Spotlight: Shorebird Hunting in Guyana

By Deborah Buehler

People catch shorebirds for many reasons; some for research and study, others as a supplemental food source. The Caribbean coast is rich in birdlife, and all along this coast, including the islands and the northern shores of South America, shorebirds have been hunted for food. This cultural tradition has gone on for centuries. For some people, it is a practical way to make ends meet, but others worry about whether the hunting affects shorebird populations. How many birds are currently being hunted? Are the numbers high enough to affect shorebirds populations?

These are big questions, and they cannot be answered in a single study. However, a first step is understanding the extent of shorebird hunting in any given location. Guyana is a country where shorebird hunting is legal and there are no limits on the number of birds that can be harvested. Though the country does have laws that protect its wild birds, the Wild Birds Protection Act focuses on resident species and does not provide protections for migratory shorebirds. What is not known is when and to what extent people exercise their right to hunt shorebirds and whether the hunting is intense enough to impact shorebird populations.

In this issue of Wader Study, Brad Andres and colleagues assess the current prevalence and magnitude of hunting and selling migratory shorebirds along the coast of Guyana.1 They also compare species composition and harvest levels to other jurisdictions in the Caribbean and northern South America to understand the larger context of shorebird hunting throughout the region.

Coastline of East Berbice, Guyana. (photo: Leon Moore)

Guyana is a tropical country located in South America between Venezuela and Suriname. Its coastal plain occupies only about 10% of the country’s area, yet 90% of its population lives there. A small portion of this population hunts shorebirds as part of the bounty the coast provides. The primary method for hunting shorebirds on the Guyanese coast is known locally as “shocking”, and the authors described its practitioners as “shockers”. As part of her 2005 Bachelor’s thesis research, Annalise Bayney confirmed the continued use of this method in the new millennium and provided a description of how shocking is conducted.2 A 12- to 15-meter length of stiff wire is attached to a short stick inserted into the sand or mud. As a flock of birds skims the surface of the shore, the wire is pulled taut horizontally, cutting into the flock. The tension of the wire kills the birds, sometimes removing appendages in the process.

Hunting using the “shocking” technique. A vertical stick is used to pull a horizontal wire taunt as birds take off from the mudflat. (photo: Leon Moore)

Andres and colleagues returned to the 55 sites that Bayney surveyed in her earlier study and added five additional sites, to document continued shorebird hunting over the last two decades. Between August–October 2017 and October–November 2018, they visited 60 sites. At each site, they assessed potential shorebird habitat (e.g., mudflats/sand flats versus mangroves) and, if the site was suitable, counted the number of shorebirds present and the species composition of the flocks. The researchers also searched for evidence of hunting. If they didn’t see hunting directly, they asked local community members about their knowledge of current hunting activity in the area.

The researchers returned in 2020, to focus on sites where they had documented hunting in 2017 and 2018. They visited sites every two weeks on Fridays and weekends between late August and early November. The choice of time of the week was intentional. Markets, where shorebirds might be sold, operate on weekends. During the 2020 field season, the researchers interviewed shorebird hunters at two sites and vendors at a local market. They used a questionnaire adapted from one used previously to interview shorebird harvesters in Brazil, French Guiana, and Suriname. All interviewees provided informed consent to be interviewed, remained anonymous, and were interviewed by Guyanese nationals.

To analyse and extrapolate the interview data, the researchers employed a statistical method – Bayesian hierarchical modelling – that can integrate observed data and uncertainty across several different levels of observation. This analysis allowed them to estimate the number of active hunting groups and the number of birds killed at the study sites on days when the researchers were not physically there to make observations.

Results indicated that only 28 of the 60 sites visited by the researchers still contained habitat suitable for shorebirds. Of the sites where suitable habitat was still present, the researchers focused on the 19 sites where the most shorebirds were found, to study species composition and temporal trends. They detected 18 species of shorebird. Small Calidris sandpipers made up 92.6% of all shorebirds counted and the majority of these were Semipalmated Sandpipers Calidris pusilla. Other species that made up more than 1% of the total count were Tringa sandpipers (mainly Lesser Yellowlegs T. flavipes) and Semipalmated Plovers Charadrius semipalmatus.

In terms of hunting, the shocking method was detected at six of the 60 sites visited in 2017–2018, and shooting, as an alternative method of hunting, was also observed at one of these six sites. The researchers also recorded shocking in an abandoned rice field, now used to farm shrimp, where flooded fields attract resting shorebirds during high tide. This site was not one of the six study sites where shocking was detected, but rather an additional and opportunistic observation, and the only site where shorebirds were hunted away from the shoreline. When surveying the markets, the researchers found shorebirds for sale at the Mon Repos and Port Mourant markets in 2017– 2018, with up to 1,000 shorebirds being sold on one occasion. In 2020, the researchers observed shocking on a regular basis at two sites and, at much lower levels than found in 2017–2018, at a third site. They also found shorebirds for sale at the Port Mourant market.

These results suggest that shorebird hunting decreased between the surveys done in 2005 and this current study. In Bayney’s 2005 study, hunting was recorded at 40 of 55 sites (73%) compared to only six of 60 (10%) of sites in 2017–2018. However, a large part of this decrease is likely due to the fact that the Guyanese coastline changed dramatically in the last decades, greatly decreasing the amount of suitable shorebird habitat. More than half (53%) of the sites visited in 2017–2018 no longer provided suitable habitat for shorebirds due to mangrove forestation, erosion, or sand deposition. What is relevant then, is the hunting recorded at sites where shorebird habitat was available, hence six of 28 sites (21%) in 2017–2018. Even taking this into account, there is still a decrease, and the authors point out that socio-economic or cultural factors beyond the scope of their study might have contributed. However, they warn that direct comparison across time is tenuous because survey methods differed between their study and Bayney’s. What they did say with certainty, is that shorebird hunting has not increased in Guyana in the last two decades.

In addition to shorebird counts and recording instances of hunting, the researchers interviewed 10 shockers in 2020. All of those interviewed said that they only harvested shorebirds during fall migration and used the shorebirds they killed for personal consumption. Some additionally said that they sold shorebirds directly to local restaurants or to other people in the community, but none said that they supplied shorebirds to commercial vendors at the Port Mourant market. Nevertheless, in 2020 the researchers found at least 13 species of shorebird for sale at Port Mourant.

Shorebirds for sale at the Port Mourant market. (photos: Leon Moore)

The species for sale reflected the composition of species found in the counts conducted along the coast. The birds for sale were mainly small Calidris sandpipers, but also larger species such as Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca, Black-bellied Plovers Pluvialis squatarola, and Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus. This makes sense since, as a hunting method, shocking is effective for small and large shorebirds alike.

Given that the shockers interviewed in 2020 did not sell shorebirds to the markets, yet the researchers found shorebirds for sale at the market in abundance, the field study clearly could not measure all instances of shorebird hunting or selling. Models, however, were able to extrapolate the information gathered during interviews and to estimate that approximately 37,000 shorebirds were harvested at two sites and sold in one market during the 2020 study period. Given the limited scale of the study in 2020, the total harvest along Guyana’s entire coast was undoubtedly greater.

The magnitude of harvest in Guyana is second only to Suriname and exceeds that of all Caribbean islands combined. 3 The lack of a national policy to regulate this harvest is a challenge to sustainable hunting in Guyana and ultimately throughout the region. This broader context is important because each country is a link in the chain that is a migrant’s journey. Migrating shorebirds are subject to the policies of all of the countries they visit, sequentially. Watts and Turin provided a synthesis of hunting policies across the Western Atlantic Flyway.4 Even if each country sets sustainable limits, the cumulative number of individuals killed along an entire migratory route – the collective harvest – might be too high.5

Andres and colleagues show that shorebird hunting in Guyana is significant and may account for a substantial portion of mortality from hunting in the Caribbean and northern South America. Laws that limit or ban shorebird hunting would help to sustain shorebird populations; however, people have reasons for hunting shorebirds. What would the social and financial consequences be for local people? Though the shocking method for hunting is lethal, the researchers found strings of live birds sold by vendors in the market. Those birds were likely netted – a non-lethal way of catching birds. Can hunting skills be repurposed in a way that saves birds, helps science, and still contributes to the livelihood of locals? This study does not answer these questions, and the authors acknowledge that more research is needed to understand the social aspects of shorebird hunting and its economic impact. Science builds knowledge, study after study, and for shorebird conservation to work, it must respect the needs of local hunters, vendors and conservationists.

  1. Andres, B.A., L. Moore, A.R. Cox, B. Frei & C. Roy. 2022. A preliminary assessment of shorebird harvest in coastal Guyana. Wader Study 129(1): 39–47.
  2. Bayney, A. 2005. The effect of birding on local and migrant waterfowl populations along the coast of Guyana. Bachelor’s Thesis, University of Guyana, Guyana.
  3. AFSI Harvest Working Group. 2020. Actions for the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative’s Shorebird Harvest Working Group 2020–2025. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Migratory Bird Program, Falls Church, VA, USA.
  4. Watts, B. D. & C. Turrin. 2016. Assessing Hunting Policies for Migratory Shorebirds throughout the Western Hemisphere. Wader Study 123(1): 6-15.
  5. Watts, B. D., E. T. Reed & C. Turrin. 2015. Estimating sustainable mortality limits for shorebirds using the Western Atlantic Flyway. Wader Study 122(1): 37–53.

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Featured image: Semipalmated Sandpiper, Nome – Alska June 2017. ©Mick Thompson/Eastside Audubon.