There are approximately 400 species of Parrots in existence today. Unfortunately, Parrots are notable for having the highest number of threatened species of all non-passerine bird orders.
More than one quarter are threatened with extinction. In 2020 BirdLife International (the major bird conservation organisation) was more precise and stated that of 394 extant species of Parrots, 117 (29 %) were listed as threatened, according to the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).
The lives of individual Parrots in the wild and the continued existence of most Parrot species are severely negatively affected by human-induced threats such as climate change. Parrots are directly affected by habitat loss, shortage of nest sites, trapping for the pet trade and killing as crop pests or even for their feathers.
Of course, human over-population is the most serious cause of habitat loss, as tropical and subtropical forests, the habitats of most Parrot species, are destroyed to grow more food and to build more towns. Deforestation is a major cause of climate change which is already affecting everyone on this planet.
Information on these issues has become readily available to everyone. And so has the growing awareness of Parrots as highly intelligent, sentient creatures with emotions that can be compared with our own. These qualities, for birds in general, were denied, especially by scientists, until recently. Sadly, that is still true today in many areas of the world.
Parrots are a very special group of birds and extremely desirable to the human race, for several obvious reasons. At last, but too late for some species, in many (but not all countries) there are huge efforts to prevent further population declines and looming extinctions.
For some species it will be years before population increases are achieved. I relate the stories of some of these attempts, by many inspirational scientists and field workers, in my book Parrot Conservation, which was published in 2021.
Its 430 pages are already out of date for some species, for in the world of conservation, things can sometimes happen quickly or unexpectedly. So here I would like to bring you some of the good news stories.
Those of you who keep Pyrrhura Parakeets, such as the Green-cheeked, and the mutations such as Pineapple, know how readily these birds accept a nest-box and settle down to breed. Fortunately, the same is true of some species in the wild.
In the Andes, where some Pyrrhura species have very small ranges and have been severely affected by habitat loss and suitable nesting trees, the combination of the creation of reserves and the provision of nest-boxes has produced spectacular results. In Ecuador the NGO Fundacion Jocotoco was founded in 1998. In 1999 it set up a reserve, partly from abandoned cattle pasture, and started to reforest it.
The Buenaventura reserve has increased from only 187 hectares to 3,520 hectares. In 2002, only 60 El Oro Parakeets (Pyrrhura orcesi) were protected within the Buenaventura Reserve, and there was a shortage of nest sites.
In six years, from 2008 to 2014, due to the provision of nest boxes, the population had increased from 170-180 individuals to 300 to 400 within the reserve. In 2015 the first recorded fledging of young from some of the 60 nest-boxes outside the reserve took place Another 60 boxes had been erected within the reserve.
An excellent breeding season for the El Oro Parakeets occurred in 2020, with 114 Parakeets fledged from the nests. From the start of the nest-box programme to 2020, a remarkable total of 559 young successfully fledged from the artificial nests, including those outside the reserve. By 2020 the number within the reserve had increased to 240.
Habitat corridors linking reserves and habitat restoration are essential for the long-term survival of this Parakeet.
One of the most beautiful and one of the most persecuted Parakeets in South America is what we know as the Patagonian Conure. The nominate race from Argentina has been a much-loved pet and breeding bird for many aviculturists – mainly due to the appalling numbers trapped for export.
The larger Chilean subspecies, bloxami, has always been very rare in aviculture. It, too, was terribly persecuted in the past. These birds nest in cliffs or in ravines in hillsides. Fearless men would lower themselves on ropes down to nests and take out chicks, to kill for food. In more recent times the chicks were reared to sell as pets and to street musicians with barrel organs, as an added attraction.
Christian Boracic is director of Fauna Australia, part of the Catholic University of Chile. In 1986 he saw Burrowing Parrots, as they are also called, in the Rio de los Cipreses National Park in central Chile.
He started to study them and made counts over a period and found only 217. Only fragmented populations survived in Chile and they had become extinct in some areas. In 1986 the area became a reserve; 6,000 cattle were gradually removed from the area and in 1972 a law was brought in forbidding the killing of the Parakeets.
However, little enforcement occurred and by 1982 the Parakeet was in a critical situation, so the national forest organisation CONAF developed its first conservation plan and declared the bird Endangered. In 1996 it became illegal to capture it or to take eggs and chicks.
Gradually the natural vegetation returned, providing food for the Burrowing Parrots. By 2008 the number of colonies had increased to six. Now there are 15 colonies in the reserve and two outside it.
The great news is that according to the most recent CONAF count, there are 4,478 Burrowing Parrots! Laws and their enforcement and habitat protection have been the key to saving this handsome Parakeet.
Increasingly, habitat restoration is contributing to increasing populations of some endangered Parrots. In New Zealand Department of Conservation personnel have been pioneers, working for years to clear small islands of introduced species, mammals and plants, and have achieved remarkable successes.
These islands are then used as safe sanctuaries for endangered birds and other wildlife.
There is no better example worldwide than that of the Kakapo (Strigops habroptila) which survives only on offshore island sanctuaries. The strangest Parrot on earth, fossil evidence indicates that the Kakapo diverged from the Kea/Kaka lineage about 60–80 million years ago.
It took humans little more than a century, mainly from 1845 when a Kakapo was found for the first time by a European, to bring it to the brink of extinction. It has so many extraordinary features. The world’s heaviest surviving Parrot, and the only flightless one, males weigh up to 3.7kg (8lb) and females up to 2kg (4.5lb).
It has a facial disc of sensory bristle-like feathers from which arose the now obsolete name of Owl Parrot. When it walks, its body and head are held horizontally.
By the 1980s only a few birds had survived, all on Stewart Island where the survivors’ numbers were rapidly reduced by cats. The point came when it was believed the Kakapo was effectively extinct as no females were known.
Fortunately a few had survived. It was a tremendous battle, led by the Department of Conservation’s hero, the late Don Merton, to pull the species back from the brink of extinction. For years, volunteers have watched over every nest to prevent predation, removing eggs and chicks when necessary.
On April 14 2022 Deidre Vercoe – Department of Conservation Operations Manager, reported the remarkable – almost incredible -- total of 57 chicks alive. Most were with the females (males play no role in rearing young) on Anchor and Whenua Hou islands.
This good news was slightly diminished after the death of one breeding female from aspergillosis on Anchor Island. Even more intensive management than usual was necessary. Nest monitoring frequency was increased to every four days (previously from 7-14 days depending on nest status).
Blood samples were taken from all chicks on Anchor Island and several nesting mothers where possible, to help detect infection. Laryngeal swabs were taken on all chicks on Anchor and Whenua Hou islands, for lateral flow tests, which are being trialled for aspergillus detection.
Nest attendance by females and their activity levels were monitored very closely. Changes in nest attendance patterns, combined with concerning blood results, led to the transfer of two other nesting mothers from Anchor for CT scans.
One was cleared of aspergillosis and returned to her location but the other was severely affected and in a critical condition. She was showing some improvement at Auckland Zoo. A third nesting mother, who had been sent to Auckland Zoo for CT scanning, after her chick failed to gain weight, was cleared of aspergillosis and returned to Anchor.
The actions gave confidence that this was unlikely to be a widespread aspergillosis outbreak. Despite these worries, the record number of chicks is cause for celebration. Numbers hatched in some recent years have been as follows:
This century started with only 62 Kakapo in existence (exact numbers known as all birds are monitored on the reserves) and the population gradually increased until it was hit hard by an aspergillus outbreak in 2019. The population figures were as follows:
The year 2022 will hopefully break all the best records. Congratulations are due to the dedicated staff and volunteers who watch over every individual of the most iconic Parrot in existence.
Andrew Digby, Dept of Conservation
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