A BRIEF HISTORY OF ORNITHOLOGY IN PARAGUAY
The first people to take an interest in Paraguayan birds were, of course, the local indigena, known collectively as the Guaraní. Though their interest usually revolved around the palatability of their subjects, the various groups built up a detailed knowledge of avian behaviour and a complex folklore that has yet to be adequately documented. The most enduring contribution the Guaraní have made to science has been in the adoption of, for such a minority language, an astonishing number of their names in the vernacular and scientific names of South American birds - amongst them Surucuá, the Guaraní word for trogon (Surucua Trogon) and Ypé pepó sacá, meaning “duck with transparent wings” used in the scientific name for the Rosybill Netta peposaca.
Paraguay has always been considered an isolated outpost, and even in the days of the Spanish empire, a posting to Asunción was considered a lonely one. To pass the time some of the earliest naturalists took up the study of what was, and still is, a strange and mysterious fauna. The earliest contributors to the field were an unlikely mixture of Spanish soldiers and explorers, Jesuit missionaries and later English, German and American naturalists, all working hands-on in the field, without books, and far from the extensive comparative collections of the European and US museums. The result was a confusing mess of nomenclature that plagues the early literature - localities are often vague, frequently untraceable and in some cases it is unclear whether they are even in present-day Paraguay at all.
The arrival of the Jesuits in the Spanish territory of Paraguay in 1609 heralded the beginning of a social experiment, quite in contrast to the catastrophic genocides that had characterised the colonisation of most of Latin America. Intent on converting the Guaraní to Christianity by fair means rather than foul, the Jesuits formed communities (reducciónes) in which the indigena were provided with board and education, albeit as second class citizens, in exchange for their adoption of the scriptures. Typical of these communities were the construction of huge churches, the ruins of which can still be seen today in the southern departments of Itapúa and neighbouring Misiones. The exchange of ideas and customs benefited both sides to some degree, and inspired several natural historians to further investigate the wildlife of the region. Principal amongst these Jesuit naturalists was Francisco José Sánchez Labrador, who arrived in 1734 and remained in Paraguay until the forced expulsion of the Jesuits by the Spanish in 1767. An avid writer he produced six volumes on period life in the reducciónes, including a treatise on birds. His work included a chapter on the culinary uses of birds, perhaps betraying his true interest, while the quaint inclusion of bats amongst the night birds exposed a charming naiveté.
The man regarded as the father of ornithology in Paraguay and the southern cone was Félix de Azara, a Spanish soldier assigned to Asunción in 1784 to discuss boundary issues between the Portuguese and Spanish territories. Thirteen years later he was still awaiting the arrival of his Portuguese counterpart, but had occupied himself by collecting and writing on all aspects of natural history in the colony. In 1801, when it was clear that the Portuguese weren´t going to keep the appointment, de Azara was sent back to Spain, having studied an impressive 448 bird species, later reduced to 381 once the correct taxonomy had been imposed. Deprived of ornithological literature, de Azara had invented his own names for his specimens based on their physical characteristics, these later being decoded by renowned taxonomists of the time - Temminck, Viellot and Lichtenstein.
Following independence in the bloodless revolution of 1811, Paraguay fell under the control of a series of eccentric and sometimes brutal dictators. Needless to say this period was not conducive to productive ornithological research. The only collector active between independence and the end of the War of the Triple Alliance in 1870 was the US Captain Thomas Page, dispatched to chart the tributaries of the Rio La Plata and establish diplomatic relations with surrounding countries. He visited Paraguay briefly from September 1853 to October 1854, sending his collection to the Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia.
With only 28,000 males surviving the war, Paraguay opened its borders to avert a critical labour shortage. The resultant influx of educated immigrants amongst the hordes of unskilled labourers led to a significant advancement in the country´s intellectual development. A number of prominent naturalists of the era visited at this time, not least among them J Graham Kerr who navigated the tortuous Rio Pilcomayo in 1890, only to become stranded when the river dried up. Despite a series of disasters and epic adventures, Kerr managed to return himself and his collection safely back to the UK in 1891 where he wrote about his experiences.
Around this time the young Swiss immigrant Arnaldo de Winkelried Bertoni began collecting and documenting the vertebrates of Paraguay, working tirelessly for a decade before publishing descriptions of a number of species he considered to be new to science. He noted in the introduction to his work that the work had been produced to the best of his ability, but that he was handicapped by the few research materials available to him. Despite this humble admission, Argentine ornithologist Enrique Lynch Arribalzaga wasted no time in criticising him, exposing most of Bertoni´s “new” species as those already known to science, and imparting an almost pathological reluctance on the part of the Swiss to name new species in his future works. Bertoni continued to collect until the 1930s, his vast collection of vertebrates being housed at the family estate in Puerto Bertoni, only to tragically perish from neglect after his death.
Between the turn of the twentieth century and the start of the Chaco War with Bolivia in 1932, a large number of collectors were active in the southern cone of South America, many commissioned by US museums, and several passed through Paraguay during their expeditions. Notable amongst them were Alexander Wetmore (1920), Emil Kaempfer (1930-31) and the Austrian immigrant Francisco H Schade (1920s and 30s). Schade´s collection formed the backbone of a collection at the Museo de Zoología on the campus of the Universidad Nacional de Asunción in San Lorenzo, a collection that still exists though in an increasingly sorry state.
Also active around this time, and perhaps the most ambitious collector in Paraguayan history was the mysterious Alberto Schulze. Heading a team of collectors, most known only by their surname, Schulze amassed his collections of specimens between 1930 and 1941, the majority being sent to US museums. Though Schulze´s name always appeared first on identifying labels, the simultaneous collection of specimens in widely separated areas of the country suggested that he wasn´t averse to taking the credit for his co-workers´efforts.
Russian immigrant zoologist B. Podtiaguin collected in the Depto. Concepción under a commission from the Sociedad Científica del Paraguay in December 1939. He only managed to collect a miserly 32 species, but perhaps was concentrating more on his series of papers published 1941-45, which were intended to catalogue the birds of the territory. Though he didn´t even get a far as completing the non-passerines, it represented the first serious, if slightly haphazard, attempt to detail the birds of the country.
The year 1954 saw the ascension of another hated and cruel tyrant, General Alfredo Stroessner - who, by the time he was finally ousted in 1989, had become the most enduring dictator in South American political history. Not surprisingly ornithological activity again tailed off again during his rule, the only collector active from 1950 to 1975 being the Mennonite Jakob Unger, working mainly in the Chaco. Several large consignments of specimens were sent to US and European museums during the course of his activity, making Unger amongst the most prolific of Paraguayan collectors. A small museum in Filadelfia is named in his honour, though only a few of his unlabelled specimens now reside there.
It was the late 1970s and the inception of the plan for the immense Itaipú HEP project that international ornithological interest began to turn to Paraguay once again. Visits were made by several prominent ornithologists during this period, amongst them Philip Myers, Robert Ridgeley and Mercedes Foster. In 1977 the first ornithological gazetteer of Paraguay was produced by Raymond A Paynter and in the same year Itaipú Binacional, the group responsible for the dam project, instigated a faunal survey of the Alto Paraná region. They collected upwards of 700 specimens now housed in a specialised museum outside Ciudad del Este. The resultant flooding caused during the construction of the dam had catastrophic consequences for large areas of pristine forest, no doubt eliminating several important bird populations in the process.
Mercedes Foster was influential in the setting up of a co-operative project between the Paraguayan government and US Peace Corps in 1979, designed to train local biologists and establish a permanent biological inventory and natural history museum in Paraguay. Taking the name Inventario Biologíco Nacional, it was supported by numerous international institutions, and Nancy E Lopez, Paraguay´s first trained ornithologist, became project leader. By 1990, with its name changed to the Museo Nacional de Historia Nacional del Paraguay, the collection boasted around 1000 bird specimens. A year earlier, the arrival of Peace Corps volunteer Floyd E Hayes to work on the project signalled the beginning of his research for his monumental Status, Distribution and Biogeography of the Birds of Paraguay.
In fact the late 80s and 90s were one of the busiest periods in Paraguayan ornithological history, with various biologists active in the country. Prominent amongst them was the Argentine Julio Rafael Contreras. Contreras instigated an annual series of binational and multinational meetings with Paraguayan ornithologists, known as Simposia Ornitológicas, the first taking place in 1988. The following year the formation of the Sociedad Ornitológica del Paraguay was announced.
The Fundación Moises Bertoni, named in honour of the botanist father of Arnaldo de Winkelried Bertoni, was established as a private, non-governmental conservation agency in 1988. One of its first acts was the establishment of the Reserva Natural del Bosque Mbaracayú in north-east Alto Paraná, along with a preliminary list of the avian inhabitants of the reserve. The seamless integration of the reserve with the local inhabitants has made Mbaracayú a flagship of Paraguayan conservation.
During July to September 1992, Thomas Brooks of Cambridge University, UK led a series of intensive biological surveys of private nature reserves in Canindeyú, Caaguazú, Caazapá and Alto Paraná under the expedition title CANOPY´92 (Conservation Assessment of North Oriental Paraguay Year 92). Amongst his team was Rob Clay, later to become Scientific and Planning Manager of Guyra Paraguay, a group set-up in November 1997 under financial support from the Fundación Moises Bertoni and affiliated to Birdlife International. The first director of Guyra Paraguay was the reknowned Spanish ornithologist Alberto Madroño Nieto.
In March 2007 the website FAUNA Paraguay was launched in an effort to collate faunal information and make it freely available and accessible to all online. Conceived as an online community of people interested in Paraguayan fauna it includes among its ornithology pages a complete and up-to-date list of the species of birds found in Paraguay, an extensive photographic image gallery and recordings of bird calls. It is hoped that making the data available in this way will serve to stimulate interest in ornithology in Paraguay both at home and abroad.
This section is an updated article based heavily on FE Hayes (1995) Ornithological History p23-41 in Status, Distribution and Biogeography of the Birds of Paraguay, ABA Monograph in Field Ornithology Number 1. It is partially reproduced here with his permission.
Designed by Paul Smith 2006. This website is copyrighted by law.
Material contained herewith may not be used without the prior written permission of FAUNA Paraguay.
Photographs on this web-site were taken by Paul Smith, Hemme Batjes, Regis Nossent,
Alberto Esquivel, Arne Lesterhuis, Rebecca Zarza and Hugo del Castillo and are used with their permission.