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Home » Featured Article, In the Wild, Issue, July 2009 Highlights, Slender-billed Conure Project

Where the Wild Work is Done…

By Nathalie Lemieux for ParrotLife Magazine

Amazing Wildlife Researchers

We all look at photos of wild parrots in awe and wonder how amazing it would be to see them first hand. Have you ever stopped to think what was involved in getting the opportunity to get close enough to see these amazing birds in their natural habitat? Photographers require an enormous amount of patience and dedication as they wait patiently to take that perfect photo. In turn, many of these photographers meet up with wildlife biologists so they can more easily gain access to wildlife in remoteareas. Let’s think about what life is really like for those devoted biologists who spend all their time in the field tracking and gathering information about wildlife firsthand.

Slender-billed Conures (Enicognathus leptorhynchus) © M Stafford

Slender-billed Conure (Enicognathus leptorhynchus)© Photo N Lemieux

I recently had the opportunity to witness these amazing researchers at work in the field as I was given the chance to live a dream of mine, to work with parrots in the wild. This was made possible by Hagen, who sponsored my trip and Dr. Mark Stafford from Parrots International, who coordinated our adventure down to Chile.

I spent several days assisting in the field with research on the Slender-billed Conure. These parrots are one of the three most southern species of parrots in the world and little is known about their basic biology and ecology.
Suzan Payne, Mark and Marie Stafford and I spent over a week in Chile in January of 2009. I’d like to share my experience and what I learned about the dedicated field biologists.

So How Did the Research Begin?

Every research project, whether it be physics or biology, always begins with a question. It was while Dr Tom White, from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, was attending an ornithological conference in southern Chile that he took note of the parrots flying around outside. After asking many questions about this species of parrot, he had few answers. This sparked interest with other researchers, however, and so the project was initiated.

Once proposals were written, a research plan was set and funding obtained. Field work began in October 2008, with graduate student, Ana Bertoldi, and Dr Jaime Jimenez of the Universidad de Los Lagos, in collaboration with Dr White. Transmitters were donated by Dr Janice Boyd from “Amigos de las Aves US.” Receivers were donated by by the USFWS, and all the required climbing gear was provided by Parrots International. The first step was to determine how to capture adult birds, and fit them with radio collars. This task proved to be very challenging, especially when dealing with such highly intelligent creatures.

Dr Tom White (US Fish and Wildlife Services) and Dr Mark Stafford (Parrots International) with the first adult ever captured for science and the first ever fitted with a radio collar © M Stafford

Mist nets were set up, in hopes of catching adults, but most birds would just bounce off them. The researchers even witnessed one of the birds warning the flocks as they flew towards the nets. The flocks would manage to change course at the last minute, causing them to miss the nets completely. Many days were spent without a single bird in hand. After a dozen days of failed attempts, a flock with predictable behavior was identified by the Staffords. This predictability, along with the assistance of a local bird of prey, the Chimango Caracara, led to the successful capture of two adult birds. They were fitted with collars, and led the researchers to a roosting site of over 100 birds, making the days of hard work a success.

Mauricio, former poacher now assisting with the project demonstrating his amazing tree climbing skills © Photo: SE Payne

Finding and Accessing the Nest Cavities

Have you ever tried following birds as they fly from tree to tree? Now imagine trying to follow flocks of parrots in hopes of finding their nesting cavities. These conures tend to nest in Nothofagus trees (Coihue trees) that average over 30 m in height. The nesting cavities themselves were on average at least half way up the trees. This left the researchers with the challenge of not just locating the nesting cavities, but the difficulty of accessing the nests themselves.

After many days of trying to locate nests, it was decided to obtain assistance from some of the local poachers. They were quickly able to share their knowledge of known nesting sites and assist with accessing the young birds. It is important to take into account everyone and everything that interacts with wildlife species, such as the predators, competitors, parasites and so much more. This would include finding ways to work with local poachers, in hopes of benefiting both the species and the project. The project had received donations of climbing gear, but at least two individuals, with the proper skills, were needed to tackle their way up and down the tree safe and sound. The local poachers easily outdid the high tech gear that was acquired, and they promptly demonstrated how quickly they were able to climb these trees, with the use of yellow nylon ropes, while wearing rubber boots!

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