Conserving the white-necked Picathartes in Ghana
The white necked Picathartes (Picathartes gymnocephalus), also known as the white-necked rock fowl, is among Africa's top five most endangered birds and listed as ‘vulnerable' by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This elusive, enigmatic bird provides an almost mythical, must-see challenge for many keen birders..
This is a striking bird, with black and white plumage, a bright yellow face and a bald head - a feature shared with the only other species in this genus - the grey-necked Picathartes. The white-necked rock fowl has a limited distribution in West Africa, found in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana. It had not been seen in Ghana since the 1960s and was thought to have become extinct in the country until 2003, when it was rediscovered. The species occurs in fragmented populations throughout its range and is threatened by loss and degradation of its rainforest habitat, hunting and human disturbance. Relatively little is known about this species, and basic scientific information is desperately needed to guide management and conservation efforts.
The Earthwatch project Conserving Threatened Birds of Ghana provides volunteers with a unique opportunity to work alongside the staff of the Ghanaian non-governmental organisation, the Nature Conservation Research Centre (NCRC), to carry out the first detailed ecological study of the white-necked rock fowl in south-western Ghana, and to engage in conservation education in the area. Volunteers take part in monitoring the cave nesting sites, and record the characteristics of the surrounding habitat.
The results from 2007 teams suggest there are 18 adult pairs in the study area, with a high proportion of incomplete nests (nests made from mud on the cave walls which they have started to build but not finished) in the 22 recorded colonies. John Mason, Executive Director of NCRC, says, "This is one of the locations within the rock fowl's global range which offers the best guarantee of a sighting. Joining this expedition is a fantastic opportunity for any serious birder."
Earthwatch has worked in partnership with the NCRC since 2000 to develop research and conservation projects which include and respect the local community and involve the development of community-based tourism as a key aim. In 1997 NCRC initiated discussions with village leaders on the creation of the Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary; the resulting sanctuary is owned and operated by an inclusive Sanctuary Management Board, comprising representatives of the 22 surrounding villages and non-official representatives of stakeholders including NCRC and the Ghana Tourist Board.
Earthwatch research teams collected data at the hippo reserve from 2000 to 2004, and NCRC continued to work with the communities to establish an eco¬tourism initiative which has improved livelihoods by creating jobs and stimulating improvements in local infrastructure, including six new water boreholes and two new schools. The outstanding success of the model at Wechiau has resulted in its application at five further sites, including Earthwatch projects researching Picathartes, the West African manatee, and cocoa and biodiversity.
Did you know?
Gerald Durrell's amusing search for the grey-necked rock fowl in Cameroon features in his popular books, The Bafut Beagles and A Zoo in my Luggage.
The white-necked rock fowl was the focus of the first Zoo Quest series in 1954. The intended presenter, Jack Lester, fell ill and a youthful David Attenborough stepped into the breach. The quest for Picathartes captured the public's imagination, and at the same time catapulted Sir David Attenborough into the limelight. View Sir David's interview about the first Zoo Quest at Wild Film History online.
What's in a name?
The white-necked rock-fowl has many common names in different languages, but (like all species on earth) has just one scientific name comprised of a generic name, Picathartes, the name of the genus, and a specific name, gymnocephalus, making the scientific name of this species Picathartes gymnocephalus. This name derives from the Latin words pica meaning ‘pied' (black and white) and cathartes - vulture, which refers to the bird's distinctive bald head. The specific name gymnocephalus also means ‘bald-headed'; so the scientific name alone tells us that this bird is black and white and bald!
Find out more
Learn more about the NCRC