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In the great Zapata Swamp, both birds and people covet these "sticks with punk hairdos"
Carajo! Lost again. Trudging through the oppressive heat in Cuba's Zapata Swamp, I search for the Cuban parrot nest I discovered the day before in the stump of a dead sabal palm. The distinctive trees provide nesting habitat for the parrots, but I have been using them as guideposts to help me navigate through this flat woodland. Sabal palms look like punk hairdos on sticks, and their odd shapes and the lichen patterns on their trunks make each one unique. Now I am wandering in circles and my heart sinks as I realize why: My guideposts from 24 hours ago are missing.
I have come to the Zapata Swamp with my colleague, ornithologist Arturo Kirkconnell of the National Museum of Natural History in Havana, to study an endangered woodpecker, Fernandina's flicker, and to photograph birds native to Cuba. In the process, I have been introduced to this quintessential Cuban ecosystem and its remarkable community of animals. The sabal palm, the keystone species of this ecosystem, provides shelter and food for a wide array of birds and lizards. If something happens to the palm, the entire ecosystem may be at risk--including all the creatures I've come to see.
I won't get to see my parrot nest--someone has toppled the nest stump. All the neighboring sabal palm stumps have been knocked down, too. I stoop to retrieve a lone white eggshell, the only remnants of the parrot nest. This is clearly the work of parrot poachers.
Toppled or denuded palms, I'm learning, are an increasingly common sight here--and not just because of poachers. Campesino (peasant) families--with average annual incomes of less than $100--clear groves for farming and cut the surrounding trees for firewood …