Becoming Cuenca

My Heart is Like a Singing Bird in Cuenca

Aug 1, 2023

“The sound of birds stops the noise in my mind.” ~Carly Simon

The legendary singer-songwriter and author Carly Simon would have absolutely no noise in her head if she were in Cuenca.

And two studies published last year in Scientific Reports concur with Simon. The peer-reviewed open-access scientific mega journal said that seeing or hearing birds could be good for our mental well-being.

Why am I talking about birds and your health in a blog about Cuenca?

A May 18th Washington Post article got me thinking about what it is like in Cuenca. And birds are a big part of this city.

And on my terrace.

Besides, I am trying to address what vloggers and fellow bloggers miss about life in this great city. I want to delve into what life is truly like in Cuenca. It goes beyond their tourist sights posts.

One thing not addressed by the vloggers and bloggers are the birds in this city and in all of Ecuador. Though Ecuador is only the size of Colorado, there are 1,656 confirmed species, of which eight are endemic to the mainland, and not surprising, 31 are endemic to the Galápagos.

Ecuador is one of the world’s leading destinations for birdwatchers. Go online and you will find several special tour packages for birdwatching in Ecuador. Colombia and Peru have similar number of birds, but given Ecuador is much smaller, its concentration of birdlife is significantly higher than its neighbors.

Given its tremendous presence, it should come as no surprise that the Andean Condor is considered a national symbol for not just Ecuador, but also Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Peru.

Above is the flag of Ecuador. Note the Andean Condor has a prominent position. Since ancient times, the Andean Condor has been an important part of mythology and traditions of this region.

The Andean Condor is a massive bird as it can weigh up to 15 kg. / 33 pounds. Its body size is approximately 1.2 meters / 4 feet when fully grown, and the wingspan can reach a massive 3.2 meters / 10.5 feet.

When an Andean Condor is gliding high up on the thermals, it is unmatched in grace and elegance. They often fly hundreds of meters overhead. There is a reason the Andean Condor is called the King of the Andes.

Ecuador has long been regarded as the planet’s hummingbird epicenter. It has been said there are over 132 species, which represents approximately 40 percent of the world’s hummingbird species. I have seen numbers as high as 156 hummingbird species for Ecuador.

To put those numbers into perspective, the entire continent of North America has only 20 species of hummingbirds. North America is 9,449,000 square miles with 20 species, and Ecuador is 99,706 square miles with 132+ species.

The most common species in Cuenca is the Sparkling Violetear. It is a large species of hummingbird that is very vocal and territorial. Joanna and I have witnessed numerous aerial dogfights, especially from the very Sparkling Violetear in my photo above (Yes, they do rest at times).

This hummingbird wants our 900+ square foot terrace, with two hummingbird feeders, all for itself. Note its confidence as it sits perched on the feeder, daring anyone to approach. I have had it sass me that I am too near his feeder.

The Sparkling Violetear is quite frequently seen in a wide range of semi-open urban habitats, including gardens and parks. It is found in Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Peru, and Venezuela. Sparkling Violetears live in a large part of the Andes mountains.

It has been said the Sparkling Violetear can fly at a very high speed, however, the exact speed has not been recorded yet. Experts say it is probably the fastest of the hummingbirds with their highest speed estimated at 90 miles / 145 kilometer per hour. Joanna and I believe it as it takes no time for our beautiful friends to zoom out of our terrace gardens.

For those who love hummingbirds, you need to come to Ecuador. It will take little time to be around one of these chatty, loud, beautiful birds. They are everywhere.

The Great Thrush is a large bird. And it is certainly very large for a thrush. Both Joanna and I have never seen such a large Thrush (Welcome to Ecuador. Everything’s bigger.).

It seems we get visits more from the male Great Thrush, which is dull grey with bright yellow eye-ring (inner margin of the eyelids of a bird) and yellow legs and bill. The female Great Thrush is browner and lacks the yellow eye-ring.

We call the Great Thrushes, “Boinkers.” They are a stitch to watch in our terrace garden. Every day, we put out a plate of diced bananas, and our gray-feathered friends get very excited.

From our neighbor’s tile rooftop, they will perch themselves, anticipating a sweet and delicious reward. I now know the sound they make when they announce to the “Thrush World” that I have put out more banana. Seriously! Soon after the announcement, it seems the whole gang is here.

Other times, they are on our four-meters high wall “boinking” around to swoop on down for their meals. Boinking is the sound I have given them for their hopping about. It seems to be the right sound effect for them as the Great Thrush goes Boink-Boink-Boink along the top of the wall or in our garden.

Quite frequently, we have Eared Doves sitting on our trellis. It is a species of dove found widely in South America, especially in Ecuador.

They are certainly on our terrace all of the time as they love the cracked corn, we put out for them. And our lush garden is wonderful for them to chill out.

Eared Doves are found in patchy woodland and up to an elevation of 4,400 meters in parts of the Andes (Cuenca is a 2,560 meters MSL). They usually avoid tropical forests.

The sounds they make are similar to the Mourning Dove. Its voice is very deep and can be heard at all times of the day… a muted, mournful, “Whoo’oOO… hu… hu… hu.”

I am pretty sure this is a baby Golden Grosbeak (I am still working on identifying birds in Ecuador). He was chilling out in a tree along the Tomebamba River. It is also known as Southern Yellow Grosbeak.

This beautiful bird is found in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. The Golden Grosbeak’s natural habitats are subtropical or tropical dry forests, subtropical or tropical moist montane forests, subtropical or tropical dry shrubland. And certainly, in the heart of Cuenca.

All of this gets us back to the songs and sounds of the birds. Birder Christian Cooper (known for being the victim of an infamous encounter with a white woman in New York’s Central Park) wrote in the New York Times, “One of the things I love most about birding is how it shifts your perceptions, adding layers of meaning and brokering connections — between sounds and seasons, across far-flung places and between who we are as people and a wild world that both transcends and embraces us. In my life, it has been a window into the wondrous, and I feel excited and grateful to get to share that wonder with others.”

Being around birds is associated with better mental health. And that is so easy to do in Cuenca despite being an urban setting.

In one of the studies mentioned in Scientific Reports, British researchers asked about 1,300 participants to collect information about their environment and well-being.

Analyzing the data, the researchers found a significant positive association between seeing or hearing birds and improved mental well-being.

What is really interesting to note is the benefits persisted well beyond the time with the birds. If a study participant reported seeing or hearing birds at one point, their mental well-being was higher, on average, hours later.

I can vouch for that as I still remember seeing an Oilbird in a tree at Parque Calderón, in historic El Centro. As I started down the south side of Parque Calderón, there were about three dozen people gathered. A police officer on a motorcycle pulled up to see what was going on.

And Nosy Ned (Yours Truly) followed in right behind the police officer. I quickly deduced the crowd was there for something up above them. It was something seven or eight meters above them, in a tree.

Investigating the situation, I quickly noticed a hawk-size bird on one of the branches. It was not moving at first, so I wondered if it was real. I say that as it was the middle of the day.

Upon further investigation, I figured out it was real as it is an Oilbird. Locally known as the Guácharo, they are nocturnal birds that live throughout the Sierra (mountains) of Ecuador.

With strong vision, Oilbirds navigate by emitting high-pitched clicking sounds that are audible to humans. They listen for echoes produced by nearby objects. Considered to be frugivores, the species feeds on fruits, particularly camphor, incense, tropical laurel, and palm fruits.

They hunt for food during the night, traveling as far as 75 miles away from their caves. Note I said caves. The biggest population of Oilbirds in Ecuador is at Cueva de Los Tayos, which is about 45 miles east of Cuenca. This Oilbird was in a tree, in the heart of El Centro.

For the rest of that day, I was higher than a kite. Like the people in that study, my mental well-being was higher hours after observing the cool sleeping bird.

If you are wondering, the Oilbird is named for the young birds, which are so fat that indigenous people and early settlers once collected and rendered them down to oil for lighting and cooking.

Cooper said, “Transported, even just in my backyard, I connected to something deep within myself. The youthful myopia that registered only my woes and the limitations of my life fell away for a little while. Suddenly, I could breathe again.”

Joanna and I feel the same with all of the birds on our terrace, in our terrace garden, and nearby, be it our neighbor’s roof or a tree next to our pergola.

Birds appear to be a specific source of healing benefits. They provide a way to connect us to nature.

As I finish writing this post, the sun is setting, and a single bird is singing loudly on our terrace. To me, this happy bird is exclaiming, “It has been another great day in Cuenca!” Indeed, it has.

According to research at the University of Exeter, the British Trust for Ornithology and the University of Queensland, people living in neighborhoods with more birds, and trees are less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and stress. Every neighborhood in Cuenca has these healthy qualities.

Jill Adams wrote an article for Audubon Magazine entitled, “Birding With Benefits.” The science journalist talks about nature’s ability to improve our mental health.

“One leading theory is that nature can restore our attention and counter the mental fatigue that today’s urban and sensory-filled environments cause,” Adams said. “A second is that it can reduce stress; blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones all drop with time in nature, studies show.”

The New York City birdwatcher concluded his excellent New York Times piece by exclaiming, “I believe that birds in the wild are meant to inspire such passions in us all. The wonders they offer are always available, freely given, to anyone willing to partake. All we have to do is step outside, look, and listen.

And that is easily done in Cuenca.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigo.

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.