Royalty on the Verge

The Royal Cinclodes is dying. The Species. Around 250 remain. The size of a robin, the Royal Cinclodes is a secretive, chocolate-brown bird with reddish bars on its wings and a strong white eyebrow. It lives only in brush-like polylepis woodlands scattered across steep Andean slopes in southern Peru and Bolivia. Local farmers have destroyed ninety-eight per cent of this habitat, so the bird is seldom seen.

My bird guide Jose leads me to a 15,000 foot high Andean ridge in Peru’s Abra Malaga. Nearby, ice-covered Veronica Mont stands like a sentinel at 19,000 feet. Far below, a greenish-brown river valley rises to an even higher ridgeline miles away. On the valley floor, Andean farmers, the size of toy soldiers, dig up potatoes and oca while brightly dressed women carry the harvest to their stone-walled houses. Piled against these houses are stacks of cut polylepis wood—fuel for cooking, fuel for heat.

      We hike down a rough trail until Jose stops still and points ahead.

      “The Royal Cinclodes?!” I whisper.

      “The Royal Cinclodes!” he replies.

     We watch the bird stalk and grab an orange-colored beetle with its downward curved bill, then, with its claws, impale the insect on a twig and devour it.


The farmers recently rejected conservationists’ offers to replace their polylepis firewood with free eucalyptus and kerosene burning stoves; Incan tradition prohibits their accepting gifts of fuel. But later, several farmers agreed to work, to plant and protect polylepis seedlings in exchange for eucalyptus and stoves. Covenants like this are crucial. Without them, the farmers will be left to preside over the gravesite of the Royal Cinclodes.

David DeLange is a former philosophy professor and a recently retired psychotherapist. A past President of Los Angeles Audubon Society, he has been active in environmental, and especially, coastal protection. He lives in Redondo Beach, California and writes in his backyard, a home to many bird species and an extended family of Fox Squirrels, who have names. This Fall, Fear of Monkeys will publish his story “Political Persuasion as Art and Craft.”

See more of his work in 9.2

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