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Making a Difference

Ten Thousand Free Field Guides

by Laura Erickson

Cuba is a tropical country and a stopping point for many North American bird species—from the standpoint of birdlife, it has lots to offer. But when many Cubans come across unfamiliar birds, they can have a hard time figuring out what they’re seeing. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Conservation Science program recently took part in an effort to change this, by producing and then donating 10,250 copies of a new edition of the Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba to the Cuban people. The work was done in conjunction with Cornell University Press and with generous support from the Macarthur Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Reynolds Foundation.

The shipment containing the brand-new, Spanish-language field guide arrived in Cuba in April. Every copy from this printing will be provided at no cost to every elementary and high school library in Cuba, the staff of the Cuban protected areas system, and biology programs at several universities across the country. It’s the first large-scale free distribution of a bird field guide in the Western Hemisphere.

Cornell University Press

The guide was originally published in 2000 by Cornell University Press. Its authors are foremost authorities on Cuban birds: Orlando H. Garrido, who founded the Cuban Academy of Science and the National Museum of Natural History of Cuba, and who described 129 new species and subspecies in his career; Arturo Kirkconnell, Bird Curator at the National Museum of Natural History of Cuba; and Román Compañy, who was a brilliant illustrator of Cuban wildlife until his death in 2001. Eduardo Iñigo-Elias, coordinator of the Cornell Lab’s Neotropical Conservation Initiative, worked to update the guide’s text, maps, illustrations, and taxonomy, and negotiated the hurdles in shipping the free books to Cuba. The new edition was painstakingly edited by Heidi Steinmetz Lovette of Cornell University Press.

Cuba, one of the United States’ closest neighbors, harbors some 232 species listed under the U.S. Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, including 33 species of concern to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and five listed under the Endangered Species Act. Cuba is home to 370 bird species, including 22 endemic species and 17 listed as globally endangered by IUCN-BirdLife International.

In addition to Aves de Cuba, containers sent to Cuba included science journals from 1960–2010 and 3,000 audio guides. These materials promote understanding and appreciation of birds among Cubans, consistent with the Lab’s mission to interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.