Banding together for Cuban bird research with Daniela Ventura
Daniela Ventura is a Caribbean wildlife biologist and bird bander based in Havana, Cuba. Fascinated by nature from a young age, Daniela started studying biology at the University of Havana as soon as she finished high school. She continues to work there since her graduation as both a biology lecturer and bird research scientist.
Daniela discusses some of the challenges involved in pursuing a career of biology in Cuba as well as some of her top tips for getting involved in bird banding and landing a job to work with wildlife! Daniela is an advocate for acknowledging your privilege wherever your starting point. This is important for all conservationists and in this interview, she inspires us to do this by staying humble, grounded and grateful.
Daniela (pronouns: she/her) always loved animals and had a passion for nature which was encouraged from a young age by her parents. She explains…
“When I was young, we’d walk past the School of Biology at the University of Havana (which is very near my house), and I always said one day I’m going to study there. People looked at me thinking that’s kids saying kid’s stuff but when I finished high school, I started studying biology there.”
Although not everyone has such a clear vision from such a young age, Daniela has continued to fall in love with all aspects of nature, especially the birds – and gather momentum on her pursuit of this career path. After being inspired by a natural history course in Havana, Daniela learnt to identify the local birds and how the species that were present changed throughout the year…
“It was an eye opener for me, and I started to see how many cool birds you could see in the middle of the city – migratory birds from north America in the winter and resident birds throughout the year. So, I was introduced to birding and fell in love with the birds very early in my life.”
After presenting her bird observations and surveys at the BirdsCaribbean International Conference held in Cuba in 2017, Daniela learnt more about ornithology (the study of birds) in Cuba and the Caribbean and was introduced to a local bird banding project.
“I met Alina Pérez who led the fall migration bird banding in Western Cuba and there I learned the basics and it was an incredible experience – from then on, I knew that was what I wanted to do for my bird research – to use bird banding as a tool to learn about Cuban birds.”
After she graduated in 2020, Daniela worked as a biology lecturer for the undergraduate classes and a teacher in the Bird Ecology group at the University of Havana.
“I’m now teaching ecology to undergrads which is quite a challenge because I feel I am still too young to teach ecology to the future biologists, so I have to push down and fight imposter syndrome there.”
As part of her job, Daniela is also working on research projects and is starting a permanent banding station to monitor the birds of Havana year-round in the National Botanical Garden in Havana. As part of her research involvement, Daniela also works on projects with Birds Caribbean including the Caribbean Waterbird Census and the Caribbean Bird Endemic Festival and everything else related broadly with bird research, conservation, and outreach.
Working in Cuba as a biologist
Delivering important outcomes for wildlife and working on conservation projects around the world can be an exciting prospect – especially with opportunities to work in new ecosystems and with exotic wildlife.
However, while researching placements in different countries it can be helpful to look into the social, political and historical aspects of that area to consider what else will be part of the experience (other than the environment itself). Daniela paints us a picture of some of the rewards and frustrations surrounding working as a biologist in Cuba.
Although every place in the world is unique and has its quirks, Cuba in particular can be a very peculiar place in the world, sometimes even for the people living there! Daniela explains…
“I’ll try my best to explain it. But even if I can’t explain myself too well, that’s an opportunity for you all to come and experience Cuba for yourself!”
Working on conservation projects in Cuba can be challenging for many reasons. Firstly, the country faces economic, social, and scientific hardships post-colonialism that affect many under-developed, Latin American countries throughout the region.
Moreover, Daniela shares, “Cuba has a historic economic blockade of 60 years from the US affecting access to technologies, resources, funds and opportunities including travel.”
With many young Cubans and trained professionals leaving the country, the country is facing huge knowledge gaps and lacking people to assume the vacancies in roles left behind.
“You have a lot on your shoulders because the few people remaining must face all the knowledge gaps we have in baseline population trends for any species. I am referring mainly to birds as that’s what I do but, in many fields, there are gaps in knowledge of natural history.”
One main reason for this is that most funding for ecological research is mostly from external sources which means the research objectives and interests align with external people and organisations.
“For this reason, we know a little more about migratory species and almost nothing about our endemic or resident birds.”
This creates parachute projects where external researchers come in to gather data and don’t involve local colleagues like Daniela in the further scientific process. Daniela explains…
“Parachute scientists come to do research, but they often treat us as field technicians rather than colleagues and then don’t involve us in the rest of the scientific process. This, combined with visa issues for travel, limits access to learning and training opportunities including internships and conferences.”
Daniela’s supervisors, as well as over 100 Latin American authors are co-writing a paper that speaks to this issue: Neotropical ornithology: Reckoning with historical assumptions, removing systemic barriers, and reimagining the future.
“That can give you a very good idea of what I’m saying and the regional perspective of the problems facing ecology in Latin America.”
Bird banding in the Caribbean
Birds are powerful sentients of change, and they can tell us a lot if we study how they respond and cope with human disturbances and changes in their environment. This study is not just important for understanding bird ecology and behaviour, but also uncovering how we can best conserve them and the ecosystems they rely on.
Bird banding is a process of marking individuals with a small metal leg-band to facilitate recognition on recapture. Long-term bird banding projects especially are a powerful tool for understanding population trends survival rates and in the hand, you can assess age, sex, breeding status and disease prevalence as well as the patterns and timings of movement. Bird banding is also an amazing opportunity for public outreach. Daniela explains…
“Showing a bird so close to a person, I think, can have profound impacts in how people understand nature and understand science in general.”
“I say that from a personal perspective. The first time I held a bird in my hand, I felt it was an immense privilege, one that changed my view of nature in a way that nothing else had done before.”
To provide an opportunity for more people to get involved in bird banding, Daniela is starting a long-term monitoring station in Havana’s Botanical Gardens and a volunteer group to staff it. Although illegal bird trapping and hunting is prevalent across Cuba, Daniela is an advocate for encouraging more people to get involved as she has seen first-hand the positive impact it can have for engaging them in nature and conservation:
“I think it would be great for getting the public involved in science observation. I see that with my closer friends and my family – how they change their perspective when I talk to them of what I do – and imagine that multiplied!”
Bird banding occurs all over the world so wherever you are, there is likely a station or group nearby. Above all, Daniela suggests that everyone can do bird banding!
“You don’t have to be a biologist of have a science degree to get involved with bird banding. And since the beginning, I have welcomed every person who wants to learn and follow the ethics.”
Advice for your journey in conservation
Daniela’s main advice for anyone pursuing a career in wildlife conservation is to acknowledge your privilege, wherever your starting point. She explains,
“I feel lucky to have a supporting family and a job that keeps me from wanting to leave the country. I must also thank the people that paved the road before me – especially Martín Acosta and Lourdes Mugic who are my supervisors and the founders of the ornithology group of the University of Havana – and pioneers in ornithology in Cuba. I wouldn’t be here without them, at least not so quickly!”
“You have to be aware of that always because it will keep you humble, grounded and grateful so you don’t forget that it’s not only because of your merits that you are where you are, rather also thanks to the people who supported you and paved the road.”
Powerful advice from a passionate and motivated ornithologist!
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Author Profile | Susie Stockwell
Susie Stockwell (she/her) is a field ecologist, science communicator and creator of the blog and podcast, #itsawildlife, a platform to support people on their journey to work their dream job in wildlife science or conservation. Based on beautiful Menang country on the south coast of Western Australia, Susie is passionate about finding novel solutions for wildlife conservation and opening up the space to promote engagement and involvement for everyone interested in pursuing this career.