As one of the BirdLife Red List researchers, Claudia Hermes has an insight into the bird trends that are cause for concern. And there is one group in particular that keeps them up at night. “I am very concerned about parrots in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
Judging by the IUCN 2020 Red List update, your concern is justified. Another four species of parrots from the New World tropics have been added to a higher threat category in the update, meaning that now more than half of the region’s parrots are classified as near threatened, globally threatened, or extinct – a percentage that’s double that like the global number. And this could only be the tip of the iceberg: Hermes is already planning to add more parrots from the Caribbean and Central America to the list next year.
This year’s uplist quartet – made up of two Amazons, a macaw, and a parakeet – face essentially the same threats that Hermes describes as a combination of habitat loss and direct pursuit or trade. But their listing also reflects a better understanding of avian ecology. Ornithologists recently recalculated generation lengths for all birds and prompted the BirdLife Red List team to reevaluate species using the IUCN criterion, which determines the rate of population decline over three generations. “For many Amazons and Macaws, generations seem longer than we understood,” says Hermes. “The population decline of a species over a revised period of 50 years, for example, is more profound than when we thought three generation lengths would be a decade shorter. “
Great Green Macaw, Copyright Andy Adcock, from the Surfbirds Galleries
The implications of this supposedly technical point are especially troubling when combined with new information suggesting that populations are lower than expected. Such is the case with Great Green Macaw Ara Ambiguus, which is now classified as critically endangered. According to calculations of a decline of 34% over three generations in Ecuador and a crash of 99% in the same period in Nicaragua / Costa Rica, alarm bells have already been ringing – the result of stresses such as disturbance of the habitat, including the selective deforestation of a preferred nest tree. and trade. But the Gamechanger was a shocking discovery that the numbers in the alleged Colombian stronghold were only a tenth of the previous settlement.
The second newly endangered parrot is a relatively new kid on the block. Lilacine Amazon Amazona lilacina didn’t appear on conservationists’ radar until 2014, when BirdLife judged the Ecuadorian endemic to be a different species from the widespread red-loving Amazon Amazona autumnalis. Although surveys in recent years suggest there are more lilac amazons than thought, the data also suggest that the numbers have declined by at least 80% over three generations. The main threat is illegal pet hunting: research from 2020 predicts the majority of local communities are holding Lilacine Amazons in captivity. The problem is all too common. Unfortunately, the beauty of birds – and human weakness for colorful creatures – is essential to their demise.
This also applies to the orange parakeet Eupsittula canicularis, which occurs from Mexico to Costa Rica. As one of the most abundant parrots in Central America with the ability to adapt to deforestation and even tolerate urban areas, it wasn’t an obvious candidate for globally threatened status. Awareness of the extent of trapping changed all of that. An estimated 570,000 people were illegally captured in the 25 years to 2019, particularly the first half of that period. This indicated a population decline of up to 41% over three generations. No wonder our researchers catapulted this attractive parrot from Least Concern to Vulnerable.
Marginally, the trade also affects Amazon Amazona agilis with a black bill. This parrot, endemic to Jamaica, was added to the list by Vulnerable to Endangered. The effects of poaching have exacerbated major pressures from habitat destruction (particularly a bauxite mining license), predators of invasive species such as rats and snakes, and most importantly, climate change. “Climate change is messing everything up,” says Hermes. “For example, changes in rainfall patterns affect fruit trees, making it more difficult for adult growers to find food.” Sometimes this forces birds closer to the villages – which increases the risk of capture.
For species threatened by the climate crisis, it can be difficult to know which specific protective measures are recommended. Preliminary proposals for Black-billed Amazon include protecting forests, implementing environmental education programs, and breeding in captivity. For other species that have been added to the list, the way forward is a little clearer. Great Green Macaw is supported through research, habitat protection, community engagement and reintroductions through the Macaw Recovery Network in Costa Rica, Fundación ProAves in Colombia, and Fundación Jocotoco in Ecuador. More and more action is required.
With enforcement of Mexican trade prohibition legislation, the harmful effects of harvesting wild orange-fronted parakeets seem to be a thing of the past. However, it will take years to see if the moratorium is enough to return the species to a lower threat category. For Lilacine Amazon, in addition to initiatives such as expanding the reserves that the American Bird Conservancy (ABC, a BirdLife partner in the US) is supporting the Fundación Jocotoco, the solution could be to help local communities develop their love for parrots in conservation efforts to transform wild birds safely.
All of this seems very hopeful, especially when, as Hermes admits, “time is running out to find solutions for these species”. However, the experience from BirdLife’s Americas Partnership and beyond suggests that a positive attitude is warranted.
In Bolivia, BirdLife partner Asociación Armonía – also with ABC support – has long been trying to save residual populations of the threatened blue-throated macaw Ara glaucogularis (critically endangered). The Barba Azul nature reserve in Armonia protects seasonally important foraging and resting areas for over a hundred macaws. In November 2020, the Bolivian government declared the reserve a “private nature reserve” – the first to have been designated across the country in nine years.
“Our next challenge is to breed macaws there so that we can protect their entire life cycle,” says Tjalle Boorsma, director of the Armonía Conservation Program. There are strong reasons for hope: A nesting box program has fled 93 birds in the Laney Rickman Reserve of Armonia since 2005. Equally exciting is that Armonía discovered three previously unknown breeding grounds for blue-throated macaws during an investigation into the remote savannah meadows in 2020. The resulting moderate increase in the population to 312 to 455 birds strengthens confidence in sustainable recovery.
Dan Lebbin (ABC’s Vice President for Endangered Species) says twelve parrots that are endangered or near-threatened worldwide have been the focus of targeted ABC conservation projects and programs in Latin America and the Caribbean, along with blue-throated macaws and Amazonian lilacs. This includes supporting the Fundação Biodiversitas in protecting the most important colony of Lear’s Ara Anodorhynchus leari. Thanks to conservation efforts, this endemic Brazilian recovered sufficiently to be downgraded from Critically Endangered to Endangered in 2009.
Around 80 other species have benefited from habitat protection across the ABC and partners’ reserve network, including those of BirdLife Partners SAVE Brasil, the Bahamas National Trust, and Grupo Jaragua (BirdLife in the Dominican Republic). In 2019, ABC also formed the Parrot Conservation Alliance, which brought wildlife sanctuaries together with environmental organizations to support programs to protect wild parrots in Latin America and the Caribbean. According to Lebbin, ABC’s experience proves that conservation can reverse the decline in parrots.
Lebbin could also have praised another ABC-backed parrot success story that brightens the latest Red List update. The fifth New World Parrot to be featured does so excitingly because it was added to the downlist. Yellow-headed parrot Ognorhynchus icterotis is no longer endangered, a remarkable achievement, since almost 20 years ago there were only 81 birds left in Colombia. Subsequent work, led by Fundación ProAves (whose logo shows the parrot) and the Loro Parque Foundation, has brought in spectacular dividends. By 2019, the parrot population had reached 2,601 birds, which led to its new classification as endangered. For a species considered critically endangered by 2010, this is an extraordinary turnaround.
Habitat protection and restoration, as well as a ban on the use of wax palms in Palm Sunday celebrations and a successful public awareness campaign have helped prevent this parrot from becoming extinct. Paul Salaman, who initiated the project, is particularly proud of the strength of the community’s commitment, saying that “the plight of the yellow-headed parrot united a nation to work together to save the species.” The turning point in the fate of this parrot is so great that Salaman believes that the recovery of the parrot with the yellow ears “offers hope that we can make a difference even in the face of great adversity”.
As unsettled as she may be about the poor status of the New World parrots, Salaman’s feeling is one that Claudia Hermes can share. “As long as we react and get things done, all is not lost. There remains hope. “