Imagine attending a modern scientific conference in Latin America, in a city founded long before Christopher Columbus was born. As long ago as the thirteenth century, Cusco, Peru, was the capital of the Incas, and it’s still a vibrant city that marries ancient Incan culture with modern life. In November, Cusco hosted more than a thousand ornithologists for the Ninth Neotropical Ornithological Congress. Every four years, these large meetings bring together the scientists who work in the tropical parts of the Western Hemisphere, known as the Neotropics— and this year I was thrilled to be reminded how professional ornithology is growing in the region.
As leader of the Cornell Lab’s Neotropical Research Initiative, and as a native Mexican biologist, I was inspired to see so many attendees from Latin America. I remember helping to organize the second congress in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1983, when I was an undergraduate. No more than 200 people attended, with only about 50 students. By 1999, in Monterrey, Mexico, attendance had more than doubled, and 200 students attended. Now, 12 years later, Cusco’s lecture halls held 1,050 people from 23 countries, twothirds of them students.
There are now more Latin American ornithologists than ever: half of the conference attendees hailed from Peru or Brazil. The United States ranked third in attendance, with Colombia, Argentina, and Mexico close behind. For a field in which local participation is so crucial, I found it encouraging to see Neotropical countries so well represented by professional ornithologists.
The dozen of us who attended from the Cornell Lab stayed busy giving presentations, building new partnerships, and meeting with colleagues. We demonstrated sound-recording techniques; met with conservation groups to discuss species such as Cerulean Warblers, Golden Swallows, and Hudsonian Godwits; sought experts to help with the Lab’s Neotropical Birds website; demonstrated the possibilities of eBird global data entry; and consulted with other scientists over a new analytical technique called occupancy modeling.
Thirty years ago, the challenges in tropical conservation involved learning what was around us. Most scientific papers were written in English. Today most Latin American countries have their own bird journals that are bilingual or trilingual. Our next challenge is to continue training local biologists so they can answer questions, bring about change, and inform others. With so many young ornithologists now at work, I gain confidence that tropical birds will continue to fly around the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu for centuries to come.
Originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of BirdScope.
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