A rare parrot has been given a new ‘endangered’ status after a group of researchers from Chester Zoo headed to South America to track down and learn more about the species.
The zoo’s team of 10, which included experienced conservationists, biologists, avian and horticultural experts, spent two weeks following the Ecuador Amazon parrot – a bird that was only recognised as a species in its own right in December 2013 after years of study by the zoo’s director general, Dr Mark Pilgrim.
Previously, the Ecuador Amazon parrot was considered to be a subspecies of a common group of birds, with a population of about five million. As a result of the size of the population, it did not rank among conservationists’ priorities.
However with full species status awarded the parrot has now taken on a whole new level of importance. Only 600 individuals are estimated to be left, prompting the species to be officially listed as endangered and put at a very high risk of extinction in the wild.
The listing was made for the first time by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, which evaluates the conservation status of plant and animal species.
Dr Pilgrim said: “The estimated total population for this species is about 600. But the sub-populations are less than 250 birds. So, based on our findings, the IUCN is now classifying the birds as an endangered species.
“This new listing is something of a double-edged sword. While on the one hand it confirms that the species’ continued existence is under real threat, the good news is that it will now be considered a conservation priority and will attract resources.”
The expedition team was based in the Cerro Blanco forest in South West Ecuador where they gathered new information on the parrots’ behaviour and feeding habits and conducted a survey on the two unique types of habitat that they rely on – mangroves and dry forest.
Dr Pilgrim added: “Very little was known about the Ecuador Amazon parrot in the wild.
“That’s precisely why the team and I spent a number of weeks trekking in the oppressive humidity of the forest – one of the few remaining remnants of tropical dry forest in the world – to gather new data about the species.
“If truth be told though we actually came back with far more questions than answers.
Suddenly, there are a number of things that we didn’t expect and we now have questions about – but that’s science.”
“One example was how the parrots chose their roosting sites within the mangroves of Puerto Hondo, located along the western coast of Ecuador.”
“We knew from past literature and from a previous visit we had made that the parrots roost in the mangroves and fly to the dry forests to feed. The assumption was that they did that to protect themselves from predators that were not found on the mangrove islands.
“However, the birds fly very, very far out into the mangroves – why do they need to do that? Nearby shrimp farms use bird scaring devices, which are designed to frighten herons and shore birds and stop them eating the farms’ stock. So is this affecting the parrots’ behaviour? We just don’t know.”
Something Dr Pilgrim could say for certain though was that there are some very positive signs as far as the remaining habitat is concerned.
“From our survey of 30km of forest trails and from images we managed to obtain via our camera traps, we saw there is a wide amount of biodiversity within the Cerro Blanco Forest, illustrating a healthy ecosystem.
“We saw no evidence of illegal activity and areas that just 20 years ago used to be farmland are now on their way to be restored to their former glory.
“This is excellent news – a credit to the work that the Pro Bosque Foundation [a local conservation organisation working to protect the forest] puts in and a real basis for hope in terms of preserving not only the parrots but all of the other wonderful wildlife that calls the forest its home as well. In that sense, it is very reassuring that the area appears to be well protected.”
The zoo now hopes to repeat the Cerro Blanco survey every three years in order to build up a long-term dataset that would allow researchers to monitor the parrots’ population dynamics.
Dr Pilgrim added: “While there is concern, there is still a lot to do before we can make clear and bold statements about exactly what is happening to this fantastic species.”