The Birds of Puerto Bueno, Jamaica: Including the First Bird to be Protected by Law

As part of my “Listen to the Scientists” campaign (bowing deeply to Wendy Lee), I would like to tell you a little bit about the birds that call Puerto Bueno Mountain (and the area, also called Dry Harbour Mountains) home. It is also the home of a myriad insects, plants and trees, many of which are endemic (meaning they don’t live anywhere else in the world – only on our island). Many of these living things are extremely rare and endangered (meaning, it is quite possible they would become extinct and simply disappear). They are native to the island; they grew up here, they belong. This is biodiversity, a dazzling variety of birds and spiders, bees and crabs and snakes, palm trees and grasses and vines, and much more.

The “Maypole” agave attracts birds and other creatures to its leaves and flowers. (Photo: Wendy Lee)

So what? You might say. Why are these little things important? Can’t we do without them?

The fact is that each one of these creatures (even the tiniest) has a role to play in building an ecosystem – a landscape that helps humans thrive. Ecosystems provide food and water, medicine, soil to till, sustains, nourishes and protects us. Once they begin to die off, humans’ ultimate fate is pretty much sealed. It will be our turn next.

Now let’s think about birds. They don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist within their habitat – that is, a home that suits them, just as we humans do. A home would have food available, and critically, a secure place to build a nest and nurture young ones. Like other living creatures, large and small, birds have adapted to the specific habitats where they live. These creatures also depend on each other. If you take away the habitat, you take away its residents. They are evicted. They will die.

Dry limestone forest is very rough terrain. Plants actually grow straight from the rock, with almost no soil. (Photo: Wendy Lee)

The habitat in the Dry Harbour Mountains and Puerto Bueno Mountain is dry limestone forest. This pretty much speaks for itself. More than two thirds of Jamaica is made up of limestone, and we are probably quite familiar with that white, pitted rock, with overhangs revealing dark caves and holes where water gathers and seeps through and filters.

White-Crowned Pigeon at the top of our guango tree
The beautiful White-Crowned Pigeon, or Baldpate, sitting on the topmost branch of our guango tree in Kingston. (My photo)

While this type of landscape is quite harsh and it would be easy to break an ankle clambering around in it, many beautiful native trees and plants live there – some of them extremely rare. This is where birds such as the White-crowned Pigeon (“Baldpate”) live – a species listed as “Near Threatened” globally; where parakeets and hummingbirds and orioles thrive, attracted to plants such as the “Maypole” agave and the Wild Bauhinia; and where, from September to April or May, small migrant warblers that have traveled hundreds of miles to this very spot will be seen flitting around, feeding, spreading seeds, catching insects on the wing.

Puerto Bueno Mountain is also home to a bird that you can often see circling above the twisted limestone cliffs and green forest cover… circling but not flapping its wings, catching a draught of air that will carry it higher. Sometimes it tips off sideways, wings stiff. On a sunny day, the light shines through its wing feathers.

A flock of John Crows, photographed by Wendy Lee. Can you see the white one? It is called “leucistic” – that is, it has lost part of its normal color. Not to be confused with “albino”!

This is the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura). Puerto Bueno Mountain is the only remaining area on the north coast where it nests (laying one or two eggs) and breeds. It builds its nest on ledges or in crevices, under overhanging rocks, on those same jaggedy cliffs, between January and May. At times, you may see groups of them, soaring above.

John Crows settling down for the night at a man-made roost in Clarendon. (My photo)

Yes, we know the Turkey Vulture (or “John Crow” as we call him) is not a beautiful bird. In fact, he might well qualify for the ugliest bird in Jamaica, with its rather small, red “peel head” and hooked beak. It certainly doesn’t have a lovely song, either; I have heard a group of them at Seville in St. Ann, roosting in a tree, making a strange hissing sound. Mostly, they are silent.

Let’s think about our John Crow some more, though. Did you know it is widespread across most of the Americas, North to South? I remember doing a “double take” on seeing that familiar shape soaring across the forests of Virginia! And did you also know that it was the first bird to gain legal protected status in Jamaica? In 1687, to be precise – and the fine for killing or harming the bird or disturbing its young or nest was Five Pounds Sterling!

The reason why the John Crow was protected was that it was (and still is) an incredibly useful bird. Its sharp eyesight – and in particular its incredible sense of smell – enable it to seek out carrion (the carcasses of dead creatures) from quite a distance. Those stinking bodies not only smell bad, but spread disease. Mr. & Ms. John Crow will dispose of those quite effectively, thank you. Whether it is a cane field or a garbage dump, a wooded gully in the country or a dry scrubland, they will be doing their work.

Here’s another wonderful historical note: A snippet from a book called Birdwatching in Jamaica by May Jeffrey-Smith.

I am sure that everyone in Jamaica, whether a dweller on the hilltop or down in the plains, knows the John Crow for he is ubiquitous, and yet he was not always here according to Richard Hill, the great Jamaican naturalist. He thought that its ancestors came to us from North America, probably by way of Cuba, but our bird is allied to the Central American and not to the North American form…

The folklore of a country often preserves truths that might otherwise be forgotten and round the crow many proverbs and tales have gathered. So we have “Jamaica turkey fly high” and “Ebery John Crow t’ink him pickney white.” A newly-hatched crow resembles those large white powder puffs of a former generation. As it matures, the down is replaced by black feathers…

The author recounted a sighting of a pure white John Crow in Stewart Town (which Wendy Lee has seen regularly in the area, along with partly white ones). According to the book, the white bird got preference when feeding on carrion and was called the “parson” or “Headman John Crow” locally. Fascinating!

So, perhaps we could regard the much-maligned Turkey Vulture in a new light. It is performing a useful service for us humans. We want to continue seeing it gliding above us. And we want to see it continue nesting in the ancient fossil reef that is the Puerto Bueno Mountain…for generations to come.

All hail the mighty Turkey Vulture! Respect due.

Did you know that there are some very rare white and partially white John Crows in Jamaica? Here is one, not far from Puerto Bueno, where the photographer (Wendy Lee) saw a totally white and a black and white one very recently in a large flock of John Crows, right over Puerto Bueno Mountain, Bengal, St. Ann.

Finally, here’s a little poem – in a comment by Kenneth George Dill on Facebook – which I really love:

John Crow, how much mightier are you than I

As I watch you soar in infinite sky

Fearing not the pinion of the earth

Your wings give you freedom of another birth

I love you who move about in time and space

Laughing at the folly of the human race,

Who deem you naught but a scavenger

Knowing not… that you are in truth a messenger

Huge thanks to Wendy Lee for helping me with this post!


2 thoughts on “The Birds of Puerto Bueno, Jamaica: Including the First Bird to be Protected by Law

  1. Thank you for this wonderful article. It contains information that is important and rarely shared. The description of the John Crow’s role in the eco-system is greatly under-estimated and under-valued by the general populace. One small point came to mind though, as a child growing up in West Rural St Andrew, we saw John Crows nesting regularly in coconut or palm trees and could even hear the sounds of the young ‘chicklings’ after they were hatched. Yes, they were protected, and we would very rarely use our sling-shots to try to shoot them or scare them away. It was also thought to be bad-luck to shoot one of these birds. They make a very important contribution to our lives and culture, as noted in folk-songs and poetry. We should protect them.

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind comments. I was greatly helped by my friend Wendy Lee, who is one of those at the forefront of the campaign to save Puerto Bueno from limestone quarrying. It’s interesting that they nested in coconut/palms when you were a child! I will have to ask my birding colleagues about this, but I understood them to nest on rocks or on the ground at the foot of large trees. I agree that the John Crow is so under-appreciated! Like you as a child, I don’t know any Jamaican who would try to harm them. They do play such an important role in our culture, its true. I should talk about that in another blog post! Thank you again for your thoughts!

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