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The 8 Most Endangered Bird Species in Costa Rica (and What’s Needed to Save Them)

Endangered species are a sign of our human dominated times. We hear about so many animals being endangered that society has become all too accustomed to hearing about the plight of the Giant Panda or Rhinos disappearing, or so many other species being “endangered”. We hear about the term so much, when people talk about wild animals, we almost expect it to be used. It becomes normal, accepted and that’s insane because endangered means nothing less than a steady path straight to extinction. Gone. Gone for good and there ain’t no way the Labrador Duck is coming back, no more return or revival of the Passenger Pigeon or Carolina Parakeet or any of the other 1,000 plus bird species that have likely gone extinct over the past few thousand years.

If it weren’t for the massive effects we as a species have on our natural surroundings, I gather that “endangered species” would be a categorization limited to flora and fauna with extremely limited ranges and/or specializations that make them more vulnerable to sudden natural changes to their habitat or ecology. It might also be limited to the few species already on their way out the evolutionary door. However, since extinction doesn’t normally happen in the blink of an eye, even those naturally doomed species would be very few in number.

For the most part, the Anthropocene has been a bad and mortal ride for other life on Earth but they aren’t taking this trip alone. We are the ones driving this roller coaster of connected life and unless we make it safer for everyone on board, we’re going to engineer a crash that also takes us out of the picture. Luckily, we have made some adjustments, some solutions to keep more life around. Let’s hope that we can also find solutions for the following 8 most endangered resident bird species of Costa Rica:

Harpy Eagle

The king of Neotropical birds, its monstrous proportions, lethal capabilities, and rarity have given it near mythical status…at least in Costa Rica where its status is presently uncertain. Healthy populations of this top raptor formerly hunted in rainforests in many parts of the country; a number of indigenous artifacts that portray the Harpy Eagle show that it was well known among peoples in Costa Rica for thousands of years. However, this was when much larger areas of unbroken rainforest covered the lowlands and foothills of the Caribbean slope and the southern Pacific slope.

These days, this huge eagle is much less prevalent in Costa Rica if it even still breeds in the country. The only documented sightings since 2009 have been one bird in Tortuguero and another north of Rincon de la Vieja in 2017. Both of these were likely wandering eagles in search of territory but given the amount of forested habitat in a few choice spots and studies assessing Harpy Eagle populations in Panama that showed pairs using around 20 square kilometers of forest, a handful of pairs may still occur in Costa Rica. The places to look for them would be in the Barra de Colorado-Tortuguero National Park forest complex, the northern forests connected to the Indio Maiz Reserve in Nicaragua, forests of the eastern Talamancas near Panama, forests on the north slope of Rincon de la Vieja and Guanacaste National Park, and maybe even in remote parts of Braulio Carrillo National Park.

Sadly, although the Osa Peninsula and the adjacent Piedras Blancas National Park may have enough forest to support 3 or even 4 pairs of Harpy Eagles, since the last sighting there occurred in 2006, I doubt it still lives in that part of the country.

Crested Eagle

If the Harpy Eagle is the king, the Crested Eagle is either a prince or a grand duke of neotropical raptors. It occurs in much of the same rainforest habitats as the Harpy and also acts as a top predator. As with the Harpy in Costa Rica, the Crested Eagle has likewise certainly disappeared from much of its former range.

It is rarely seen but, unlike the Harpy, one or two are spotted just about every year. It may be hanging on (if by a thread) in the same areas where Harpy may still occur, in the forests of the Osa and Golfo Dulce (there have been recent documented sightings), in the Las Tablas area, and in any large area of foothill rainforest on the Caribbean slope.

In some places, I can’t help but wonder if this big raptor may have taken up the niche left by the absence of the Harpy Eagle. This might help it survive although it would still surely need large areas of healthy habitat and perhaps habitat that hosts healthy populations of large reptiles.

Solitary Eagle

Back in the 90s, there were fairly regular reports of this massive black-hawk from several sites. Even taking into account the confusion of this species with the similar Great Black-Hawk, it seems that the Solitary Eagle was seen now and then in Virgen del Socorro, near San Vito, in the Osa, and other sites.

Not any more.

I’m not sure what happened but given the paucity of sightings, in Costa Rica, the population of this large raptor must be very low. Since there seems to a fair amount of possible habitat for this species (primary forest in hilly areas), it seems that it should still occur in such places as Braulio Carrillo National Park, in the Talamancas, and elsewhere. But if that is the case, then why aren’t we seeing it more often at suitable, accessible sites?

Unfortunately, I suspect that this species has declined in large part because lower rainfall even in protected areas has resulted in lower productivity and thus fewer large snakes that make up an important (or even vital) part of its diet. At the same time, given all of that available habitat, much of which is inaccessible, it seems that there should still be some pairs that breed in Costa Rica. Needless to say, studies to ascertain what’s going on with this large raptor are urgently needed.

Red-throated Caracara

This specialized wasp eating falcon has become the classic very rare bird of Central America. Sightings are so few and far between, one would never guess that its raucous screams used to play a common role in Costa Rica’s morning chorus. However, that was some time ago, back when there was enough healthy forest (and perhaps other factors) to support large populations of its requisite wasp larvae prey.

Long gone from most parts of its North American range, in the present era of the Anthropocene, the last Red-throated Caracaras of Central America mostly occur where one might expect them; in the final few remaining large forest blocks. In Costa Rica, some continue to be seen in the heart of the Osa Peninsula and others are occasionally found in northern Costa Rica. Wandering individuals might also still show up on the Caribbean slope of the Talamancas and in the foothills in and near Braulio Carrillo National Park.

Guanacaste Hummingbird

Never heard of the Gaunacaste Hummingbird? Don’t feel bad, this lost species is only known from one old specimen. Also called, “Alfaro’s Hummingbird”, Costa Rica’s biggest avian mystery hasn’t been seen since its discovery in 1895.

Recent determined searches have yet to find it but since it can be easily mistaken for the Blue-vented Hummingbird, and because there is more ground to cover, researchers are still looking for it. If you happen to be birding on or near Volcan Miravalles, take pictures of any hummingbirds you find. Who knows, you might rediscover a lost species and the most endangered bird in Costa Rica in one fell swoop.

Speckled Mourner

This becard relative may lack bright, shiny colors but its still high on the wanted list of many a local birder. In Costa Rica, there are very few sightings of this extremely rare bird, and most actually travel to the Canal Zone of Panama or Indio Maiz in Nicaragua to see it!

An uncommon species of lowland and foothill rainforest, this mourner probably needs large areas of intact primary forest, especially along streams. As far as records from the past ten years, there are rumors of it still occurring at La Selva and I know a reputable guide who saw one in perfect microhabitat for it in the Osa (a flat area of primary forest along a stream) but haven’t heard of any other possible sightings. That said, it seems that it should still occur in a few places. Surveys should look for it along streams in lowland and foothill primary forest in all of the largest forest blocks.

Yellow-billed Cotinga

Although this bright white bird with the yellow beak and butterfly flight can be readily seen at Rincon de Osa, don’t kid yourself, this species is seriously endangered. In fact, other than the hummingbird, this cotinga would probably be the most globally endangered species in Costa Rica.

The reasons for this unfortunate designation stem from it needing a particular combination of threatened habitats next to each other in a naturally small range. Those habitats are lowland rainforest and mangroves. Take one away or limit their connection and cotingas have troubles. This is why there is a tiny and nearly extinct population at Carara, and why the only other populations are probably limited to areas near Dominical, in and near the Osa Peninsula, and one or two places in Panama.

The overall world population of this cotinga is not precisely known but it believed to be pretty darn small, maybe even as low as 150 birds. Its main hope for survival are the mangroves and rainforests of the Osa and Golfo Dulce. If it starts to decline there, it’s hard to understand how it would not go extinct.

Bare-throated Umbrellabird

It was hard to choose an 8th species for this list but after thinking about which rare birds have declined the most, I had to settle on this large and bizarre cotinga. Rare for some time, the umbrellabird of Central America hasn’t been getting any more common. One can go birding in perfect habitat time and time again without seeing it and sadly, the reason for not seeing it is simple; there are very, very few of them.

A precious few are seen at La Selva and a couple other sites in the winter months, at Pocosol perhaps all year long, and on breeding grounds in Monteverde but the numbers are always low and sightings rare. Since large areas of suitable forest are present in less accessible areas of Braulio Carrillo and the Talamancas, there is hope that a good number of umbrellabirds also occur there but data are lacking.

Honorable Mentions

Unfortunately, some other birds in Costa Rica are nearly as threatened with extinction or at least require further study. They are:

Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle

Like a large Short-tailed Hawk or Booted Eagle, this aerialist hides in plain sight. However, no matter how well it can hide while soaring up there against the clouds, it still seems to be decidedly scarce. Never common, this raptor nevertheless seem to be much more rare in Costa Rica than in the past.

Wandering Albatross

We don’t know how often this equatorial albatross species uses Costa Rican waters but since it has been recorded from time to time and is critically endangered, it certainly merits a mention.

Galapagos Petrel

The same thing can be said about this pelagic bird.

Great Green Macaw

On account of steep declines in other parts of its range, this beautiful bird is now considered to be “Critically Endangered”.

Thanks to conservation and reintroduction efforts, at the moment, this major bird is fairly easy to see in Costa Rica. However, if we don’t stay firm with protecting this species, including the Mountain Almond trees it depends on, it could be lost.

Gray-headed Piprites

A very little known and little seen bird, there are very few regular sites for it. Studies are sorely needed to asses its status and try to figure out what this bird exactly needs for habitat.

Yellow-tailed Oriole

Common in some other parts of its range, on account of the local pet trade, this large oriole has become very rare in Costa Rica. These days, the best places for it seem to be sites in and near Cano Negro. It also likely lives in a few other scattered sites but not many. Hopefully, increased campaigns against bird trapping will change its status for the better.

Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow

One of Costa Rica’s most recently described endemics is also highly threatened. This is another bird for which ecological studies studies are urgently needed to try and keep it from suddenly going extinct. I realize that can sound alarming for a bird of second growth but given that urbanization has destroyed and overlapped large parts of its extremely small range, and that it doesn’t seem to be all that common, I think the concern is warranted.

Luckily, at the Project Cabanisi, there are people studying and working on the conservation of this towhee relative. Please consider giving some support to this project.

Edit- One Last Important Honorable Mention!

Sedge Wren

I’m not sure how I overlooked this one, thanks to Paz Irola of Get Your Birds! and various local bird conservation projects for the reminder!

In Costa Rica, Sedge Wrens occur in small and localized populations that require sedge or dense, grassy habitats, mostly around Cartago and in some parts of the slopes above the Central Valley. Unfortunately, those same habitats aren’t afforded any protection and are thus typically slated for “development” or for grazing.

Climate change is also probably making the situation worse as drier weather decreases the amount and quality of habitat for the Sedge Wren. Not to mention, birds that occur in Costa Rica aren’t the same as the much more numerous Sedge Wrens of the north. They do not migrate, sound and look a bit different, and are either the same species as similar resident Sedge Wrens in northern Central America, the Grass Wren of South America, or a highly endangered species endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama. No matter what their taxonomic status may be, they form a distinct phylogenetic group that is under serious threat.

How to Save Endangered Birds in Costa Rica

The birds on this unfortunate list differ from each other in various ways but the solutions to conserving these and so many other birds tend to be the same. To varying degrees, they all need:

  • Studies to ascertain populations, to see where they occur so we can focus conservation in the right places.
  • Life history studies to figure out what they need for survival as well as the factors that contribute to their decline.
  • Short and long term plans for effective conservation. This can include habitat protection, management, and reforestation, awareness education about the importance of these birds, reintroduction, and other efforts.

Not mention, there are also choices we can make to conserve birds at home and further afield such as eating less meat, using organic products, buying songbird friendly coffee, maintaining a garden with native plants, and supporting organizations like the American Bird Conservancy that actively work to protect birds. It also doesn’t hurt to promote birds and nature connection as much as possible.

If you would like to know more about where to find the birds on this list along with other information about birding in Costa Rica, please consider supporting this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, a 700 plus page e-book designed to help every birder see and identify more birds in Costa Rica.

5 replies on “The 8 Most Endangered Bird Species in Costa Rica (and What’s Needed to Save Them)”

Some of these species are widespread outside Costa Rica, where there may be healthier populations – but for Yellow-billed Cotinga, Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow, Bare-wattled Umbrellabird and Guanacaste Hummingbird – Costa Rica has a special importance and responsibility for the conservation of these species. Thanks for the mention of American Bird Conservancy. Other local conservation groups also are deserving of mention, including but not limited to Osa Conservation in Costa Rica’s south-eastern Pacific coast and the Macaw Recovery Network that works on Great Green Macaw.

Good article Pat–it is important that people know and remember…
A few years ago I had found what appeared to be a regular flight of Yellow-billed Cotingas near Zancudo. They flew upriver from the mangroves, same as at Rincon. Unfortunately, squatters came in and cut down the large trees and removed the understory where I saw them each morning. The activity was apparently illegal, but nothing was done about it.

@Nic- Thanks for mentioning that Nic, I was recalling that while writing about Yellow-billed Cotinga. Just terrible.

I saw and photographed what I am sure is a blue-tailed hummingbird at my house in Altos de Antgua, above Puriscal and near La Palma, today Feb 23, 2023. The bird displayed a brilliant blue tail that it spread while preening showing the tail to be entirely with no white outer tail feathers.
I will be posting photographs on my website Bestbirdpictures.com in a month or so.

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