Photo: © Shutterstock.com/ostill. The study published in Conservation Biology in October found that there were moderate decreases for 15 parrot populations including the green-winged macaw (Ara chloropterus) in Bolivia 

The last global parrot review took place 17 years ago, so a new study on neotropical species was of the essence, states Rosemary Low. Here she shares results from South and Central America and the Caribbean, and argues why more conservation tactics are needed to save endangered species.

PARROTS are one of, if not the most, endangered group of birds worldwide. This fact has been stated on countless occasions, but sometimes new data helps us to realise just how serious this is. A paper published in October 2017 underlines this.

The first extensive consultation with wild parrot experts and conservation organisations worldwide was carried out in the late 1990s during the preparation of the IUCN Parrot Action Plan. Its results – the first global review of the status of parrots – were published in 2000. This highlighted that the main threats to endangered parrots were habitat loss and degradation (70 species), capture of birds for the pet trade (30 species), introduction of exotic species (15 species), persecution as alleged crop pests (10 species) and disease (two species). A similar scenario has been described in many studies of individual species, in country-based action plans, and in recent comparative studies.

Given the rapid development of human-caused threats, such as habitat loss, climate change and the spread of disease, that information is now unlikely to be valid and studies based on present-day field information are urgently needed. But even as you are reading this, they will be out of date because of the impact of recent hurricanes, such as Irma and Maria.

A paper published in the October 2017 issue of Conservation Biology (Berkunsky et al, 2017) indicates the massive amount of work carried out on 192 populations of 96 neotropical parrot species across 21 countries. Just to be clear, the neotropical area relates to South and Central America and the Caribbean.

The parrot specialists (almost 100 in number) investigated current threats and population trends. Many populations were affected by multiple threats. Agriculture, capture for the pet trade and logging each affected more than 55 per cent of the populations, suggesting a higher degree of risk than previously thought. In contrast to previous studies at the species level, the recent study showed that the threat most closely associated with decreasing population trends is now capture for the local pet trade. However, fewer than 20 per cent of threatened populations have been the subject of conservation actions.

The most serious threats, in order of severity were:

1. Capture for local pet trade.

2. Agriculture (with agro-industry grazing and smallholder grazing at numbers five and six and agro-industry farming at 10).

3. Rural population pressure.

4. Nest destruction by poachers taking chicks.

7. Capture for international pet trade.

8. and 14: logging – large-scale and small-scale.

9. Droughts and desertification.

How did this groundbreaking review come about? At the 25th International Ornithological Congress in 2010, held in Brazil, the Parrot Researchers Group was appointed as the research coordination committee on parrots for the International Ornithologists’ Union. Its main aims are: 1) promoting parrot research; 2) establishing research needs and priorities, with particular attention to regional conservation strategies; and 3) identifying barriers to effective research and conservation of parrots.

One of the first objectives of this group was to update and increase knowledge of the threats affecting parrots. A regional approach was adopted. A review of the conservation status of the larger African parrots was the first to be completed, with the results published in 2014. Africa has relatively few parrot species.

The recent study evaluated current threats faced by neotropical parrots relating to specific populations of species, not to the species as a whole. This approach was taken because threats may vary considerably among populations of the same species and because adopting populations as the unit for conservation may help to identify and reverse conservation problems while species are still common. This could ensure that genetic variation was preserved.

This study suggested that at least 38 per cent of parrot populations in the neotropics may be declining. However,
this was probably an underestimate, as 84 per cent of the species with unknown population trends were affected by at least one of the major threats and, for this reason, may also be declining. In addition, the results showed that 72 per cent of populations face at least one major threat. Unfortunately, a similarly worrying conservation scenario was found in the study in Africa.

Both suggest that the global conservation situation for parrots may be even worse than previously evaluated and that the need for conservation action is urgent. The neotropical study also suggests that priority should be given to conservation actions aimed at reducing the capture of wild parrots for the pet trade (mainly domestic use but also international trade), as well as the conservation of parrot populations located at agricultural frontiers.

It should be noted that the extensive survey was unable to find any data on population trends or threats for more than a third of studied neotropical parrot populations. Data on population trends for any parrot populations from a number of neotropical countries was missing. This included Panama, Guyana, Surinam, French Guiana, Uruguay and many islands of the Lesser and Greater Antilles. These species and regions should be targeted for future research and monitoring of free-living parrot populations.

Of the 192 neotropical populations studied, the trend for 72 (38 per cent) of the populations was a decreasing one since 2001. Among the biggest declines were those for blue-winged (Illiger’s) macaw (Primolius maracana) in Argentina and Paraguay, and the red-tailed Amazon (Amazona brasiliensis) in the Brazilian states of Santa Catarina and São Paulo. (In other states it is faring better.)

Other populations that had suffered serious declines were the yellow-naped Amazon (A. auropalliata) in Santa Rosa, Guatemala and the grey-cheeked (orange-flanked) parakeet (Brotogeris pyrrhoptera) from the Tumbes region of Peru. There were moderate decreases for 15 populations including the green-winged macaw (Ara chloropterus) in Bolivia.

Overall, 40 populations (21 per cent) were considered to have been stable since 2001. An increasing trend was noted for 11 per cent of populations studied, including the yellow-shouldered Amazon (Amazona barbadensis) from Bonaire (no doubt due to the conservation project of the Echo organisation) and for the monk or quaker parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) in Buenos Aires.

The conclusion was that at least 38 per cent of the parrot populations (populations: not species) might be declining in the neotropics. This is believed to be an underestimate. At least 72 per cent face at least one major threat.

Rosemary Low is a prolific author on parrots as well as an experienced all-round birdkeeper.

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