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A bird sanctuary for endangered species

La Cañada de los Pájaros is a popular place for families to visit.
La Cañada de los Pájaros is a popular place for families to visit. / EFE
  • Two biologists have turned a former rubbish dump and gravel pit into a wetland with more than 2,000 birds from 200 species

La Cañada de los Pájaros was the first nature reserve to be classified as such in Spain, and this year it is celebrating its 30th anniversary. One needs a real sense of vocation, like that of married couple Plácido Rodríguez Parada and Maribel Adrián, both of whom are biologists, to convert a gravel pit and rubbish dump into a paradise for birds which are in danger of extinction, which is what this is today. Not only that, but they did so privately and using their own money. This small 7.5 hectare habitat for birds is in Puebla del Río, one of the villages beside the Guadalquivir river, which flows into the heart of Doñana.

Plácido Rodríguez, the latest in generations of wardens, grew up in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. His vocation was developed early in life as he saw how the numbers of the birds he was used to seeing gradually dropped. Some, like the marble teal, were officially listed as being in danger of extinction. Others included the crested coot and ferruginous pochard, ducks whose existence is also in jeopardy.

La Cañada de los Pájaros was created as a place where these birds could breed, so that their species could continue, and it is also a centre for preservation, environmental information and research. Over the years it also became a favourite place for families in the area to visit, especially those with young children. It is a lovely setting, with lagoons and Mediterranean vegetation. More than 2,000 birds can be found there, and others stop off temporarily at different times throughout the year.

Maribel Adrián comes from Burgos originally, and she met Plácido in Seville. They not only found love, but discovered that they shared the same concerns. They went to the Canary Islands and upon their return to Andalucía they decided to make a dream come true by creating their very own area for the protection of birds. They looked for a suitable site and in April 1987 they purchased and moved to a site in Puebla del Río, half an hour from Seville, which used to be a quarry and gravel pit. It later became a rubbish dump.

The couple also encountered another obstacle: most of the trees were eucalyptus, the result of the mistaken policy of reforestation which caused so much damage to the wetlands of Doñana.

While the first baby coots and pochards were being brought up, Plácido and Maribel set about clearing the site of rubble and eucalyptus trees and planting native species of Mediterranean woodland. They also cleaned the lagoons which had been created from the quarry pits and the extraordinary marshiness of the land, which is close to the Guadalquivir river. It is situated on the final stretch of the Cañada de la Barca, which is why they decided to name it Cañada de los Pájaros.

“We spent four years getting rid of the rubbish and rubble,” says Maribel. It was intensive work , which also included planting different vegetation in separate areas to attract certain types of bird, such as planting typha (bulrushes) for the crested coots.

The crested coot

This black duck with white beak and head and a red crest is known as ‘focha moruna’ (Fulica cristata) in Spanish. Maribel and Plácido took advantage of an agreement between Morocco and Spain to bring several of these ducks from North Africa because the species was very weak in this country. Thanks to this, the numbers of this species have grown. La Cañada de los Pájaros is the first nature reserve in the world to carry out a programme to recover the crested coot.

La Cañada opened to the public in 1992, but one year beforehand it was classified as a Nature Reserve by the Junta de Andalucía. It was the first of its type in Spain. It is also registered in the Inventory of Wetlands of Andalucía and the Andalusian Wetlands Plan.

Maribel and Plácido are both biologists.

Maribel and Plácido are both biologists. / EFE

The region of Andalucía as a whole has 230 wetlands and this year the census of birds has shown record figures, totalling nearly one million, according to the regional Minister for the Environment, José Fiscal, who provided this information on World Wetlands Day, on 2 March. About 70 per cent of them, 645,000, are in Doñana. The most common breeds are the northern shoveler, lesser black-backed gull, northern pintail, greylag goose, common flamingo and calidris.

All these species also pass through La Cañada de los Pájaros, which since 1992 has been celebrating World Wetlands Day by releasing birds which have taken part in programmes of recovery in captivity. This year, José Fiscal was there to watch. Since the year the Expo took place in Seville, 1,200 crested coots, 100 ferruginous pochards and about 800 marbled teals have been set free.

Dangers

Plácido and Maribel warn that despite the recovery programmes in Andalucía and the Levante region and the fact that their numbers are increasing, these birds are still in danger of dying out.

They are released into the countryside so that they can nest on the wetlands again, but they face many dangers including pesticides, rubbish, fences and the transformation of agricultural land.

Maribel and Plácido, who collaborated with Malaga City Hall to save birds which were affected by Malaga airport, say they see the release of the protected species as a symbolic gesture, a way of attracting the attention of governments and citizens and raising awareness of the importance of protecting the wetlands.

Since the 1990s, when they began releasing the birds, about 64 per cent of these have disappeared. “They are very fragile ecosystems, and those of us who look after them need more support to protect them from external aggressions,” explains Maribel.

On the day the birds were released this year her husband, Plácido, said it was a shame that no matter how many animals were released, the conditions of the wetlands were not improved. He said more money is needed, but for practical help, not for studies and papers which never amount to anything.

At least this couple are keeping their little reserve on the marshes of Seville going. They have made La Cañada an “essential place” for the crested coot and other birds when the conditions in Doñana become adverse and the birds have to look for alternative locations.

They receive grants for the breeding programmes, but need other sources of financing and assistance in order to maintain their small paradise. They have signed agreements with town halls and universities, under which students can do practical experience there, collaborate in the different bird programmes and also open the site to the public for visits.

This site is now home to 200 species of birds, 180 of which are native and the remainder are exotic. These include the scarlet ibis, an aquatic bird which delights photographers because of its extraordinary colouring.

“We do work very hard, but this isn’t just a business. It’s a way of life,” says Maribel.