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The view from one high point at Casa Beatrix, showing a sloping field with trees and ferns under a blue sky dotted with clouds

The Birdsong Challenge

One day, we drove to a farm across the valley from us in Videmonte, to go and visit the farmer who would end up selling us our goats. As we got out of the car, I was surprised to hear birds singing.

And I was surprised to be surprised by what I had always considered a normal part of “the soundtrack of nature”.

I remember saying to Francois, “Do you hear all those birds? I don’t think we have any at home, but is that even possible?”

Once home, we listened for it, but all we got was chirping crickets and miaowing cats.

We had 23 hectares of mostly unspoiled forest and a farm that had been abandoned for almost 15 years. Where were all the birds?

An unproven theory: Birds, victims of history

One day around this time, we were helping a friend transfer things from her Portuguese neighbor’s freezer to her new one. I came across a plastic bag which had a small, colorful bird inside.

Shocked, I asked about it. It turns out, the neighbor’s husband was a hunter.

I suspect that for years – keep in mind that Portugal only came out of a long dictatorship in 1974 – hunting wasn’t just a hobby, but an essential way to put food on the table.

This apparently translated to them shooting not just wild boar – the legal kind of hunting – but small birds and likely other targets like rabbits, too. And habits that blossomed during the dictatorship often continue as part of the culture unless there’s a good reason for them to change.

On our farm, it seemed likely that the hunters had gone a little overboard in their killing of birds, unintentionally decimating the population.

That may not have been the only factor at play. We noticed some broader ecological imbalances, too, perhaps stemming from using the land for agriculture and then abandoning it.

Our role as stewards of the land

Over the past almost four years, we’ve been busy.

Areas have been cleared of brush and brambles, and water reservoirs got built. We introduced free range chickens, ducks, and guinea fowl, brought in goats for a while, and also have donkeys, cats, and dogs. We started a vegetable garden, but also planted trees and herbs here and there, and we rerouted water through ponds and channels.

Our general philosophy is loosely inspired by permaculture as well as our vision of a year-round edible landscape. We try to balance out our ideals with being practical, learning by doing and adapting as we go.

The impact so far: the good, the great, the promising

All this nudged the ecosystem. It changed the existing balance, and so far I’d say for the better.

When we arrived on the land, the farm had been abandoned for 15 years after being used for productive agriculture including sheep. It felt like there was only one type of grass, and that it was much overdue for a haircut.

In the past four years, every trip around the sun has brought more diversity back onto our land:

  • wildflowers change every year and we keep discovering new kinds that appear with each passing season
  • butterflies are now one of myriad pollinators buzzing happily day in and day out
  • crickets chirp their heart out every summer
  • we’ve started spotting more bats and swallows not just in the area but flying around our land

And last but certainly not least, the birds are back, singing sometimes day and night.

From bird desert to a slice of song laden paradise

Our work is far from done, but seeing wildflowers and hearing birds sing their heart out day in and day out is encouraging and heartwarming.

We still want to set up bird houses or bird feeding stations, bat nesting boxes, owl nesting boxes, plant more trees and perennials, and so, so much more.

But we’ll be doing it to the soundtrack of a thriving ecosystem, and that makes all the difference.

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