The bird singer of Brazil

In Brazil’s Atlantic rainforest, there’s a local man that can talk to the birds. A skill that has bird watchers twittering…

After setting off on a 14-month adventure, where I came face-to-face with some of the most awe-inspiring animals on this planet and met the people battling against environmental destruction, it was time to say an emotional goodbye to Latin America.


I started volunteering with conservationists in Mexico, slowly working my way through 11 countries, with my feet finally landing in Brazil. But more precisely in the Atlantic Rainforest of the REGUA Reserve. There was one more gem left to discover.

This reserve is a bird watching haven. An incredible 466 species of birds have been recorded at REGUA and weeks before I arrived, birders from the USA and UK started tweeting excitedly. There was one person they all wanted to talk about: REGUA’s resident bird guide, Adilei.

One tweet read:

“Adilei is not only a fantastic birder, but one of the nicest guys you’re ever likely to meet.”

Who is this man? And why is he so important to birders across the world? I soon found out that Adilei Carvalho da Cunha is extremely skilled at mimicking a huge range of different birds’ song and attracting hard to spot species. Not only that, but he has an intimate knowledge of the forest, its birds and where to find its wild creatures.

Lee Dingain, birder and long-term volunteer at REGUA, summed it up when he said:

“Adilei is a birder first and guide second. He loves seeing new birds, a key driving force of many birders, and so he understands the joy people get from seeing new species when he is guiding them. Even on his time off from guiding, he is often found birding the trails at REGUA.

“After many years of birding with Adilei, his mimicry still never ceases to astonish me. It’s a well know saying here at REGUA that Adilei does a better Rufous-capped Antthrush than a Rufous-capped Antthrush.”

 

Rainforest wildlife watching

If you’ve never had the chance to go wildlife watching in the rainforest, it may be hard to understand how incredible Adilei’s skill is. Well, let me explain. A rainforest hums, almost vibrates, with activity; you hear it all thriving around you as strange, mysterious noises fill the air. But actually seeing anything, for the untrained eye, is frustratingly difficult. The birds flitter around high in the canopy, squawking and whistling, or they appear as a lighting flash of colour before merging into the green mosaic of the forest.

So imagine being here with a man that can talk to the birds, with his song bringing them to you. It’s a bird watchers’ dream.

On my second day at the REGUA Reserve, I was lucky enough to go out trekking with Adilei and this is when I learnt the other reason for the birders’ twittering enthusiasm; Adilei is a real people person, someone who never stops smiling and shows you the beauty of the forest with a shy, boyish excitement.

adilei-bird-guide-regua-atlantic-rainforest-brazil-bethan-john

Talking to the birds

I was keen to know how and why he’d learnt to mimic and identify such a huge range of bird species; I imagined it was a passion he had as a boy, maybe one he’d learnt from his dad, a father-son bonding over nature. But before I even got the chance to ask, Adilei said:

“I used to sing to the birds so that I could attract them to me and shoot them.”

He explains, in a very matter of fact way:

“Most kids around here hunt birds and other wildlife. But since becoming a guide at REGUA, I only shoot them with my camera.”

Despite my idealist imaginings about his childhood passion for nature, I’m not surprised that Adilei used to be a hunter. I’ve met many dedicated wildlife rangers in the past year and the vast majority used to shoot the wildlife that they now protect.

Routinely in media headlines, hunters and poachers are portrayed as inhumane, monstrous figures who are wiping out the world’s iconic species – the jaguar and the puma of the Americas, or the elephant and tiger of Asia and Africa. Yet those very same tabloids will support the UK badger cull or the destruction of ancient British woodlands for a new motorway.

What it comes down to is cultural acceptance: for Adilei’s community it is normal to hunt rainforest wildlife, while in the UK many people don’t even realise that we’ve already obliterated much of our forests and native wildlife in name of development. The answer to changing this cultural mind-set is environmental education and the provision of alternative, sustainable livelihoods. That’s what REGUA has offered Adilei and many others in the community. This is what conservationists are offering rural communities across Central and South America.

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