The language of birds

How ecological agriculture and traditional ecological knowledge are conserving biodiversity

I stood amidst the understory vegetation.  Silver water droplets from last night’s rain glittered in the shafts of morning sunlight slicing through the forest canopy.  I waved a hand to shoo away the veil of mosquitoes obscuring my vision.  About five landed on the bare skin of my hand as I placed it back at my side.  They feasted where they had left off.  I stood unflinchingly, offering myself up to all manner of biting and blood-sucking creatures.  My jaw clenched, but I only dare wiggle my fingers to ward off the bloodsucking hordes lest I make a sound, disturb the calm of the morning, and scare of my quarry.

Calm in the rainforest is a relative term.  The forest woke to a cacophony of sound every morning.  It was abuzz with cicadas’ high-pitched band-saw whines.  All manner of birds performed their harsh screeches and melodic arias.  Rain pitter-pattered on its way downward through layers of vegetation.  On occasion, the resonant, throaty roar of howler monkeys sounded in the distance.

Amidst the chaos, I heard a raspy, scolding call to my right.  I turned to face my accusers, but their voices gave away their identity.  A pair of red-throated ant-tanagers, a male and female, perched on a branch a few meters away and stared at me, chattering angrily about my intrusion.  I took a notebook and pencil from my pocket and jotted, “0730-Habia fuscicauda; ♂ ♀ pair; 5 m.”  The two sustained their verbal assault for a few more moments before agreeing that I was either not a threat or not going to budge despite their entreaties.  They continued upon their morning foray through the forest, gossiping as they went.

I was in the Lacandon Maya village of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico. The Lacandon are an indigenous Maya peoples who reside in the Lacandon rainforest along the Mexican side of the Usumacinta River, which separates the Mexican state of Chiapas from Guatemala.  I came to study their “forest gardens,” though to call them gardens is a bit disingenuous.  Lacandon Maya gardens resemble neither the neatly spaced rows of vegetables or meticulously manicured lawns to which I was accustomed. Rather than being a battle against the forces of nature, Lacandon forest gardens, a type of agroforest, utilize and mimic natural processes and patterns in designing ecosystems that are productive and biodiverse.  The goal is cooperation, not control.

In the spirit of this equanimous relationship, Lacandon farmers look to the birds to help restore the forest and regenerate soils after they use them for cultivating forest gardens.  While Lacandon cultivate trees and other plant species that will provide them with food, they also plant and protect those which birds utilize for food or shelter.  Rather than complain about birds consuming crops which they could eat themselves, Lacandon are glad to share the bounty of the gardens they manage.  It wasn’t theirs in the first place; it was a gift from the earth.  In return, the birds help disperse seeds to nearby fallow plots where those plants do not yet grow.  This is particularly important in in rainforest ecosystems, where most species’ seeds are zoochorous, or dispersed by animals.  These species would never be able to deposit their seeds in the fertile soil of plots recovering from cultivation if not for the efforts of the birds.  Some plant species are so dependent on birds for seed dispersal that their seeds will not germinate until they pass through the gut of birds, thereby degrading their hard outer shell.  Biodiversity begets more biodiversity, so Lacandon farmers plant a diverse array of crops in their gardens, supporting healthy bird populations.

Lacandon farmers do not only manage individual plots to maintain bird populations.  The layout of their agroforestry system across the landscape may also contribute to elevated bird numbers and diversity.  While frequent high-intensity disturbance degrades ecosystems and prevents the development of diverse biological communities, the system stagnates if no disturbance occurs; its productivity and diversity plateaus.  Sporadic intermediate-intensity disturbances, which Lacandon farmers provide in the form clearing vegetation, rejuvenate many ecological systems, increasing the populations of many plant and animal species and maximizing diversity.   Furthermore, species are each adapted to different ecosystem structures.  Every species has a niche, which is the set of environmental conditions to which it is adapted and in which they thrive.  However, uniform landscapes that contain exclusively homogeneous habitats throughout offer only a few such niches.  Thus, heterogeneity of different habitat types promotes and sustains biodiversity on a broad scale.

The Lacandon Maya are active members of their biological community.  While the sustainability of their agroecosystems depends on biodiversity, their ecological management contributes to the biodiversity of the region in turn.  So while I may build a birdhouse or two to attract birds to my backyard, Lacandon farmers engineer entire ecosystems that support diverse and healthy bird populations.

I headed back along the trail to my camp, navigating through the verdant forest whose tall canopy formed open vaulted ceilings.  Columns of liana-festooned cedro and mahogany trees held up the jade green dome above me, which was painted with brilliant reds and yellows of Heliconia flowers and epiphytic bromeliads.  The incense of decaying organic matter filled the air and rose skyward.  Glancing rays of early afternoon light shone through the leaves, casting shimmering light upon the forest floor like a stain-glass window.  A barred antshrike cackled in thick bushes at some joke to which I was not privy.

Qabalah and Sufi traditions hold that the language of birds is the key to understanding the universe.  Perhaps we too will remember how to understand it one day and learn to build reciprocal relationships with nature that foster, rather than consume, biodiversity. 

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