species, I support Palkachupa could be endangered, under Criteria A2c and B1ab of UICN.
    Criteria A2c, because Palkachupa may have been suffering a reduction on population, based on decline in area of occupancy, extent of occurrence or quality of habitat from the Apolo area. The habitat actually is altered and the population tolerates some kind of perturbation. However, knowing the ecology of Palkachupa and the low nesting success reported, I think the population is reducing and it could not tolerate a more alteration of the habitat or a total deforestation. I presume the nesting on rocks may indicate us some kind of survival to the constant perturbation of habitat in the time. Critera B1ab, because the map of potential distribution apparently, based on climatic conditions and vegetation layer, projected Palkachupa population inhabits only in the Apolo area of Bolivia, and the extent of occurrence is less than 5000 km². I presume the extent of occurrence of the population was larger than today, and because I did not observe the birds in sites with a high perturbation of habitat.
    I hope this helps.

  6. I worked on Armonía’s Palkachupa project as a volunteer and stayed in the Atén area in September-October last year for two weeks. Aim was to compose an overview of available data on the distribution and abundance of the Palkachupa and write a proposal for a census method en monitoring scheme.
    Around Atén the species occurs rather clustered in loose colonies of up to five breeding pairs in savannah with open scrub and forest fragments, often in the neighbourhood of fruiting trees. September/October, when I was there, until January/February is the breeding season of the species. Outside this period Palkachupas gather in flocks and often stay in the forest fragments in the valleys.
    During my stay I surveyed a sample area of about 1000 hectare surrounding Atén to find out how the species breeding numbers can be monitored. I recorded 12 breeding territories in that sample area. I think that the habitat in my survey-area, although it used for cattle farming and deforestation is going on, is comparatively good and the density of the species is relatively high. So it is not a good representation of its potential distribution range. While travelling between Apolo and Atén I observed that alongside the road parts of formerly savannah between Apolo and Atén were almost treeless.
    The Atén area is considered as the stronghold for the species. Most records come from this area, though this may partly be an observer-effect. Comparatively little is known about its occurrence throughout its potential range. Documented observations are known from Pata in the west and the area northeast of Apolo. William, Armonía’s Palkachupa project coordinator, told me that he knew the species from some other locations in its potential range as well , but it is not clear whether the species is still there. The current population is probably small and fragmented, as a consequence of habitat degradation.
    I think an action plan should include a study to its abundance and distribution throughout its potential and possibilities to protect/create corridors/stepping stones/corridors between fragmented populations. For this a detailed habitat map of its potential range is needed and more survey data are needed, including systematic censuses from sample areas in its potential range both in degraded and good habitat.
    About breeding-effort:
    Based on what William, Armonia’s project coordinator told me breeding effort around Atén has been very low in recent years. In addition to what Frank Rheindt wrote, William told me that an important cause of nest failure is extreme weather: heavy thunders storms with strong winds and hail showers. This appear to occur more frequent in the area nowadays than in the past. The nests are very vulnerable to adverse weather conditions as they are built on exposed locations in open trees or on rocks.

    André van Kleunen

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