San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

To catch a toucan

From the print edition

TURRIALBA, Cartago – “Listen. This might not work,” Landon Jones disclaims even before he has introduced himself.

Jones is standing in an overgrown backyard in Turrialba’s Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), east of San José, holding a net attached to a string he recently shot over a nearby tree with a crossbow. The 33-year-old Iraq War veteran – who also happens to be a Mormon and a father of four – is dressed in a college T-shirt that says “Ragin’ Cajuns.”

He’s trying to catch a wild toucan. Since January, Jones has been netting the birds, equipping them with radio transmitters and tracking them in their natural habitat. It’s part of research he’s conducting as a Fulbright scholar and doctorate student at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, in the United States.

By monitoring the toucans, Jones hopes to better understand the role these birds play in reforestation, specifically in areas that have been cleared for agricultural purposes. Focusing primarily on their herbivorous eating patterns and mobility, Jones seeks to map the likely locations of bird droppings and regurgitations that contain viable seeds.

He is specifically interested in how this information might be useful for areas like Turrialba, where agricultural plots could be reborn as tropical forest by birds simply  going about their business.

The CATIE campus – one of the foremost research centers in the world for tropical botany – is an ideal spot for Jones to conduct his study. Two breeds of toucan, the keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) and collared aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus) are abundant, and they make frequent rounds from the treetops to coffee, sugar and cacao plantations. Jones chose toucans for the study because they eat fruits and vegetables whole, and are therefore an ideal conduit for distributing seeds intact. Also, he likes them.

“I think toucans are amazing birds,” he says.

Birdwatching at Saddam’s Palace

In 2003, Jones had just begun to study ornithology when he found out he’d be going to Iraq. While deployed, he mostly worked a facility that processed documents written in Arabic, but he also traveled widely. He lived in Qatar for eight months and Iraq for three, and he spent time in Germany, Morocco and Kuwait. Jones brought his bird books everywhere, which initially mystified some of his fellow soldiers. “They pretty much thought I was crazy,” he remembers. “But after a while, it became sort of a game. They’d point out birds to me,” he said.

Jones recalled one morning in Tikrit, when a bizarre-looking bird called a Hoopoe repeatedly banged itself against the window of Saddam Hussein’s palace, fighting its own reflection. “It looks like a zebra woodpecker thing with a super-long bill,” Jones says. “I was inches from it.”

On a trip to Benin in West Africa, Jones saw a sunbird, which is a bit like a hummingbird except it doesn’t hover, he explained. As it turned out, no sunbird had ever been seen in Benin before, and Jones published a paper about it.

The Army had its advantages, Jones says, but there were also things that weren’t ideal, namely: being under someone else’s command. He didn’t like being told what to do, and he “had no inkling” about the bigger picture or how decisions were made.  So, he decided to “write his own ticket.” When Jones returned to the U.S. in 2004, he focused on publishing academic papers and becoming a professor. He has especially enjoyed the freedom to design his own research. “I came up with most of this project on my own, and I was able to get it funded on my own,” he says.

These days, Jones also commands a small army of his own.

The toucan warrior

“Mickey, pull it up four feet!” Jones yells at the forest. Mickey Pardo – hidden in the thicket – shakes a net that is suspended slightly below a small cavity in a tree.

Pardo, who is from New York and preparing to start a doctorate involving elephant behavior at Columbia University, is one of nine volunteers living in a house on the CATIE campus, helping Jones complete his research. Other volunteers are from the U.S. states of Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New Jersey; previous help has flown in from as far as Australia and Holland.

Rachael DiSciollo, originally from the U.S. city of Philadelphia, has been around for about six months. She’s collaborating with Jones on a side project that will measure the timing of the birds’ regurgitations at the Toucan Rescue Ranch in San Isidro de Heredia, north of San José.

More typically, volunteers work three of four shifts around CATIE each day, and each shift lasts about three hours. Much of the time is spent tracking birds that Jones tagged prior with transmitters, but the really exciting part, everyone says, is when a bird is netted.

“When people first get here, I want them to see a bird as soon as possible,” Jones says. “Plenty of things go wrong, so you have to enjoy what goes right.”

The volunteers spent the better part of this morning positioning a net in front of a tree cavity, which also happens to be the sleeping place of six or seven toucans. The group returns to the hole between 5 and 6 p.m. each night, and if the net is in good position, they’ll all fly directly into it.

Jones hopes to catch at least one of two birds in this group that is already wearing a transmitter, so that he can remove it. For each group, he only needs data on one bird, but weeks ago, he mistakenly tagged two of this bunch. “Doing ecological research is a mess,” he says, smiling.

Shortly after 5 p.m., several collared aracaris have started gathering in the trees surrounding the one they aim to sleep in. After hours of setup and discussions about which is the best way to capture the birds, the volunteers gaze expectantly at their work. Time seems to slow down, and finally, one small toucan leaves its perch. The bird soars toward the cavity and flies beak-first into the trap.

Gleeful shouts and high fives are exchanged among the volunteers. “This is the essence of being a toucan warrior,” Jones explains. The group already knows that this juvenile won’t be helpful for the study, which only involves adult birds. But catching even the wrong toucan is undeniably satisfying.

The small toucan struggles to free itself from the net, and becomes even more tangled. It flails and rests, flails and rests, and its buddies all line up on nearby branches. One by one, the birds attempt to enter their hole, and one by one, they too land in the net.

Something’s wrong, though. After a second or two of struggle, the birds are able to free themselves. In some cases, they just bounce off. After multiple attempts to enter the cavity, the birds give up, and follow their enormous beaks out of the trees and over the CATIE housing. “Turn around. Turn around. Don’t do that!” Jones tells the birds.

It’s useless, though. The toucans are gone.

With a pulley system, the volunteers bring down the one still-ensnared juvenile toucan. Jones places his hand gingerly on the underside of the bird, and DiSciollo sticks the finger of a yellow gardening glove in its beak to prevent it from biting the volunteers.

Jones works the net methodically, and soon the bird’s wings and feet are disentangled. Jones lifts the net over the bird’s head like a parent removing a T-shirt from a toddler.

The jarred bird flies erratically out of Jones’s arms and lands on DiSciollo’s pants. Then the ground. Finally it makes it back into a nearby tree. Jones and the volunteers aren’t thrilled about tormenting a bird so small and helpless. But as in war, there are often unpleasant things that must be done to serve the greater mission.

Wild calling

Plenty of research exists on seed dispersal, but Jones’ study is the first to look at its use in fragmented habitats, or forestlands that have been partially cleared for agriculture use. Wildlife biologists are becoming increasingly interested in the potential for wildlife preservation within these mixed habitats, according to Fabrice De Clerck, a program leader with Biodiversity International in Rome.

“In the past, most conservation biologists focused on protected areas, such as national parks,” he said. “Now some are also trying to understand how we can incorporate natural, forested corridors to promote both the conversation of wildlife and sustainable farming.”

De Clerck has served as a mentor to Jones in his research at CATIE, and he’s optimistic about the potential for the toucan study, which he described as “sophisticated.” Not only will the study track and record the behavior of toucans in the wild, but it will also gather data on how frequently they regurgitate seeds in captivity. Jones will then return to Louisiana to create a computer model that will display the toucan’s contribution to reforestation.

“[Jones’] work will provide a better picture of how the behavior of the seed dispersers influences the establishment of different plants across a landscape,” says Paul Leberg, a conservation biologist and professor at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. “Understanding this process could assist in the reforestation of disturbed habitats.”

For the time being, though, Jones remains humble about his own project and realistic about the challenges of studying animals in the wild. He feels lucky to be doing his work in another place with so many interesting birds.

Overhead, vultures circle and white cattle egrets dart past sprawling treetops. Parrots and parakeets chatter from clusters of branches, and Jones points at one in particular. “Crimson-fronted parakeet,” he says. On days like this, when he’s at work with his volunteers in nature, attempting to catch wild toucans, he marvels at how well things have worked out.

“I’m doing exactly what I want to do,” he says. “And I live in Costa Rica.”

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