Many Miami environmental science graduate students take the Ecology Field Courses each year.
By Valerie Horobik, 05/19/05
There are approximately 352 species of parrots in the world, all classified in the Order Psittaciformes (Juniper and Parr 1998). The characteristics of the order include a characteristic bill shape, fleshy cere, and zygodactyl feet (Juniper and Parr 1998). Most parrots have a large head and short neck and legs, with a bill that is broad at the base with a chisel-like lower mandible and a curved upper mandible that comes to a sharp point at the end (Juniper and Parr 1998). While the fleshy cere of some species is feathered, it usually is not. Due to parrots’ zygodactyl feet, with two toes forward and two backward, they have an excellent grip and can climb well. The similarity in characteristics among parrots is such that most scientists agree that the entire order Psittaciformes should be classified as a single family – Psittacidae (Juniper and Parr 1998). However, while similarities within the order are great, similarities of parrots to other birds are not. Examining all other bird families, there are no groups that are similar enough to Psittacidae to confidently determine their ancestry (Juniper and Parr 1998). DNA analysis, one of the most advanced technologies, suggests that they do not have any close living relatives.
Their behavior is perhaps as interesting as their appearance. Parrots tend to be very social, roosting in groups and vocalizing loudly in the early morning hours. They often spend the day foraging in groups and interacting socially, before returning to their communal roosts with another bout of noisy vocalizations (Juniper and Parr 1998). The vast majority of parrot species reside in the tropics and subtropics, with 145 species found in the New World. Parrots typically reside in forested habitats, though there are exceptions. They usually do not migrate seasonally, though they may travel substantial distances to feed. Their diet consists mainly of plant parts, including seeds, fruit, flowers, nectar, pollen, buds, leaves, berries, nuts, and bark. Some parrots are generalists, while some specialize on particular diet items. Certain species include insects, larvae, or mineral deposits in their diets (Juniper and Parr 1998). Most parrot species are monogamous, strengthening pair bonds via feeding and preening one another. There is little sexual dimorphism in parrots, with the male and female being virtually identical in size and appearance. Most parrots nest in tree cavities, with some preferring a particular species or size of trees. Young are born helpless and are closely cared for by their parents.
Because of their habitat and nesting preferences as well as other, soon to be discussed factors, parrot species are in danger of extinction throughout the world. Psittacidae has the largest number of threatened species of any bird family, with 90 species at risk of extinction (Juniper and Parr 1998). Of these species, 44 of them are located in Latin America and the Caribbean, representing 31% of the parrot species in these areas (Juniper and Parr 1998). The imperilment of these birds can be explained, to a large degree, by three major threats: habitat loss, live bird trade, and hunting. Since many species prefer forest habitat, and often specific types of forests, the rapid loss of rainforest for agriculture and timber, has fragmented their habitat and, consequently, their populations. Fragmentation alters the vegetation community, including the available nesting sites and food types, while also causing direct disturbances. Of particular concern is the loss of nesting sites as some species require specific trees, some of which are becoming rare.
The second threat, live bird trade, has been a major contributor to the decline of parrot populations in the Neotropics. Since parrots are intelligent, beautiful animals, they are of high demand as pets throughout the world. From 1980 to 1992, over 247 species of parrot were present in the international trade. Of these, 156 species had over 1000 birds traded yearly, and some saw over 600,000 birds traded over those 12 years. These figures include only the legal trades, so the numbers are likely much higher. Some of the larger parrots produce, on average, only one surviving offspring every two years; therefore, this magnitude of trading can result in dramatic population declines. In addition, nesting sites are often destroyed in the process of capturing these birds. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), formed in 1975 is an international agreement among governments whose goal is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival (CITES 2005). CITES is composed of three appendices: appendix I (47 parrots included) contains organisms for which trade is banned except under the most controlled circumstances, appendix II contains organisms for which trade can proceed only according to declared quotas for sustainability, and appendix III contains organisms for which trade is subject to national-level control. Despite the attempt of CITES to control trade in parrots, among other organisms, illegal trade in these birds is still a significant threat, especially because many birds die while attempting to be smuggled.
The third major threat to parrot populations is hunting by humans. Parrots are typically hunted for three reasons: for food, for their feathers, or because they are eating crops. Parrots sometimes come into conflict with people over seeds and fruits; though there is no information on the actual extent of the crop damage they cause, they are often hunted for this reason. Additionally, some of the larger parrots are eaten, and some other species’ plumes have traditional uses. The combination of these factors leads to enough hunting to contribute to the imperilment of parrots. Additional, more minor factors, include climate – especially hurricanes – and introduced species that compete for nest sites or food.
Costa Rican Parrots
Costa Rica boasts an incredible diversity of birds in general at over 850 species (Infocostarica 2005)! Of these, 17 are species of parrot (Birding Club 2005). The parrots known to live in Costa Rica are the Great Green Macaw (Ara ambigua), Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao), Crimson-fronted parakeet (Aratinga finschi), Olive-throated parakeet (Aratinga nana), Orange-fronted parakeet (Aratinga canicularis), Brown-throated parakeet (Aratinga pertinax), Sulphur-winged parakeet (Pyrrhura hoffmanni), Barred parakeet (Bolborhynchus lineola), Orange-chinned parakeet (Brotogeris jugularis), Red-fronted parrotlet (Touit costaricensis), Brown-hooded parrot (Pionopsitta haematotis), Blue-headed parrot (Pionus menstruus), White-crowned parrot (Pionus senilis), White-fronted Amazon (Amazona albifrons), Yellow-cheeked Amazon (Amazona autumnalis), Yellow-naped Amazon (Amazona auropalliata), and Mealy Amazon (Amazona farinosa).
Of these parrots, three have special listings, indicating that they are threatened. The Great Green Macaw and Scarlet Macaw appear on CITES Appendix 1, indicating that trade in these birds is banned except for very special circumstances. In addition, the Great Green Macaw is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red list of 2001, as is the Red-fronted parrotlet (IUCN 2005). All other parrot species in Costa Rica are included on CITES Appendix II, affording them some protection from legal overexploitation. However, for the purposes of this paper, I will focus on the three aforementioned species that are considered at risk of extinction.
Great Green Macaw
The Costa Rican Great Green Macaw population has dropped to an estimated 30 breeding pairs mostly because of deforestation coupled with the effects of the pet trade (Ginsberg 2005). This bird depends on a specific species of tree – the Almendro (Dipteryx panamensis) – for nesting (World Parrot Trust 2002). They prefer the trees with at least a four meter diameter for nesting (Snyder et al. 2000). Because new technology has recently made logging this once difficult-to-process hardwood possible, these trees have been rapidly disappearing (Snyder et al. 2000). As a result, this parrot’s habitat is isolated in the northeastern corner of the country, reduced in size by over 90% (World Parrot Trust 2002). According to its IUCN listing, a further decline of 80% of its extent of occurrence is projected in the next 10 years or three generations, barring any major alterations in conservation activities (IUCN 2005). The pet trade does not help the situation, with the chicks of this species worth between $150 and 300 U.S (Snyder et al. 2000). There are laws against the removal of this bird from the wild, including those that are a part of CITES; however, they are poorly enforced in Costa Rica. While the government did recently announce a moratorium on the logging of the Almendro tree (Snyder et al. 2000), it is unclear how strictly this will be enforced or how much of an affect it will have at this time.
Additional actions need to be taken to reverse the decline of this species, and some groups have begun taking action. The World Parrot Trust has begun a project “to establish a nucleus of protected natural forest that is interconnected with surrounding ecosystems as required to sustain a viable population of macaws” (WPT 2002). A new park was proposed for northern Costa Rica between Nicaragua's Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve and the area in Costa Rica that includes La Selva (World Parrot Trust 2002). In addition, the WPT has been closely monitoring these birds via radio-telemetry to better understand their behavior and needs. Additionally, they have launched an education campaign to heighten awareness among school children about the macaw’s endangerment and its habitat needs. They are, in a sense, using the Great Green Macaw as a flagship species for its Atlantic forest habitat. Conserving its habitat will likely lead to the conservation of other species that utilize that same habitat (Global Crossroad 2005). Finally, a National Great Green Macaw Commission was formed in 1996 to address the decline of this bird and its Almendro habitat; they were instrumental in securing the moratorium on the Almendro (World Parrot Trust 2002).
Multiple subspecies of Scarlet Macaw are recognized (Snyder et al. 2000); Costa Rican Scarlet Macaws belong to the southern subspecies, which is not considered globally threatened. However, several isolated populations are at risk, including that at the Carara Biological Reserve in Costa Rica (Snyder et al. 2000). Less than 1000 Scarlet Macaws are thought to remain in Costa Rica, the result of deforestation and poaching (Ginsberg 2005). This latter cause is perhaps the most substantial with regard to this species. Despite anti-poaching laws, a former national park superintendent in Costa Rica estimates that 95% of the Scarlet Macaw nests in Carara Biological Reserve are poached. To counteract this, Sergio Volio started a project that builds artificial nests high enough in trees that they are out of the reach of poachers (Anon. 2005). No information was available on the success of this program to date.
Additional programs have been implemented to attempt to save the Scarlet Macaws. Tsuli, a chapter of the Audubon society, has an environmental education program aimed at helping local people understand and take pride in their local animals and plants, with special emphasis on parrots as flagship species. In addition, a couple from the U.S., the Frisius’, have a macaw breeding program, Amigos de las Aves, mainly focused on the Scarlets. They have raised many Macaws, taught them how to find native food, and released them into selected locations with a goal of trying to reestablish flocks of these birds (Anon. 2005). They currently have over 200 Scarlet Macaws in their aviaries and have begun working with Great Green Macaws as well. They began releasing birds into the wild in 1999 and in 2004 one of their released pairs successfully reproduced in the wild for the first time (Amigos de las aves 2005)! Although this represents only an initial step in helping the Macaws, it does provide hope for the future.
The final Costa Rican parrot that is considered threatened is the Red-fronted parrotlet. Listed on the IUCN red-list as vulnerable, the reason given for its vulnerability is a geographic range of occurrence of less than 100 km2. It is found almost entirely within Costa Rica; it inhabits the central-southern highlands on the Caribbean side of the country. The IUCN lists its habitat as severely fragmented. Continuous decline has been present in their extent of occurrence, area of occurrence, quality and extent of habitat, and number of mature individuals (IUCN 2005). Specific details beyond the IUCN reasons could not be located for their decline, nor was there any information pertaining to conservation efforts directed toward this species. They are not listed on CITES Appendix 1 as are the other two threatened species.
In conclusion, the plight of the world’s parrots is a dire one, with the imperilment of those in Costa Rica being no different. With three threatened species of parrot and 14 others who are continuously exploited and could become threatened in the future, conservation actions are imperative. Many good starts have been made through laws to protect habitat and nesting sites, education programs that emphasize pride in local animals, and captive rearing efforts. However, additional effort must be made to ensure that laws are enforced and that the habitat and birds are actually protected. The loss of parrot habitat, after all, has implications for many other species of the Neotropics.
Amigos de las aves. 2005. Release sites. Online:
Anonymous. 2005. Macaw protection. Online:
Birding Club of Costa Rica. 2005. Costa Rica bird list. Online:
CITES. 2005. Listed animals – Costa Rica. Online:
Ginsberg, S. 2005. Costa Rica’s macaws. Birding guide. Online:
Global Crossroad. 2005. Bird conservation project. Online:
IUCN. 2005. Redlist of threatened species. Online:
Juniper, T. and M. Parr. 1998. Parrots: A guide to parrots of the world. Yale
University Press: New Haven. 584 p.
Snyder, N., P. McGowan, J. Gilardi, and A. Grajal. 2000. Parrots. Status Survey
and Conservation Action Plan 2000-2004. IUCN: Gland, Switzerland and
Cambridge, UK. 180 p.
World Parrot Trust. 2002. Great Green Macaw: Flagship species of Costa Rica.
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