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Preserving Wild Parrot Populations

By Pat Leonard
Yellow-headed Parrot management pet trade
Photographs by Eduardo Iñigo-Elias.

The Yellow-headed Parrot is arguably the most popular pet parrot with its brilliant green, red, and yellow feathers and its glib tongue. But that popularity has also been its downfall. Native to Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, the wild population of this species plummeted from 70,000 birds in the mid-1970s to an estimated 2,000 today, though an exact number is still to be determined.

“This species has been the number one bird for the illegal pet trade,” says Eduardo Iñigo-Elias, coordinator of the Neotropical Conservation Initiative at the Lab. “Thousands of them were taken from the wild. They have little fear of humans and are easy to catch.” A key step in protecting the wild parrots is to find out where they are and how many are left—a process now underway in Mexico.

Wild Yellow-headed Parrots exist in only three places in Mexico: the north­east (about 500 birds), the Pacific coast (there may be only one breeding pair left), and the Tres Marias Island Biosphere Reserve, located 60 miles off the west-central coast (unknown population). Iñigo-Elias jumped at the invitation to join a team surveying flora and fauna on the Tres Marias, a joint project of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the Mexican government’s National Institute of Ecology.

The islands are covered primarily with tropical dry forest—green during the rainy season, desert-dry when the rains stop and temperatures climb to more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Only the largest island, María Madre, is inhabited by people and is the site of a federal prison—the Mexican Alcatraz. All four islands in the group are now protected—home to endemic species of plants, birds, reptiles, and mammals. The seas around the islands teem with whales, dolphins, sea turtles, fish, and seabirds.

Three survey trips have taken place already, and two more are planned. Three of the four islands have been explored by the survey team. According to preliminary estimates, roughly 300 Yellow-headed Parrots live on the islands the team visited. Of those, Iñigo-Elias says there are perhaps 100 breeding pairs (200 birds). In addition to the endangered parrot, the team is surveying the islands’ population of Mexican Parrotlets, a species not yet endangered but considered vulnerable.

“After the surveys are complete, we’ll report to the Mexican government and offer recommendations on how to manage the Yellow-headed Parrots,” says Iñigo-Elias. “We’ll also provide a collection of audio recordings for environmental education projects, not only to train biologists but to encourage people to be proud of their island birds and to understand that it is important to protect them and not support the illegal bird trade.” Sound recordings of the island birds will also become part of the Lab’s Macaulay Library archive.

Despite rough seas, heat, humidity, and detours by the survey team’s gun-toting Navy escorts to chase down fishermen poaching in protected waters, Iñigo-Elias says, “I love being in the field rather than an office. It’s just a spectacular privilege to be in places like that!”

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library

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