Africa's Charismatic Bird
By Luca Borghesio
As a newly minted graduate in 1994, my ambition was to do research on threatened birds of Africa. Choosing “my” bird did not take long. I had a copy of the book on threatened birds of Africa by Nigel Collar, and there was it, the Prince Ruspoli's Turaco, on the cover page! A quick search of the bibliography showed that little was known on this species, which although portrayed multiple times on bird books had (and still has) not been seen in the wilderness by many birders. The only clear thing was that it was restricted to a very small area in the highlands of Southern Ethiopia.
In the first months of 1995, I traveled to Kibre Mengist, from where the Ruspoli's Turaco had been recorded. I spent days looking for it in the forest because, as everybody else, I had assumed that all turacos had to be forest specialists. That was a mistake, and I only realized this when, by pure chance, one day I stumbled on my first Ruspoli's. It was a parkland habitat, with scattered trees, not far from a river, in a landscape where natural habitats were interspersed among small cultivated fields and tiny villages. The forest was several kilometers away.
Having learned my lesson, I was able to find good numbers of these beauties. It soon emerged that two species coexisted in that region. One of them, the widespread white-cheecked turaco, was largely restricted to forest habitats, while the narrowly endemic Ruspoli's turaco occurred in relatively wet Combretum-Terminalia savannah, along perennial rivers and near, but outside, forest edges. At that time, I came back with a quite reassuring population estimate of more than 10,000 birds.
In 2003, I went back to Ethiopia, with a grant from Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation. The Ruspoli's turaco was still there, but the situation had changed. Agriculture had expanded dramatically, and urbanization was on the rise. And, even more worryingly, the white-cheeked had bred with the Ruspoli's turacos with the hybrids observed multiple times. What caused the hybridization was not clear.
In 2009, I traveled to Ethiopia another time, to mentor Alazar Daka, an Ethiopian student who did his MSc on the ecology of the Ruspoli's turaco. With no surprise I found that the human footprint had increased since my previous visit, and that more hybrid turacos were recorded. All the observations of hybrid birds came from a narrow belt of about 30x50km between Shakiso and Wadera, where deforestation had left small patches of forest in close contact with more open habitats. Apparently, in this highly modified habitat, the two turaco species had more chances for interacting and hybridizing.
The 1995 population estimate has never been updated, neither was it possible to carry out a detailed study to assess whether the hybridization is really caused by habitat degradation, as I hypothesize. These studies would be sorely needed to improve the protection of natural habitats of southern Ethiopia, where several little known species of unique and threatened birds (Ethiopian bush-crow, White-Tailed swallow, Liben Lark) are found with the Prince Ruspoli's turaco.
Luca Borghesio is an ornithologist with a research focus on endangered birds of Africa.