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Fla. biologist takes bird houses to Belize

January 11, 2014 at 04:22 AM

The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Michael Keys and his son, Larkin, will hike deep into the open savanna of pine trees and brush, carrying ladders and chain saws. Keys will climb 30 feet up a pine tree and spend three hours carving a hole in the tree to insert a wooden box.

Within weeks, yellow-headed parrots will nest in Keys' artificial cavities and produce offspring scientists hope can boost the population of the endangered species.

It's not your typical vacation in Belize, a small Central American country on the Caribbean coast. But it can make a difference.

"This is a species that could go extinct and I have this one specialized skill that can help," Keys said. "I'm not a heart surgeon or anything. So this is my contribution to helping the habitat."

Keys, 42, is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; since 1998 he has been stationed at the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. He and his son are leaving Jan. 19 for Belize, where they will spend 18 days installing artificial cavities. Though Keys is doing this on his own dime, he welcomes contributions.

This is Keys' second trip to Belize; in January 2012 he spent two weeks installing 10 artificial cavities in Payne's Creek National Forest. He hopes to install another 10 artificial cavities in the government-owned forest this trip, with Larkin, 19, a budding photojournalist, documenting the effort.

"(Ten boxes) sounds like a small number, but it's challenging logistically; you spend most of your time getting there," Keys said. "But our project was successful the first time. So the goal is to keep expanding it."

Keys has been building artificial cavities in trees since 1990 when he was stationed at the Francis Marion National Forest, and scientists realized artificial cavities could help rebuild the population of red-cockaded woodpeckers. Since he's been stationed at St. Marks, Keys has built dozens of artificial cavities at the wildlife refuge and Tall Timbers Research Station in Leon County.

The artificial cavities have been a boon to red-cockaded woodpeckers, which are found only in the Southeast. In the early 1990s, because of habitat loss caused by over-timbering and hurricanes, their population nationwide had dropped to fewer than 10,000. Thanks in part to artificial cavities, there are now more than 14,000 red-cockaded woodpeckers in the Southeast.

On their own, male woodpeckers take 12 to 18 months to build a nesting cavity. But the woodpeckers have no objection to inhabiting the artificial cavities Keys produces in a few hours.

"Artificial cavities are very attractive to the birds," Keys said. "It's like if someone built a new house in your neighborhood and nobody moved in and it was free, you might move in."

Red-cockaded woodpeckers, who mate for years, produce only a few eggs per nesting season. Yellow-headed parrots average one offspring every two years — and face a host of pressures that has reduced their habitat.

The result has been an estimated 90 percent decline in Belize's prized yellow-headed parrot, one of several birds pictured on the country's $100 bill. One factor has been poaching: If captured young, yellow-headed parrots can be trained as one of the most talkative parrots. Poachers can earn hundreds of dollars — equal to several months pay for a laborer in Belize — selling the young parrots as pets.

Keys was recruited to Belize by Steve Morrison, a forester with the Nature Conservancy in Lake Wales, and Michael Andreu, a forestry professor with the University of Florida.

Morrison has spent 10 years teaching Belizean foresters the methods and benefits of prescribed burning. Andreu is establishing a training program for UF forestry students in Belize.

The chief interest of all three men is improving the health of the open, savanna pine forests of Belize. A combination of over-timbering, hurricanes and bug infestations have reduced the forests, and in turn reduced the habitat of a rich diversity of wildlife that inhabits the forests: jaguars, mountain lions, white-tailed deer, tapirs and, of course, yellow-headed parrots.

Prescribed burning is helping restore the forests. Similarly, rebuilding the population the yellow-headed parrot, focuses attention on the forest and brings more aid.

Though the country has stepped up efforts to reduce poaching, it recognized it needs to improve the habitat to keep the birds from becoming extinct. Though it is difficult to measure increases in the parrot population, observers have photographed parrots nesting in Keys' artificial cavities.

"Nobody had been working on this leg of the problem (more nesting sites), so Michael really has been part of the solution," Morrison said. "It would be a great loss for such a spectacular and unique parrot to disappear from the face of the earth."

Belizean helpers pre-build the boxes, which are about a foot wide, a foot deep and 2-3 feet high. Keys then climbs high up a pine tree and uses a small chain saw to hollow out a section of tree to install the boxes.

It is Keys' ability to choose the right trees (the oldest trees have soft spots of rot) as well as spend two to three hours in the hot tropical sun, swatting away bugs, getting covered in sawdust and carving out a hole that makes him unique.

"It's the coolest thing to watch him work," said Andreu. "He is a true artist, who knows how to read a tree and pick the spots to do it. It's a real physical effort that takes someone who has done it for years and years."

"I think it's so great Michael is doing this work. I think it's critical for all of us as humans to try to maintain a healthy ecosystem."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.

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