The Birdman of St. Lucia


A few kilometers down a dense rainforest trail that winds through the mountainous interior of St. Lucia, the man who would save parrots seems, briefly, to have become one.

the birdman of st. luciaHere, on a narrow pathway contoured into the edge of a fern-smothered hilltop, Englishman Paul Butler holds both arms away from his body, and—in imitation of this Antillean island’s national bird—flaps his palms vigorously. As he does, an odd staccato noise comes from his throat, something combining a squawk, a croak, and a cry for help.

Butler is not trying to attract the colorful, blue-headed “Jacquot,” which a conservation program here has coaxed back from the edge of extinction. Instead, he is trying to show me is how this parrot—which today has so far eluded us—is behaving, hidden back there just behind the last towering rain forest tree, out of the range of normal, non-birder sensibilities. “Caaawwwk,” goes Butler, lifting his chin sharply with each call, flapping his hands like tiny, plucked wings.

Earnest, bespectacled, and exuberant, Butler may seem a bit like Mr. Rogers on speed, out for a walk in his neighborhood jungle. But he is, in fact, a man who is in the midst of one of the most successful campaigns in the world to recast public awareness about the worth of tropical birds, and of the ever-diminishing places in which they must live.

In this way, Butler—whose approach lives or dies with the cooperation of local “counterparts” in the Caribbean Basin—relies on “sexy” avifauna to sell down-to-earth conservation ideals in some 15 countries. After all, the birds hint at the essence of tropical island life—a synthesis of all things unrestrained and imaginative and aesthetically dazzling. If conditions in developing island-states are far more grim, then a green-, blue-, and red-plumed parrot proudly soaring across the horizon like a color wheel gone mad offers hope, a vicarious departure from the murk of daily realities.

To this end there is bird-laced curriculum, posters, billboards, buttons, puppets, music videos, and even a local bird costume worn to bring the message to school children. “It’s like the cigarette companies using a pretty girl to peddle their product,” says Butler, whose work is funded by the non-profit, Philadelphia-based Rare, formerly called the RARE Center for Tropical Conservation.

Under this strategy, a number of rare island-endemic birds have all been made centerpieces of campaigns that braid national pride with wildlife and habitat protection. The “pretty girls” include Amazona parrots from the Bahamas, St. Vincent, Dominica, and the Caymans; a keel-billed toucan; the white-tailed sabrewing hummingbird; the Montserrat oriole; the Zenaida dove, and more.

While the individual island campaigns—which all imitate a paint-by-numbers master plan—rely on sophisticated marketing techniques, there is at the core of each the spirit of a grown man or woman who doesn’t mind, well, acting like a bird.

“I’ve dressed up as the bird in all the countries,” says Butler. “At least two or three times in each. My wife was the ‘sisserou’ in Dominica 80 times. It’s bloody hot inside a bird costume, I tell you.”

Behind the wheel of a mud-splattered jeep, Butler introduces me to St. Lucia in a lip-biting series of hairpin turns, bouncing over a coastal mountain highway that turns from asphalt to stone to deep, water-filled ruts of clay. The tour is more than a wild ride around a picturesque 238-square-mile volcanic island in the Lesser Antilles; it’s a way for a man who never stops being a teacher to instruct: “St. Lucia is a microcosm of the problems facing all the Caribbean,” says Butler, swerving to avoid a goat in the road.

Fields of manioc and bananas zip by, grown on land that once was lush tropical jungle. The entire region is being deforested in much the same way—at an average decline of five percent a year. “We have 4,000 more kids here leaving school, needing jobs every year,” explains Butler. “Whether they end up cultivating plots of root crops or marijuana, there’s simply more pressure on the forests.”

Parrots, parakeets, and macaws had once been so plentiful in the Caribbean that Columbus had penned a log entry about “flocks obscuring the sun.” Volcanic islands like Dominica and Jamaica had been covered with lush jungles that provided nesting cavities, seeds, and fruits. Even the flat, fossilized reefs of the arid islands like the Bahamas and the Caymans were thick with low-slung tropical forests that sheltered and fed the birds.

But when Butler first came here from England in 1975 with a brand-new degree in wildlife management, the natural forests were being widely logged for timber and fuel. And the “Jacquots” (Amazona versicolor) were being hunted for food and for export as exotic pets. There were fewer than 159 left on St. Lucia. It was a scene being replayed elsewhere as the region reeled in economic flux, adrift between a failed sugarcane industry and the tenuous white hope called tourism. Of the over two dozen psittacine species Columbus first found, more than half had become extinct.

Serving as the “conservation officer” for St. Lucia’s bare-bones forestry department, Butler lived a spartan existence in a rainforest cottage with no electricity or running water. Working under the wing of St. Lucian Gabriel Charles, a veteran forest service officer, Butler soon learned to shed his Eurocentric ideals of “saving” the country from itself. He came to understand that wildlife conservation in a poor country like St. Lucia would take more than soapbox oratory.

If the country’s rapidly disappearing forest and its remaining birds were to be truly revitalized, there would have to be a grassroots movement that exalted wild things instead of consuming them. But for that to happen, hungry natives who clear-cut forest to plant subsistence crops couldn’t be demonized as bad guys—even though the loss of ground cover meant fewer birds, more erosion, and more chance of seasonal flooding and mud slides.

“If it’s a question between ‘Do I starve?’ or ‘Do I maybe cause a flood next year?’ we know what will happen,” says Butler.

St. Lucia has stabilized its woodland losses and is even busy replanting. Currently, some 26 percent of the island is forested; half of that is protected in government preserves. Throughout this island, there are still scads of reminders of the original push to “Save our Jacquot” from several years ago. Cars sport old bumper stickers, parrots squawk soundlessly from colorful murals, and Butler—who dressed up as A. versicolor in front of an entire country of schoolchildren—is widely recognized on the street. In fact, most know him more as “Jacquot” and “the Bird” than by his own name. For the Englishman, it’s all a testament to how well conservation has infiltrated the national consciousness.

At the ocean, Butler’s jeep roars past a clutch of expensive, all-inclusive resorts lining the northwest coast, walled “ghettoes” in which the fun-in-the-sun tourists are seldom exposed to island realities—ecological or otherwise. But as he drives inland at Soufriere, following a local road that snakes up into the heart of the government-owned forest preserve, he passes through the frayed villages of a developing country that, for most affluent tourists, may seem like the other side of the moon.

Indeed, Butler’s world is the real Caribbean, the one that exists behind the stage set. “On small island ecosystems with a limited amount of species, parrots and other birds are the most visible animals we have,” says Butler. Many such birds, despite similarities in shape, are singularly crafted by genetics, their coloration differing from island to island. “There’s a strong feeling of pride now here in the region involving the birds” says Butler. “It’s important for locals to know that, maybe you come from a rich country and you have a lot of things—but you don’t have their parrot.”

RARE’s bird campaigns, as detailed in its manual “Promoting Protection Through Pride,” show a measurable surge in the appreciation of local nature. But experience proves they work best in places like this, where locals aren’t already saturated with marketing pitches. And they do best when the prevailing attitude toward the environment is apathy, rather than politically-charged embitterment. “This campaign wouldn’t work in the US,” says Butler. “There’s just too much else going on… And if you dressed up like a spotted owl in the American northwest, someone would try to shoot you.”

Butler wheels sharply into a marina on Rodney Bay where his office is wedged between outrigger shops. It looks like a storage room that a more institutionalized environmental agency might keep hidden behind a locked door—cardboard boxes in the corners, computer wires scattered across the floor, two hand-made wooden tables with single coats of white paint, posters of birds from RARE campaigns stapled to the walls, and a fax message that is now six feet long and still coming. “We like to spend as little money on administration as possible,” says Butler, nonplussed.

At a corner desk in the cramped room is a soft-spoken but articulate St. Lucian named Alleyne Regis, the other half of the entire educational team of RARE. Like Butler, Regis also worked at Forestry, where today’s bird campaigns were first tested in a go-for-it atmosphere that was tight on funds but generous and open to innovation. Not surprisingly, RARE itself also functions by the seat of its pants, spending barely 30 percent of its barebones $700,000 international budget on administration. Today, the bird men of RARE are heading off in vastly different directions.

Regis will meet with actors who will bring a radio soap opera to life over the next several months. The drama, disguised with gritty local realism and the island’s French-based patios, will expose teenagers to the wisdom of family planning, a core issue in a region wracked by over-population and poverty. “It’s a more holistic approach to environmental problems,” says Butler, smiling. “The more condoms used, the more jungle and parrots we can keep.”

Butler, for his part, will drive up into the mountains to perform a far more traditional chore—to investigate the mudslide damage he suspects has been done to a newly opened rainforest trail. Setting up trails like this one are not only a great hands-on way to introduce school kids and tourists to the more sublime values of the country, but they take the RARE mission another step. “It’s economic empowerment,” says Butler. “These trails can generate a lot of income. It shows both the government and the locals they can make money from the forest and the birds without consuming them.”

In fact, before being washed out by a hurricane, the main trail generated US $250,000 in fees from visitors. It is that trail, freshly re-opened after a year’s worth of rehabilitation, that Butler is now approaching. “Saca Fend, Garcon?” asks Butler in the fast-paced local patois as he slows next to a Rasta selling coconuts carved into birds at the side of the road. “Can we reach the trail up ahead?” We can, says the bird carver, but the going is slow.

The jeep groans as it pulls its way over deep trenches at Fond St. Jacques, the last village before the trail. Many here used to hunt, eat and sell the Jacquot ten and twenty years ago. Today, an equal number make money from selling refreshments and crafts to the 4,000 tourists who visit the trail annually; during the trail construction, some 80 locals were employed for almost two years.

Butler parks the jeep next to a pavilion with several picnic tables, changes his usual flipflops for a pair of canvas sneakers and marches onto the trail. A kilometer away, the side of an immense hill once collapsed because of hurricane-driven rains. Butler is afraid the same thing may have happened again to the newly shored up path with a recent spat of storms.

Like RARE’s detailed manual on launching bird-based campaigns, Butler has more recently assembled a similar “cookbook” illustrating in detail how to build a local trail. Based on earlier work done by Butler and others in the Forest Service on St. Lucia, the guide covers basic surveying techniques, a cost-benefit analysis, and samples of interpretive signs and leaflets. The Cayman Islands, after a successful campaign to save its own local Amazona parrots—the Grand Cayman and the Cayman bracker—became the first to open its own two-mile-long “Mastic Trail” patterned on the how-to guide. Other countries, from Cuba to the Turks and Caicos, have also expressed a strong interest in the program.

The St. Lucia trail, with narrow, squarish ditches on each side to give the annual 12 feet of rain plenty of room to drain, rises quickly up the side of a mountain lushly forested with blue mahoe and mahogany trees, hung with bromeliads and encircled with climbing palms. Butler stops in his tracks, looking up. “That’s a very good parrot tree!”

The tree is a gommier, a giant that reaches 120 feet. Butler bends down and picks up a tiny orange fruit, rolling it around in his fingers. “See the indentation of the sharp mandibles on it? We know it’s a parrot that’s been eating it, and not, say, an agouti.” Butler walks on, now under a thick canopy of foliage that cools the tropical air. The trail has not washed out as he had feared.

After another hundred meters, Butler stops abruptly again, head cocked for a distant noise only he seems to hear. “There! There!” He is gesturing toward a distant opening where a flash of green is quickly disappearing. It is one of the remaining 300 Jacquots, flying in the distinct parrot pattern Butler had demonstrated.

Butler walks cautiously a few more meters, then stops again, excitedly grabbing his visitor’s arm. The canopy opens up entirely where the hillside once slid into a ravine. A hundred meters below, water gurgles over rocks. But it is not water the bird man hears. In a tree nearby is an Antillean crested hummingbird, an regional endemic. Not far away are a pair of yellowish Adelaide warblers. Butler waits a few more moments. “A peewee flycatcher! All in one spot!” The bird man seems to be in bird heaven.

Still, there is more. Butler calls out, whistling and chirping to another unseen member of the rainforest. It is the rufous-throated solitaire, a bird—like all the rest—that owes its life here to the high-profile role the elusive Jacquot has played. “They call this bird, in patois, the ‘Whistler of the Rain Forest,” says Butler. And then he launches a long rising and falling whistle, one that sounds for all the world like the theme to Bridge on the River Kwai. “He may answer,” says Butler, looking quickly to the left and right.

The little whistler, another endemic, remains hidden even to the man who seems to have attuned his eye to seeing just about everything. “Come on you bugger, where are you!” says Butler, as he crouches down and creeps over the trail, occasionally stopping to listen, and then to whistle some more. Finally, he disappears around the corner of the trail entirely, swallowed up by a vast wall of green ferns and palms and hanging vines.

There are only the sounds of cascading water and wild birds in the mountain jungle now—from the shrouded pathway, a human question whistled, and finally from deep within the forest, an answer.

Florida-based Bill Belleville is author of Sunken Cites, Sacred Cenotes, and Golden Sharks: Travels of a Water-Bound Adventurer, from which this article is excerpted.

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