Georgetown, Guyana—the Birding World’s Best Kept Secret?

Melinda Janki, Georgetown, Guyana. 
October 17, 2016

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Georgetown, Guyana, is one of the world’s smallest capital cities, a mere six mi.2 according to its official boundaries. The Dutch laid out this city, perched on the northern Atlantic coast of South America, in the 18th century; the British expanded it in the 19th and 20th centuries. Tree-lined avenues, flowing canals, and stunning colonial gardens earned it a reputation as the “Garden City”. Today, it is home to over 285 species of birds—47.5 species per square mile. The Botanic Gardens, a small area (about 75 acres) within the city, has an astonishing 196 species, which are listed here.

To live with wild birds in the city is an immense joy. But in Georgetown, this remarkable diversity is threatened by ignorance, greed, and deliberate destruction.

Does this density of species make Georgetown the bird capital of the world? It certainly means that anybody with their eyes and ears open could be in for a glorious day of birding.

On the street where I live, a pair of macaws sometimes comes with the dawn, screaming and screeching, vivid blue, with flashes of gold like the sun god, Apollo, in his chariot. The blue-and-yellow macaw is impossible to ignore and is a joy to behold.

The pair often settles down in the branches of a coconut tree across the street and croon gently to each other. Into the sound gap arrives the true dawn chorus, a glorious medley of song and whistling, including the haunting melody of the Pale-breasted Thrushes. They have been recorded here on Youtube.

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The resident blue-and-yellow macaw. Photo: Melinda Janki

The thrushes have taught me a fraction of their melody and, for a few minutes, we go back and forth, my childishly simple notes embarrassing in contrast to their trills. Several pairs of these Pale-breasted Thrushes have built their nests between the wooden beams and the columns that hold up my house.

I seem to be inadvertently running a baby Thrush factory. The nests are in constant use, except when repairs are necessary. The mother and father are marvellous models of good parenting, flitting back and forth with food, taking it in turns to sit on the nest and remaining ever-alert to danger. From dive-bombing me the first time I picked up one of their fallen babies and put it on a branch out of reach of predators, they have learned to trust me as an ally. On the day that the fledglings are due to leave the nest, the parents keep up a racket until we lock up our dogs. I have observed that on these days, the songbirds congregate in the trees. It seems they, too, are watching out for threats to these precious babies. Perhaps this is an interesting example of interspecies cooperation which contradicts the dominant ideology that life is all about competition and selfishness.

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This nest is about 10 feet off the ground on a pillar holding up the house. The underside of the floor boards is directly above the bird. Photo: Melinda Janki
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Thrush babies on the nest. Photo: Melinda Janki

A few weeks ago, the Thrushes’ full volume alarm call brought me rushing into the garden, which was full of highly agitated birds hopping from branch to ground, from fence to flowerpots, and all over the garden. Disaster! One baby Thrush had taken off too soon. Flat on the ground, nose to beak with the baby, was one of our large watchdogs. I grabbed the baby, dropped him in a large flower pot for safety, and put our beloved dog in a fenced-off section. Fifteen minutes later, the birds’ alarm call brought me hurtling back out. There they were again, nose to beak, gazing at each other, the fledgling having launched himself straight back at the watchdog. I have often wondered why the dog did not simply open his jaws and swallow what would have been a tasty morsel.

The dawn chorus marks the time to put out the food. The wire feeders so highly recommended in temperate zones are useless—the birds will not go near them. They prefer two-bird tables made from old tree branches and, best of all, the top of the gate-post, which presumably gives them a better view of predators.

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Yellow oriole on the gate-post with his favourite food—rotting plantains. Photo: Melinda Janki

After much experimenting with bird seed and various fruits, I have found that my visitors’ favourite foods are over-ripe papaw and rotting yellow plantains. I am fortunate. There is a stall holder in Bourda, one of the local markets, who gives me yellow plantains for the birds and a fruit vendor who will help out now and then with fruit. The birds on the bird table feel less like visitors and more like residents. Some of them roost in the trees in the garden. Every day there are Yellow Orioles, Grayish Saltators, Blue-grey Tanagers, Palm Tanagers, and the lovely Silver-beaked Tanager. This tanager is very dark—almost black—but when the sun catches him, his throat feathers are a rusty red. The beak is matte silver—more paint than polish—and very striking.

The early morning is popular with people taking exercise and, more importantly to my mind, it is an ideal time to see birds. Thirty seconds’ walk from my house, a pair of Ringed Kingfishers catch fish in the main canal that flows through the city. They perch high on the telephone wires and are easy to miss unless you know to look out for them. They are large for kingfishers and have a distinctive rufous belly and ring around the neck. Truly handsome birds, but not musical, as they take off with their harsh, “Tchak-tchack” cry.

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Ringed Kingfisher on a wire. Photo: Melinda Janki

The kites are also in evidence, searching the water for the snails that make up the staple item in their diet. They are visible during the day, but are most active in the morning and late afternoon.

Around the smaller ditches, you can also see Striated Herons, Little Blue Herons, and Snowy Egret catching fish. Occasionally, I have seen a Limpkin completely still at the water’s edge, its unmistakeable beak ready for snails. The egrets seem to be almost as common in the city as in the countryside, mainly because of a large colony in the Botanic Gardens. Sometimes, a Snowy Egret nestling falls out into the water below and is immediately snapped up by a small caiman. The breeding plumage of the snowy egret is stunning and was once worth more than gold.

By mid-morning, doves, woodcreepers, shrikes, flycatchers, finches, and a host of other little birds have been and gone. Once, and only once, a Black-crowned Night-Heron, came into my garden. He sat in a Flamboyant Tree for a few hours completely still and silent before going home to the Botanic Gardens. The hummingbirds ignore my humble offerings, heading straight for the hibiscus nectar. Later come the Great Kiskadees—noisy, boisterous, raucous birds who seem to eat almost anything, including flying insects and small frogs, and who have no qualms about raiding the dogs’ bowls. Great Kiskadees are fearless. It is not unusual to see them mobbing a Yellow-headed Caracara, tormenting one of those powerful raptors until it takes refuge in a tall tree, screaming magnificently. What is very unusual is to see a juvenile and an adult caracara together; I was lucky to see these two from my living room window.

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Snail kite. Photo: Melinda Janki
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A juvenile and adult caracara captured on camera together. Photo: Melinda Janki

In the hot afternoon, the birds are scarce except for the ever-present thrushes raiding the compost heap for my precious earthworms, and the odd straggler coming in for water at the birdbath. By teatime, the air is still and heavy. The contented tap-tap-tap of the Lineated Woodpecker breaks the monotony. Sitting on the back step with my tea, I can admire this handsome visitor with his bright eyes and scarlet crest and feel privileged that, today, he has chosen my trees for his attention.

Late afternoon reveals tiny birds high up in the sky. These are the swifts and from where I stand on the road outside the house, I am too hopeless a birder to be able to tell which species they belong to. It is much easier to identify the magnificent frigate birds slowly ascending the thermals and heading out over the Atlantic. As the short dusk begins, the Scarlet Ibises fly over, also heading for the ocean. Night sets in. The Barn Owl, ghostly white as the light catches his feathers, gives a piercing screech before disappearing into the gloom. On the best nights of all, a solemn, drawn out “hoo” tells me the Great Horned Owl has come into my garden for a visit.

To live with wild birds is an immeasurable joy. One never knows for sure who is going to visit. Will the Red-shouldered Macaws come in this afternoon? Where are the Orange-winged Parrots? What a delight that the Blue-black Grassquit has suddenly chosen my fence from which to jump up and down, calling for a mate.

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Lineated Woodpecker at teatime. Photo: Melinda Janki

But even as I write this rich avian narrative, bird life is being threatened by a combination of ignorance, greed, and deliberate destruction of the city. Georgetown’s magnificent trees, home to so many birds, are slowly disappearing, choked to death with bird vine, or left jagged and damaged by “tree-trimming” exercises authorised by the Mayor and City Council.

Georgetown businesses have knocked down trees and poured concrete over the grass verges to extend their premises or obtain parking. Even private gardens are being turned into concrete so that people can park the vast numbers of secondhand cars imported into Guyana.

Our “Garden City” is being replaced with vertical horrors of mirrored glass. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that up to a billion birds die each year in the USA as a result of glass collisions. Yet, the private sector and the public authorities in Georgetown see nothing wrong with knocking down graceful, colonial wooden buildings that can accommodate birdlife, and replacing them with lethal glass buildings aping New York and Miami. Even the new Catholic church has horrible, mirrored windows which are a potential death trap for the city’s birds. A national “development” strategy focussed on economic growth, rather than on quality of life, has resulted in the Guyanese people adopting a frantic consumer lifestyle. Despite the recent heroic efforts of the government to clean up the city, people continue to throw junk food boxes and other garbage into the canals and ditches, choking the outlets and creating stagnant breeding grounds for mosquitos. The inevitable chemical spraying is harmful to wildlife and leaves me and everybody in our house choking from the fumes. The black night, lit by the stars of the ever-changing sky, has disappeared. Blazing security lights make sections of the city as bright as day. It is impossible to get a normal night’s sleep, and nocturnal birds are going away. The city appears to be sleepwalking towards a lifeless existence.

Georgetown’s residents have to act now. Do we not have a responsibility to ensure that the next generation can experience the wonder of nature?

My neighbour, my gardener, and I replant trees on the streets as a small act of resistance against the dead hand of “development”. Others can choose their own paths of resistance. The Guyana Amazon Tropical Birds Society has, for over a decade, been inspiring at-risk youth with a love for birds by creating checklists, carrying out research, and training their members to identify and care for birds. With appropriate funding, they could convert hearts and minds for birds and provide the technical advice to make Georgetown a bird friendly city once more. The public authorities have to work with us to re-create a city that is elegant, beautiful, and a joy to live in—to restore the Garden City and to keep alive what we like to call the capital city of the bird world.

Melinda Janki
Georgetown

On The Nature of Cities

Melinda Janki

About the Writer:
Melinda Janki

Melinda Janki is a lawyer. She was instrumental in getting Guyana's Constitution changed to state that the nation's well-being depends on clean air, pure water, and rich biodiversity.

Melinda Janki

Melinda Janki

Melinda Janki has been admitted to practice as a solicitor in England and Wales, and as an attorney-at-law in Guyana. She is executive director of the Justice Institute, which is dedicated to upholding the rule of law and improving access to social and environmental justice. She drafted the laws for environmental impact assessments, the national protected areas system, and water management in Guyana. She has held various positions, including vice president of the Guyana Bar Association, vice chair of the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law, and treasurer of the Solicitors International Human Rights Group. She holds an LLB and an LLM for University College, London University, and a BCL from the University of Oxford. She has published on water law, Amerindian rights, protected areas, decolonisation, and the constitutional right to property.

23 thoughts on “Georgetown, Guyana—the Birding World’s Best Kept Secret?

  1. This is my second read as I was feeling a bit homesick. Sorry, I failed to say thank you when I first read it (hiding my face). The wonderful thing about Guyana is that you can enjoy a kaleidoscope of flora and fauna almost anywhere you go and this article captures some intricacies we often take for granted. So thank you for bringing a little of home to me. All the best!

    1. Thank you Ronella. It has been very encouraging to see how many of the diaspora have read this piece. I hope you will come home soon and connect again with our urban avifauna.

  2. Melinda, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your beautiful and passionate article which so clearly describes our birds in Georgetown. Everytime I visit Georgetown, I look forward to the daily ritual of the macaws and parrots screaming and screeching as they fly over our house. Their yellow underbellies really do flash like gold in the sunlight, an unforgettable experience. These and the wide variety of birds sighted daily do need to be protected. I hope Guyanese realise how lucky they are to have this amazing birdlife in their capital city and take positive action to protect them.

  3. Melinda. Congratulations on your excellent article. I was transported back in time to a golden era in Guyana. Continue your Good Work in caring for God`s creatures and the Environment.

  4. Hi Melinda. Great article on the exotic birds in Georgetown and I really enjoyed reading it. It’s ironic that when we are young that these beautiful birds are taken for granted and largely ignored but as we get older our appreciation for them improves. Am envious of the diversity of birds to your home,It makes our own ‘twitching’ look very mundane but we still do our best to enjoy our ‘visitors’ to the feeder. I do hope that your article will focus people’s attention on this issue. Keep up the good work!

  5. You describe a city I would love to live in, Melinda. As a resident of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, I understand the importance of trees and the green environment in making the concrete jungle liveable for all species including our own. Every good wish for success in your determination to protect what really matters – life!

  6. Brava, Melinda!

    Your essay has reminded us that it IS possible for humans to live in cities without driving out our fellow living creatures! I have visited Georgetown many times over the past twenty years and I fully endorse your views of the ‘immense joy’ to be gained from living surrounded by such rich life – trees, plants, birds, butterflies and even the odd anaconda! As you and many others on this web site have noted it is essential that man learns to live in harmony with this natural abundance even – or perhaps especially – in cities. More than half of the world’s population now live in an urban setting. In my own country – the United Kingdom – more than 70% of people live in cities. We have seen the damage caused to lives – especially young lives – if we make those cities lifeless concrete jungles. Such cities are literally soul destroying. Georgetown is a shining proof that this does not need to be so. And you are part of a bigger movement. I am sure that your readers will be aware of the push to make London (people population: 8.7 million people – tree population: 8.3 million trees) a National Park City . London is also one of the C40 Group of the world’s biggest cities working to create greener cities. Perhaps Georgetown could lead the way in forming a ‘C40 plus’ group from the global south to show how to preserve their natural heritage. Keep up the great work.

    1. Thank you. London is a great city, partly because of its magnificent royal parks that have somehow resisted commodification and continue to provide beauty and peace to millions. Daniel Raven-Ellison has been doing tremendous work on the #NationalParkCity and I hope it does happen. Georgetown too could be a national park city given the high level of biodiversity but it would require a much more creative and imaginative approach than is currently being followed. The ideas shared and the dialogue that takes place on sites like TNOC are really invaluable.

  7. Dear Melinda, an absolutely brilliant piece of writing. You are a novelist not a lawyer! You are a bird watching flaneur, Georgetown critic and prose stylist all rolled in one. I would hear and see birds but your level of of observation and analysis places an entirely different perspective on the term “bird’s eye view.” Congrats, I have to re-read this constantly….it makes one imagine a new Guyana. Saved on my bookmarks.

    1. Thank you Nigel. I had to look up flaneur. You raised a very important point about identity. We are none of us just one thing. But we are under constant pressure to be ‘homo oeconomicus’ a selfish one-dimensional creature who is alienated from nature and sees everything as a commodity. Schirrmacher did a brilliant critique of this creature in ‘Ego: the game of life.’ We also see commodification in attempts to use the market to put a price on the living world while conveniently forgetting that it was market failure which often caused the destruction of the natural world in the first place. (Climate change being the biggest market failure the world has known according to Nick Stern). However the more that urban dwellers connect with the nature, the happier they are and the more willing to conserve non-human life. This is a really interesting study: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0149777

  8. A well-written and informative article about Guyana’s birds. The government and citizens do indeed have a sacred responsibility to preserve its wildlife. May the “Garden City” be restored to its former beauty!

  9. Thank you Melinda for such a wonderful and informative article on Guyanas’ birds. It was such a delight to read!
    Congratulations and look forward to many more.

    1. Thank you David, Ryan, Edith and Karly for your kind comments. I have hope in the young! I have learned from enthusiastic birders decades younger than me.

  10. Thank you for this wonderful article. I had no idea Georgetown was so rich in biodiversity.

    It is a pleasure to wake to birdsong.

  11. Thank you for sharing this lovely story of the beautiful birds of Guyana. I hope they will be around for many more generations to appreciate.

    1. Thank you. I would be happy to write a piece for Catholic Standard. The Catholic community has a very important role in protecting nature.

      1. Congratulations! Melinda !!! I am not in the least bit surprised that you continue to surprise us with your accomplishments.

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