Bolivia is home to 12 species of macaws, and most are thriving. Not among these healthy parrot populations, however, is the Critically Endangered Blue-throated macaw (Ara glaucogularis), with less than 15 breeding pairs known to be nesting in a remote, widely dispersed range in the north of the country.
Years of intensive effort using traditional conservation methods to protect wild Blue-throated macaw from predators, raise chick survival rates, and engage local human communities have not significantly boosted the wild population nor have new breeding pairs been discovered.
Rethinking a long-held view that captive-bred parrots released to the wild have little hope of surviving there, James Gilardi is working with local and international partners to select and prepare captive, pet trade and confiscated macaws to join their wild counterparts.
Although there haven’t been any releases of captive Blue-throated macaw as yet, Gilardi is confident that wild populations of the species can recover if the captive birds are carefully chosen, health screened, and fully prepared for the wild.
After relentless trapping for the pet trade reduced wild Blue-throated macaw populations to mere rumors, the bird was rediscovered in 1992 in a remote area of Bolivia. Endemic only to this nation, Ara glaucogularis lives in hard-to-reach places that are flooded much of the year. Unable to easily survey similar locales, conservationists could only hope that more of the Critically Endangered parrots existed than the hundred or so they originally found.
An intensive regimen to protect the remaining birds was put into action by local NGOs —including the Conservación de Loros de Bolivia, and the Research Center for Biodiversity and the Environment — along with academic collaborators and the World Parrot Trust.
However, more than a decade of hands-on conservation yielded frustrating results, with no significant population increase or recruitment of new breeding pairs.
At that point the World Parrot Trust, under the guidance of executive director Jamie Gilardi, began to consider the captive population they had been managing for more than 15 years in a different light. Under the right conditions, perhaps some of these birds could be readied for release to the wild. If captive-reared bird releases were successful, then parrots rescued from the illegal trade might also help create a bit of bird “restitution.”
Now Gilardi and his colleagues hope to add more breeding pairs back into Bolivia’s Beni Department, in the northeast corner of the country, by carefully selecting healthy birds in captivity that have retained enough wild ways to be returned to the un-caged life.
“In the past, the thinking was that the only real way to achieve honest-to-goodness conservation was to protect wild birds where they are, and then hope they can recover with human assistance or on their own,” says Gilardi.
But the Blue-throated macaw is in too precarious a position not to explore every possible option to rebuild its population. With likely less than 300 birds scattered across a vast and inhospitable terrain, waiting for nature to take its course might allow the species to slip into extinction. Researchers hope to release a first test group of captive Blue-throated macaws as soon as possible.
Mongabay: What made you look beyond the usual approaches to protecting wild populations?
Gilardi: When we started out, about 16 years ago, it seemed to us — as had been the case for so many other parrot conservation efforts — that if we just left the birds alone and protected them from people and other predators, then they’d bounce back pretty quickly. Maybe not as fast as rabbits or sea turtles, but certainly over the course of years, we expected the population to stabilize and then start growing.
But with the Blue-throated macaws, we were working with such a small group, and every year some new thing became a big problem [threatening the species with extinction]. One year it was other parrots harassing the nesting pairs. Another year it was predation from small mammals. By the time we got to year ten, we realized there still weren’t that many birds and new recruits weren’t joining the breeding population.
So we slowly came around to the idea that we had to switch our approach because these birds are not only very small in number, they are also spread broadly across the landscape, making it even harder for them to form breeding pairs. These and other factors were apparently preventing the expected recovery.
At that point, [we saw] the captive population we’d been managing for 15 plus years as something that might be essential to the species recovery. So even though our top priority is protecting the wild birds and supporting breeding pairs to help them produce as many chicks as possible every year, we’re also focused on getting captive birds back to Bolivia, breeding them, and releasing those progeny back to selected areas of the wild.
Mongabay: When will you start releasing the birds?
Gilardi: As soon as possible.
One thing about eradicating a species from its former range, is there’s a lot of room for them to return. But lots of things have to be sorted out before any releases happen.
Initially we would want to create a “proof of concept” release site where we build up the number of birds at a site that’s working for them; a place where they’re finding each other, breeding, and raising chicks.
Once we do that, we can start augmenting the existing groups of birds out there, putting two nests here, three over there… until hopefully we’d create a situation where there’s enough population density that the birds can find each other. We’d like all these birds to be in contact with each other, exchanging genes and see the whole population growing. If we got to that point, we’d be well on our way to success.
But first, we need to get the [captive] birds back to Bolivia. Although some birds are in the country, many [confiscated and pet trade birds] are elsewhere: about 50 Blue-throated macaws are in Florida, 30 are in Canada, maybe two dozen are in England, and another two dozen are in the Middle East.
The birds need to be biologically ready to go, too. Besides getting acclimated to a new place, screened for diseases, and oriented to wild foods, the macaws need to be in good physical condition to fly. Most people don’t realize how a bird’s physical condition plummets in captivity. A wild parrot can fly 40 to 50 kilometers [about 25 to 31 miles] without stopping, but a bird that’s been caged, even for just a few months, would have a hard time flying even one kilometer. It takes time to get the birds to develop that condition, so when they do go out they can fly with confidence, land appropriately, and aren’t completely exhausted by flying 100 meters.
Mongabay: What made you consider returning confiscated and pet trade birds back to the wild?
Gilardi: Up until about ten years ago, the dogma was that parrots are really hard to release back into the wild, and if you do they’re never going to eat properly and survive.
However, apart from the work we do with Critically Endangered species like the Blue-throated macaw, we also work really hard to stop the wild bird trade. One result of enforcement is that large groups of birds get confiscated and many of those birds are common species.
Over time, we learned how to prepare these birds for release [back into the wild]. We tracked them and found they were doing well, so we realized it’s not that hard to do, so long as you get the details right. For example, we’ve successfully reintroduced African grey parrots in Uganda, and Scarlet and Great-green Macaws in Central America.
Recently, the Ara Project in Costa Rica discovered that Great-green macaws (Ara ambiguus) released over the past few years currently have at least eight active nests. That’s more than 25 percent of the total number of nests for the species in the entire country.
In the case of the Blue-throated macaw, we’re eager to apply this reintegration method that we’ve developed as a result of our work on stopping the wild bird trade. Now we feel very comfortable releasing birds that were kept in captivity, whether they were confiscated or captive bred. That’s why we’re confident that releasing Blue-throated macaws can be a very productive way to get more birds back into the wild so their population recovery can take place.
We kind of got here sideways; it wasn’t intentional, but we ended up developing a lot of confidence in this new tool. For us, it’s really exciting because it opens up a ton of possibilities, not only for getting the job done, but also for allowing all kinds of partnerships — with the London Zoo, Africa Lion Safari in Canada, Natural Encounters Conservation Fund based in the U.S., and other NGO’s all around the world.
Compared to ten years ago, we view the whole conservation landscape differently [and more positively]. We never dreamed we’d be able to put lots of these birds back into the wild. Now we can.
Seychelles Black Parrot – Every year in the palm forests of Praslin, the second-largest island on the archipelago of Seychelles, a group of birds is monitored very closely during their breeding and hatching seasons.
This shy greyish-brown parrot – perhaps overenthusiastically named as the Seychelles Black Parrot (Coracopsis barklyi) – cannot be found anywhere else on Earth.
The Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF), a public trust which manages the unique endemic palm forest reserve of the Vallée de Mai on Praslin Island, painstakingly searches for black parrot nests and monitors them on a weekly basis throughout the season to count the number of eggs produced and monitor the hatching and fledgling stages.
This year 17 chicks hatched from monitored nests, according to SIF’s communication officer, Lynsey Rimbault.
“In the three seasons between 2012 and 2015, more than 20 chicks from monitored nests hatched per season but the 2015/2016 season only had two chicks hatch from monitored nests,” she told SNA.
Surrounded by predators
With only a few hundred of these birds left in the wild, the black parrot is listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List. Threatened by invasive bird species such as the Indian Mynah and the green ring-necked parakeet, black parrot chicks are in constant danger from other aggressive birds, feral cats, rats and even invasive ants. Even the endemic trees in which they need to nest are under threat – especially the coco de mer palm trees which have often been the victims of poaching for their famous coco de mer nuts.
Rimbault says it is surprisingly difficult to confirm predation attempts at nests because usually very little evidence is found to link potential predators to the disappearance of eggs or chicks.
“We suspect that there have been cases of rat predation this season although there has not been any direct evidence of this,” she said. “In one nest, yellow crazy ants were observed with two healthy chicks, and when the nest was monitored the following week the chicks were dead. We can’t be sure but it’s possible that these invasive ants contributed to the death of the chicks.”
When the monitored chicks reached around 25 days old in January this year, the SIF team fitted coloured rings to their legs to allow identification and monitoring after they leave the nest. Each chick gets its own unique colour combination and number.
The tiny fluffy white chicks that survive the perilous hatching phase slowly lose their baby feathers and after around 45 days, once their dark brown plumage has grown in, they take their first precarious flight out of the nest.
Although none of the rings from this year’s fledged chicks have thus far been confirmed from re-sightings, SIF has reported several observations of adult parrots feeding smaller parrots, which are thought to be the fledglings.
Fond Ferdinand – a new hope for the Seychelles Black Parrot
In addition to the successful nests this year in the Vallée de Mai and the neighbouring Praslin National Park, at least one nest is known to have been successful in another private reserve on Praslin Island called Fond Ferdinand, where an un-ringed fledgling was spotted in Fond Ferdinand.
“We only monitor parts of Fond Ferdinand and only a few nests per season so we don’t have data to give a complete answer on [the population size],” said Rimbault. “In general, there seems to be good breeding activity in Fond Ferdinand, but the nests appear to be more spread out than in the denser coco de mer forest of the Vallée de Mai.”
The sighting in Fond Ferdinand is encouraging news for the conservationists, as it was thought the success rate of nests in Fond Ferdinand was low this season, with only one chick from the known nests surviving to fledging stage. SIF believes the parrots might have been more successful than initially thought in this reserve and are considering undertaking more extensive searches next season to find undiscovered nesting cavities.
For now though, SIF is satisfied that the Seychelles black parrot has clawed through another hard breeding season.
“Our monitoring suggests that the population is stable at the moment and there is no cause for concern,” Rimbault told SNA. “The most recent population estimate was conducted in 2010-11 and the total population was estimated to be between 550 and 900 birds. This is still thought to be the case.
Orange-Bellied Parrot’s population has been declining for years, but this year it has reached its lowest number so far. The Orange-Bellied Parrot is Australia’s most endangered parrot species with only 21 breeding birds left in the wild. Just three female orange-bellied parrots survive in the wild, with 11 males also surviving the winter migration from Victoria to Tasmania.
This week researchers have mobilised in a last-ditch bit to save this parrot species from extinction.
Dr Stojanovic and his team — which has also been working with swift parrot populations — will be flown into Melaleuca on Tuesday to begin intensive intervention to ensure wild nestlings remain as healthy as possible.
A crowd-funding campaign will begin tomorrow in an effort to raise the $60,000 needed to conduct the intervention program. To support the crowd-funding campaign, go to visit the fundraising page
Male-bright grass green crown and upper parts; deep blue wide frontal band, bordered above by light blue line; green sides of head, turning to yellow on face and breast; green/yellow abdomen, orange patch in centre; bright yellow undertail coverts and underside of tail; purple/blue outer secondary coverts; deep green central upper tail feathers. Bill grey/black. Eye dark brown. Female-in general duller than male; scattering of dull green feathers on upper parts; frontal band slightly paler; centre of abdomen has less orange; pale underwing stripe sometimes present.
In general duller than female, but upper parts quite green; faint blue edging to feathers in frontal area, replacing frontal band; minimal orange on abdomen; pale underwing stripe present. Bill yellow/brown.
Parrot Species Threat in Southern Africa.
As a result of the legal animal trade Southern African parrot species are under threat. This excludes poaching threat. There were around 18,000 protected species of wild plant and animal worth $340 million sold legally between 2005 and 2014.
At the top of the export list were live parrots. In 2005 the wild bird trade was at 50,000, and by 2014 it increased to over 300,000.
With 18 native parrot species in the SADC region, half have declining populations and three are globally threatened. The main exported species of parrot is the African Grey. This species is classified as vulnerable by the IUCN. The African Grey is a popular pet in the US, Europe, and Western Asia. Due to the increase in legal parrot trade the African Grey population is decreasing.
The director of the Africa conservation programme at the World Parrot Trust, Rowan Martin, finds the level of trade in wild-sourced grey parrots extremely worrying.
With the exportation of captive-bred birds increasing at an alarming rate it further stimulates the demand for pet grey parrots. Uninformed buyers thus purchase wild-caught parrots, because they are cheaper.
Furthermore the export of wild-caught parrots is being executed under the veil of captive-bred parrots.