The Conservation of South American Parrots

Rosemary Low

The neotropics, that is, South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean islands, has a wealth of parrot species, more than any other continent, and some of the most beautiful in the world. Unfortunately, habitat destruction is pushing some to the brink of extinction and has affected the abundance of the majority.

There are 165 species (Forshaw, 2010) of neotropical parrots, one of which is  extinct in the wild.  The others are assessed as follows:

Critically Endangered (50% chance of extinction in near future):   5

Endangered        (20%               “                “       in next 20 years):  19

Vulnerable          (10%           “                “         in next 100 years):  27.

A large proportion of parrot species live in rainforests, surrounding the Equator. Once, two and a half billion hectares (six billion acres) of virtually unbroken forest cloaked this area. Currently, less than half remains. The neotropics hold the greatest amount,  approximately (1.37 million acres or  half a million hectares), but the published figures are contradictory.

Thirty years ago, when much more forest survived, parrot conservation projects were almost unknown. Most of the earliest efforts focussed on the endangered Amazon parrots of the Caribbean islands, partly because the impact of growing human populations in a small area made their decline obvious. My interest in conserving parrots dates back to the 1980s when I started to raise funds for the magnificent Imperial Parrot on the Caribbean island of Dominica (pronounced Dom-in-ika -- not to be confused with the Dominican Republic).

In other parts of the tropics many other parrot species were declining but there was little interest in parrot conservation despite the fact that trapping and export was occurring on a very large and previously unknown scale. Many populations of macaws and Amazon were suffering catastrophic declines, some of which have never recovered.

Fortunately, extraordinary progress has been made since then with the foundation of organisations such as Loro Parque Fundacion,  Parrots International, and the World Parrot Trust.  Problems that  have been addressed include the provision of artificial nest-boxes, planting of saplings for future nest sites and food, and local education programmes to stop trapping of adults and poaching of chicks. This has been possible  due to the recent growth of non-governmental conservation organisations in South America, especially in Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil. In addition, private conservation initiatives are increasing.

Note that all the parrot species in the neotropics are unique to that continent. To mention a few, there are 16 species of macaws, approximately 75 species of parakeets and 30 species of Amazona parrots.

Mexico has 22 species of parrots, six of which are found only in that country, and three more with very small ranges outside Mexico. Under Mexican Environmental Law, formerly six species were classified as Endangered; in 2010, 11 species were put on the Endangered list and 90% are in a risk category. See the article Parrot Saviours of Mexico.

The Yellow-naped Amazon (Amazona auropalliata) is found in Mexico, and throughout Central America. In Nicaragua it survives in only a few small areas along the Pacific slope and coast.  Forest fragments are surrounded by agriculture, ranching and tourism developments.


Yellow-naped Amazon

Photograph © Rosemary Low

This Amazon  is a flagship species for Paso Pacifico, a non-profit organization that works with local communities in the Paso del Istmo to restore forest habitat. Since 2008 it has carried out programmes to monitor the Yellow-naped Amazon, nesting and adult populations.  In 2012 it launched a pilot project -- placing artificial nest-boxes near recently lost nesting sites. An incentive programme was started to pay local community members (many of them poachers) for committing to protect a nest. US$10  was paid for each nest inscribed into the  programme plus $40 for each young Amazon that fledged. There was also a sling-shot for binocular exchange. It was believed that fewer than fifty Yellow-naped Amazons remained in south-western Nicaragua.

Central America has become a disaster area for the Scarlet Macaw (Appendix I of CITES since 1985). See the article entitled “The Scarlet Macaw in Central America”.  This noisy and conspicuous macaw is known to everyone in Central America. Indeed, throughout the world it is almost a symbol of the tropics. In contrast is a small parakeet that was not even known to exist until 1979, the Azuero Conure (Pyrrhura eisenmanni). Found only in a remote part of central Panama, in the Azuero Peninsula, it is confined to the Cerro Hoya National Park (32,557 hectares) and its margins. 

For millennia it has been protected by the mountains which make the area almost impenetrable, unlike the rest of Panama where cattle ranching has been the driving force in deforestation. Between 1990 and 2010, Panama lost 14% of its forest cover, or more than half a million hectares. Shown here is one of the first photographs of the Azuero Conure, taken in 2010 by Kees Groenendijk.  At the edge of the national park, he discovered that the conures visited cultivated fig trees for about five weeks every year.


Azuero Parakeets feeding on figs.

Photograph © Kees Groenendijk

Regrettably for the wildlife, there are few area of the neotropics which have not been explored, followed by cultivation.   One of the most rare and endangered parrots in the whole of South America is another Pyrrhura, the Grey-breasted Conure (Pyrrhura griseipectus). It is  found only in the Serra de Baturite, Ceará state, eastern Brazil, an isolated mountain range. Its forested habitat continues to be destroyed (only 13% survives) and to be replaced by coffee and other plantations. Also, young are removed from nests and adults are trapped for pets. Until the 1960s they were seen in large flocks and shot when they attacked crops. Now probably only about 300 survive.


Grey-breasted Conures

Photograph © Steve Brookes

A conservation project (of the Brazilian NGO Aquasis commenced in 2007) but there is a reluctance by landowners to allow access by project workers. Also, bees take over nests, including nest-boxes provided by Aquasis. There is a shortage of natural nest sites and in one locality the  conures nest in cliffs. A conservation education programme is helping to protect them.

In Brazil, deforestation of the Amazon region has probably  received more attention than anywhere else worldwide. The loss of large nesting trees due to selective logging has serious consequences as parrots  must nest in sites more accessible to predators -- if they can find nest sites at all.

During the 1980s the Brazilian government  encouraged settlers to clear land, telling them it was their patriotic duty. From 1994 to 2004 an estimated 20,000 km²  (an area half the size of Switzerland) was lost annually. Then came a change in attitude when the government proclaimed it would reduce deforestation by 80% by 2020. The figures for 2011 showed that during the previous six  years the rate had declined by 78% on 2004. A number of organisations are now working to conserve the 75-80% of the Amazon rainforest that has survived.

The most threatened rainforest in South America, a global biodiversity hotspot, with approximately one in 12 of all species on the planet, is  the Atlantic coastal forest. Known as Mata Atlantica, it is  only 48km wide and located mainly in Brazil. Eighty per cent of Brazil’s endemic birds are found here, including several parrots, all of which are endangered. Originally it covered 1.23 million km² but now only about 7% exists, mainly in small, degraded patches and 80%  in fragments of less than half a square kilometre.

One of the parrots endemic to this area is the Red-tailed (Amazona brasiliensis) which suffers the killing of adults for food, trapping and theft of chicks from the nest, and habitat destruction, for timber and to build homes for the wealthy. Its nesting tree, the guanandi, is felled for building houses and boats. The coastal wetlands, its main habitat,  have been converted to grow rice and other grains and to ranch water buffalo.  Buffalo browse on small trees, such as Erythrina, which are important food sources.

Fortunately, various measures to protect this parrot since 1994 have proved successful and by 2006 the total population was estimated at 6,600 individuals, perhaps double that of 20 years previously.

Supported by major organisations such as Loro Parque Fundacion, World Parrot Trust and the Nature Conservancy, actions taken include installation of nests made from PVC pipes, environmental education activities, including preventing the theft of chicks from the nest, and teaching and selling items of  craft, relating to the parrot. Their products even reached Europe where the Amazon puppets were sold in zoo gift shops after one German director ordered several thousand. Each one represented two months’ pay for the maker, thus bringing economic benefit to the region. All these measures have proved so successful that the threat status of this species has been down-graded from Endangered to Vulnerable.

Another Amazon parrot of the Atlantic forest, found in humid forest and in the Rio Grande do Sul region, is the Vinaceous (Amazona vinacea). Closely associated with forests of Parana pine (Araucaria angustifolia), which is also in danger of extinction, the seeds are a very important food source for this parrot.


The global population has probably fallen below 2,500 mature individuals. In the early 1980s, Paraguay was its stronghold but now all remaining subpopulations have declined dramatically.  During 1639 days of fieldwork from 1997 to 2006, a search was made throughout the western part of its range in Argentina and Paraguay. The parrots had survived in only a few sites in north-eastern Paraguay and central Misiones (Argentina). In Misiones Araucaria forest that  extended over 2,000km² in 1960, had been reduced to two patches totalling 5 km² (2 sq miles) by 1988.  It was estimated that the minimum remaining populations consisted of 220 individuals in Paraguay and 203 in Argentina.

In Brazil, this Amazon is now close to extinction in the states of Espiríto Santo, Bahiá and Rio de Janeiro. Trapping to supply the bird trade is a serious problem, with over 95% of nests being reportedly robbed at some sites. In some areas, these Amazons are shot as crop pests. In Argentina education is carried out to try to stop the theft of chicks from nests. Otherwise probably no conservation action is occurring. It is hard to protect this species because it is nomadic outside of the breeding season.

In contrast, the parrots of the Caribbean  cannot be nomadic because their ranges are so small. They include the St Lucia Parrot (Amazona versicolor), from the island of the same name which was once entirely covered in rainforest. By 1949 more than half of the forest had been destroyed. Confined to a forested area of only 103km², it was declining rapidly due to hunting and trapping.

In 1975 a captive breeding programme was commenced at Jersey Zoo in the Channel Islands; this proved to be the wrong approach. Few parrots were reared. An intensive education programme commenced by Paul Butler. In the 1980s he proved that education, legislation and forest protection are the key to maintaining populations.  On St Lucia the large population increase brings a new problem.  The forest is not large enough to hold the current population and the parrots are foraging in cultivated areas where, despite the highly successful education programme, parrots could be persecuted in the future if they eat crops.

 St Lucia Parrot Central Rainforest Reserve
  Photographs © Rosemary Low

In 2009 the first ever point count took place indicating that the population had increased to at least 1,750 parrots. Furthermore, the range in the forests of St Lucia have increased from 66km² in the early 1980s to 116km² in 2009.

On Puerto Rico lives Amazona vittata whose total population fell to approximately 20 birds in 1968, the year that the US Fish and Wildlife Service started its conservation programme. By 1972 only 14 birds were known to exist. Once widespread over Puerto Rico, it is now confined to 0.25% of its former range.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service have spent millions of dollars to save it from extinction. There are two captive breeding sites on the island. One in the Luquillo forest since 1972 and one at Rio Abajo that commenced in 1993, with a total of about 275 captive birds. In 2000 reintroduction of captive-bred birds commenced but the wild population does not increase, probably due to the poor quality of the habitat and the hurricanes that periodically hit the island. By 1996 there were 48 birds in the wild but this figure has not increased. Perhaps releases on another island in the region should be considered.

The Andes

The tropical Andes region has been described as the richest and most diverse area on Earth in terms of biodiversity. It comprises less than one percent of the planet's land area, yet it contains more than a sixth of the world's plant life. The area spans one and a half million square kilometres (1,542,644 km2) from Panama and Venezuela to Argentina. The main causes of deforestation in the cloud forests are road building and agriculture; lower down mining, seasonal burning and oil exploration.

Colombia has extraordinary diversity: 1889 bird species -- probably the highest total in the world. One of the main causes of deforestation in Colombia’s Pacific region, which contains lush rainforests and most of the country’s natural resources, was the government’s plan (Plan Pacifico) to extract and export its natural resources. One hundred and sixty thousand hectares, which is about 2.2 percent of the total forest area, are destroyed each year for wood and paper or cleared for agro-industrial production of African oil palm.

Another major cause of deforestation in Colombia is the drugs war waged by the US and Colombian governments. More than 100,000 acres are deforested each year to grow coca, marijuana, and opium poppies. Growers of these illegal plants are forced up to the forests located in the Andes. Seventy three percent of the Andes, have been deforested. In 13 years ProAves have conserved a quarter of a million hectares of forest and acquired 20,000 hectares, thereby saving some of the most threatened parrots from extinction.

The Yellow-eared (Ognorhynchus icterotis) is a unique parrot, little known until recently (see the article “Yellow-eared Parrot -- conservation success story“).

I cannot conclude without mention of the Hyacinthine Macaw from Brazil, the world‘s largest parrot and arguably the most spectacular. There are three populations, mainly in Brazil. The macaw’s range has declined greatly due to habitat loss; also, during the 1980s thousands of Hyacinthine Macaws were trapped and exported, causing a dramatic  population decline.

Unlike most macaws, it occurs mainly in lightly wooded areas with palm trees, and in dry scrublands. In some areas it nests in cliff faces. It moves around searching for palm nuts. In 1990 The World Parrot Trust (formed in the previous year) launched its Hyacinth Fund. By 1993 it was helping to finance the important fieldwork of Nieva Guedes in the Pantanal in an area of 400,000 hectares where she worked with local landowners. The first artificial nest of Projecto Arara Azul was erected in 1995. The results in the Pantanal are remarkable. Since boxes have been available the number of breeding pairs has trebled.


Hyacinthine Macaws in the Pantanal, Brazil

Photograph © Rosemary Low

By 2007 Neiva Guedes indicated that the macaw was found on 47 ranches in Mato Grosso do Sul. This is in the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, flooded for seven months of the year. With her small team she had found and marked 346 nests in natural tree cavities  and 198 in nest-boxes. Pairs breed every two years because young spend 12 to 18 months with their parents.

Neiva Guedes had no experience of parrot conservation when she started to work with this macaw. There are some remarkable people working in the tropics to try to save the many parrots in danger of extinction. I have already mentioned Paul Butler who was a young graduate from a London college when he pioneered conservation education. Their ideas have been emulated throughout the neotropics.

There are also several remarkable individuals whose initiative and determination resulted in the foundation of organisations devoted entirely to parrot conservation. I must mention the late Mike Reynolds, who founded the World Parrot Trust in 1989, Wolfgang Kiessling who set up Loro Parque Fundacion in 1994 which donates more than $1 million dollars annually to this cause, and Mark Stafford of Parrots International which was founded in 2005.

 Wolfgang Kiessling Mike Reynolds  Mark Stafford
 Photograph © Loro Parque   Photographs © Rosemary Low

We need such inspirational people because most politicians value improving the economy above conservation, and most people are more interested in possessions, sport and computer games.  In his book on the Spix’s Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii), Tony Juniper wrote of  “the human propensity to regard the destruction of its own creations as tragic and immoral while the annihilation of creation raises hardly an eyebrow.”

Perhaps not until we have learned to value nature above possessions, art and human achievement, will there be hope for the millions of species now struggling against man for survival. 


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