Pink Checklist replace: parrots of the Americas in peril

As one of BirdLife’s Red List researchers, Claudia Hermes has the inside track on the avian trends that are cause for most concern. And there’s one group in particular that keeps her awake at night. “I’m really worried about parrots in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Judging by the 2020 IUCN Red List update, her concern is warranted. A further four parrot species from the new world tropics were uplisted to a higher threat category in the update, meaning that now, over half the region’s parrots are classified as Near Threatened, globally threatened or extinct – a proportion double the global figure. And this may represent only the tip of the iceberg: Hermes already envisages that further parrots from the Caribbean and Central America will be uplisted next year.

This year’s uplisted quartet – comprised of two amazons, a macaw and a parakeet –  are essentially facing the same set of threats, which Hermes describes as a combination of habitat loss and direct persecution or trade. But their uplisting also reflects improved understanding of avian ecology. Ornithologists recently recalculated generation lengths for all birds, prompting BirdLife’s Red List team to re-evaluate species against the IUCN criterion governing the rate of population decline across three generations. “For many amazons and macaws, generations transpire to be longer than we understood,” says Hermes, “so a species’ population decline over, say, a revised duration of 50 years, is more profound than when we thought three generation lengths were a decade shorter.”

This impact of this ostensibly technical point is particularly perturbing when combined with new information revealing populations are lower than assumed. This is the case for Great Green Macaw Ara ambiguus, now uplisted to Critically Endangered. Alarm bells were already ringing following calculations of a 34% decline over three generations in Ecuador and a 99% crash over the same period in Nicaragua/Costa Rica – the consequence of pressures such as habitat disturbance, including selective logging of a favoured nest tree, and trade. But the gamechanger was a shocking revelation that numbers in the presumed stronghold of Colombia were just one-tenth of the previous reckoning.

The second newly Critically Endangered parrot is a relative new kid on the block. Lilacine Amazon Amazona lilacina appeared on conservationists’ radar as recently as 2014, when BirdLife judged the Ecuadorian endemic to be a different species from the widespread Red-lored Amazon Amazona autumnalis. Although surveys over the past couple of years suggest there are more Lilacine Amazons than thought, data also suggest that numbers have declined by at least 80% over three generations. The main threat is illegal hunting for domestic pets: research published in 2020 predicts that the majority of local communities keep captive Lilacine Amazons. The problem is all too common. Sadly, the birds’ beauty – and human weakness for colourful creatures – is intrinsic to their downfall.

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This is also true of Orange-fronted Parakeet Eupsittula canicularis, which occurs from Mexico to Costa Rica. One of Central America’s most abundant parrots, with an ability to adapt to deforestation and even tolerate urban areas, this wasn’t an obvious candidate for globally threatened status. Awareness of the scale of trapping changed all that. An estimated 570,000 individuals were illegally captured across the 25 years to 2019, particularly during the first half of that period. This suggested a population decline of up to 41% over three generations. Little wonder that our researchers catapulted this attractive parrot from Least Concern to Vulnerable.

At the margin, trade also affects Black-billed Amazon Amazona agilis. Endemic to Jamaica, this parrot has been uplisted from Vulnerable to Endangered. The impact of poaching has exacerbated the principal pressures of habitat destruction (notably a bauxite-mining concession), predation by invasive species such as rats and snakes, and, above all, climate change. “Climate change messes up everything”, says Hermes. “As an example, changes in rainfall patterns affect fruiting trees, which makes it harder for breeding adults to find food.” Sometimes this forces birds closer to villages – which heightens the risk of being captured. 

For species imperilled by the climate crisis, it can be hard to know what tangible conservation actions to suggest. Tentative proposals for Black-billed Amazon include protecting forest, implementing environmental education programmes and captive breeding. For other uplisted species, the way forward is a little clearer. In pockets of its range, Great Green Macaw is being helped – by Costa Rica’s Macaw Recovery Network, Colombia’s Fundación ProAves and Ecuador’s Fundación Jocotoco – through research, habitat protection, community engagement and reintroductions. More such action is needed, and more widely.

Meanwhile, thanks to enforcement of Mexican legislation banning trade, the deleterious impact of harvesting wild Orange-fronted Parakeets seems to be a thing of the past. Nevertheless, it will take years to ascertain whether the moratorium is sufficient to return the species to a lower category of threat. For Lilacine Amazon, the solution – alongside initiatives such as the reserve expansion with which the American Bird Conservancy (ABC, a BirdLife Partner in the US) is supporting Fundación Jocotoco – may lie in helping local communities convert their love of parrots into efforts to keep wild birds safe.

This all seems a lot to hope for particularly when, as Hermes admits, “time is running out to find solutions for these species”. But experience from BirdLife’s Americas Partnership and beyond suggests that positivity in justifiable.

Artificial nest boxes have been key to the Blue-throated Macaw's recovery © Asociación Armonía

In Bolivia, BirdLife Partner Asociación Armonía – again with ABC backing – has long strived to rescue remnant populations of the Critically Endangered Blue-throated Macaw Ara glaucogularis (Critically Endangered). Armonía’s Barba Azul Nature Reserve protects seasonally important foraging and roosting sites for over a hundred macaws. In November 2020, the Bolivian government declared the protected area a ‘Private Natural Heritage Reserve’ – the first designated anywhere in the country in nine years.

“Our next challenge is to get macaws breeding there, so we protect their entire lifecycle”, says Tjalle Boorsma, Armonía’s Conservation Programme Director.  There are strong grounds for hope: at Armonía’s Laney Rickman reserve, a nest-box programme has fledged 93 birds since 2005. Just as excitingly, Armonía’s discovered three previously unknown Blue-throated Macaw breeding site during a 2020 survey of remote savannah grasslands. The resulting moderate population increase, to 312–455 birds, is building confidence in a sustained recovery.

As well as Blue-throated Macaw and Lilacine Amazon, Dan Lebbin (ABC’s vice-president for Threatened Species) says that twelve globally threatened or Near Threatened parrots have been the focus of targeted ABC conservation projects and programmes across Latin America and the Caribbean. These include helping Fundação Biodiversitas protect the most important colony of Lear’s Macaw Anodorhynchus leari. Thanks to conservation efforts, this Brazilian endemic recovered sufficiently to be downlisted from Critically Endangered to Endangered in 2009.

Roughly 80 other species have benefited from habitat protection across ABC and partners’ reserve network, including those of BirdLife Partners SAVE Brasil, Bahamas National Trust and Grupo Jaragua (BirdLife in the Dominican Republic). In 2019, ABC also established the Parrot Conservation Alliance, bringing together animal-rescue sanctuaries with environmental organisations to support wild-parrot conservation programmes in Latin America and the Caribbean. ABC’s experience, Lebbin says, “proves that conservation can reverse parrot declines”.

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Lubbin could equally have lauded another ABC-supported parrot success story brightening the latest Red List update. The fifth New World parrot to feature does so, thrillingly, because it has been downlisted. No longer is Yellow-eared Parrot Ognorhynchus icterotis Endangered, a remarkable feat given that barely 20 years ago, just 81 birds were left, all in Colombia. Subsequent work, led by Fundación ProAves (whose logo features the parrot) and Loro Parque Foundation, has returned spectacular dividends. By 2019, the parrot’s population had reached 2,601 birds, prompting its new categorisation as Vulnerable. For a species deemed Critically Endangered until 2010, this is an extraordinary turnaround.

Habitat protection and restoration, plus a ban on using wax palms in Palm Sunday celebrations and a successful public-awareness campaign, have all contributed to preventing this parrot’s extinction. Paul Salaman, who initiated the project, is particularly proud of the strength of community involvement, saying that “the dire plight of the Yellow-eared Parrot unified a nation to work collaboratively to save the species”. So resounding is the turn-around in this parrot’s fortunes that Salaman believes the Yellow-eared Parrot’s recovery “offers hope that we can make a difference even in the face of great adversity.”

However unsettled she may be about the parlous status of New World parrots, Salaman’s sentiment is one that Claudia Hermes can share. “As long as we react and get things done, all is not yet lost. There remains hope.”

 

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