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Why City Parrots can help with parrot conservation

By Roelant Jonker and Grace Innemee
Directors of City Parrots in the Netherlands

Photographs © Jonker/Innemee www.Cityparrots.org

City slickers

Have you spotted them in your area already? Chances are you are closer to a wild parrot than you might have imagined. In the USA and Europe, many major cities have one or two species of parrot living and breeding within their city limits. 10 European capitals, for example, hold psittacine populations.

The list is not confined just to capitals, though. California’s conglomerates are famous for their populations of Amazon and Conure species, many of which are endangered in their native Central and South American home ranges.

Urban parrots are not confined to Europe and the USA, either. In Latin America and Asia, parrots have discovered that cities make a comfortable living. In Australia, cockatoos, lorikeets, rosellas and other parrots colour almost every city on the continent. In all, some 50 out of a total of roughly 372 parrot species have developed urban populations.

Food & Safety

Research has shown that densities of parrots are higher in urban areas in comparison to the surrounding countryside. There are many explanations for this. The major factors are the availability of food, and safety. Ornamental shrubs and trees, together with bird tables, make finding food in the suburbs a piece of cake to parrots. But probably more important is that urban people don’t mind that their cherry tree gets plundered by birds as much as farmers would.

In rural areas, farmers and parrots are on a collision course when these birds start feeding on their fruit or cereal crops. When farmers see their harvest destroyed, guns come out. Urban people usually don’t depend on the spoils of their backyard gardens for their livelihood, and do not resort to such extreme measures. So urban areas are safe to parrots for the lack of agricultural conflict.


Another form of safety comes in the breeding season. Nest poaching is one of the major threats to parrots in the wild. Poachers will climb trees to empty a parrot nest, or worse, chop down nesting trees to get to the babies inside. These forms of poaching are illegal, and necessitate a form of secrecy not easily found in a city. Chopping down a tree in a neighbourhood park will surely be met with opposition from bystanders and the authorities, as will climbing trees in someone’s backyard.

Many urban parrots choose to breed in nooks and crevices of tall buildings, well out of the way of people, which makes poaching less likely in urban areas. This is why we see several species that suffer much from poaching, such as Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoos (Cacatua sulphurea) or the Mexican Amazon parrots, do better in the urban areas where they have been introduced than in their home ranges in these cases, Hong Kong and Southern California.

Alien invaders

In Europe and North America, and in many other regions, urban parrot populations are not native to the areas where they now occur. They have been brought there through the pet trade, have escaped or been released, and have managed to start a population. Many people are concerned about their potential as alien invaders and fear that they may displace native species.

We studied the scientific literature on this and looked at our own populations of Ring-necked Parakeets (Psittacula krameri) here in The Netherlands. To date, we are not too worried about this potential, but it is good to keep our vigilance. What do concern us are places like Puerto Rico and Santiago de Chile, where non-native parrot species are reaping the benefits of urban life, and rapidly threaten to outnumber native parrot species.


In Santiago de Chile, Monk Parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) number in their hundreds. They have also spread to the coastal town of Valparaíso. Monk Parakeets are naturally confined to the other side of the Andes Mountains in Argentina, but the massive trade in this species has brought it to Chile.

The native Slender-billed Parakeet (Enicognathus leptorhynchus) would be more appropriate for the area, as the two cities are within its historic range. The Slender-billed Parakeet is present in Santiago, but its population is far smaller. We received a photo of three of these birds flocking with a Blue-fronted Amazon (Amazona aestiva), indicating that these birds are recent escapees. It will take years for the Slender-billed Parakeets to build up their numbers in such a way that they can compete with the Monk Parakeets in their town.

It would be important to give this species the best fighting chance by easing the inevitable inbreeding problems which a small urban population like this will experience. To overcome this hurdle, it would be advisable to supplement this population with more Slender-billed Parakeets in order to have a solid genetic foundation on which to build its urban population. That way, the population will be likely to grow prolifically, as many other urban parrots have done, and, it is hoped, keep the invading Monk Parakeets at bay.

In Puerto Rico the situation is even more serious. The native Puerto Rican Parrot (Amazona vittata) has been one of the most endangered bird species for decades. Luckily, the captive breeding and reintroduction program has been making big strides in the last couple of years, and the species has been released to new areas on the island where it had been absent for many years.

Puerto Rico, however, is also home to many introduced populations of other Amazon parrot species. These populations can be seen as a threat to the recovering population of the native Puerto Rican Parrot, but they also point the way to where Amazon parrots can potentially live on the island. Again, it is paramount to enhance the competitive potential of the native species over its introduced congeners.

Perhaps, in a couple of years, the captive breeding and reintroduction program will have advanced sufficiently to warrant an experiment whereby Puerto Rican parrots are introduced to areas where the non-native species now roam. Selectively capturing the non-native amazons and surgically sterilizing them will allow the non-native parrots to teach their native, reintroduced congeners how to utilise their new environment without the risk of hybridisation.

Reintroductions to urban areas

For the reasons mentioned above, we as City Parrots advocate the use of urban areas within the native ranges of parrots for reintroduction. Species that are specifically threatened by poaching and/or agricultural conflict will benefit from colonising urban areas, where these threats are diminished.

Species suffering from a lack of natural habitat can get a boost by utilising upcoming urban areas within their natural range as a suitable alternative habitat. Where non-native species are colonising urban areas in which native parrots are more appropriate, problems can be avoided by assisting native parrot species to colonize the city first.

We are presently developing a project to reintroduce the Golden Conure (Guaruba guarouba) to Belém in Brazil. The city is well within its historic native range. Golden Conures suffer both from poaching and habitat destruction, and individual escapees from captivity have been recorded in the city. These birds were observed for several months, flocking with the prolific Janday Conures (Aratinga jandaya) which frequent the city, but are not native to the area. This makes us confident that this endangered species will rapidly take to urban life.

Editor’s Note: Roelant and Grace have developed a novel thesis with new ideas, creating discussions among parrot experts and wildlife officials.

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