Birdwatchers from around the world come to Ghana to see the strange White-necked Rockfowl.
All conservation plans in the region address the bird’s ecological needs.
By Rex Graham
Birders for decades have been making a pilgrimage to the hot, humid, bird-rich tropical forests of Ghana to see the bird’s yellowish head skin, with a sharply contrasting patch of black. The bird’s mostly black upper feathers contrast beautifully with white underparts.
The Rockfowl often hunts in pairs or small groups, hopping from branch to branch on or near the ground. It’s non-migratory, highly territorial and pugnacious.
The Rockfowl, like other birds, can’t pass up a rapidly advancing army ant column.
Ant-attending Rockfowl are thought to brandish their bright heads as a warning to ward off competition. Both sexes look alike and they get very upset when other birds attend army ants that they have claimed. They react aggressively to other birds that try to misappropriate insects, lizards and other food that flees from their ant phalanxes.
They physically attack if the trespassers don’t get the message.
Many species of Antbird sand Woodcreepers that attend ant swarms also have colored skin patches around their eyes. They inflate the skin patches to scare off competitors from attending the ant columns they have claimed.
The White-necked Rockfowl is officially a vulnerable species. It is protected by legislation in Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. In some areas where it’s not illegally hunted and the habitat is suitable, the Rockfowl is a common sight.
The entire West African population of White-necked Rockfowl is estimated to be 10,000 individual birds. The number is expected to fall 20% in 10 years. “Decreasing population estimates are due largely to declines in extent and quality of habitat,” according to The Handbook of the Birds of the World.
Biodiversity vs. Biofuels
Ghana’s export economy is based on gold, petroleum and cocoa beans. Unfortunately, some Ghana forests are being replaced by plants that produce oil-containing seeds that are processed into high-quality biofuels.
Many Ghanaian chiefs have cooperated with agricultural investors from Italy, Norway, Israel and Canada to cultivate the oil-rich Jatropha curcas in plantations. The drought-tolerant plant grows almost anywhere and its seeds contain 34% or more oil by weight. Unfortunately, the Jatropha oil is inedible and biofuel plantations can destroy traditional livelihoods.
“J. curcas has the ability to prevent deserti?cation and to improve the ecosystem function of marginal land,” according to a paper by Swiss and Indian researchers in the Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology. However, large scale production of biodiesel, even from edible oils, “may bring global imbalance to food supply and demand,” Brazilian researcher Nicolas Carels wrote in the journal Advances in Botanical Research.
Ghana is a progressive country. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is a citizen, and the country led the public health fight to end the Ebola Virus epidemic. Ecotourists coming to Ghana are advised to avoid areas of ongoing chieftaincy disputes. Travel with local guides is recommended. Information to travelers to Ghana is provided by the U.S. State Department (http://ghana.usembassy.gov/information_for_travelers.html).
I believe that the more we watch, photograph, protect and study White-necked Rockfowl, the better for the species, all birds, all wildlife and all humans.