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Parrot Conservation Misconceptions and Shortfalls

Project update: Friday, 8 May 2009

For my opening blog entry on the subject of parrot conservation, I would like to focus on common misconceptions and shortfalls within this field.


© Photo Ryan Watson" width="300" height="212"/>

click to enlarge Spix Macaws © Photo Ryan Watson

Parrots as a group are under extreme pressure from anthropogenic activities such as poaching for the pet and aviary bird trade, deforestation, climate change and the introduction of invasive species, which is an especially serious problem for island taxa. As a result of the steadily increasing list of threatened parrot species, there is also increased activity in efforts to protect wild populations from going the way of the Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii), a species which went extinct in nature in the year 2000. Due to the global popularity of parrots, there are now many organizations and individuals dedicated to their conservation and more then a few of them, such as Parrots International, focus exclusively on parrots. One would think that the combination of a common interest in parrots and the information age we live in would be enough to ensure close contact between parrot conservationists, and therefore sharing of important information. However, this is not always the case and there are still many people out there trying to unnecessarily reinvent the wheel instead of thoroughly researching available information as any good scientist should do.

The gold standard parrot conservation project is arguably the Echo parakeet recovery program on the Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius. The last 15 years has seen a remarkable turn of fortune for the Echo parakeet (Psittacula eques echo) a species which was reduced to no more then 20 wild and captive individuals in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, with three quarters of these remaining birds being males! Following remarkable successes on the island with critically endangered Mauritius kestrels (Falco punctatus) and Mauritius Pink pigeons (Columba mayeri), efforts intensified to rescue Echo’s from the brink of certain extinction. In the mid to late 1990’s the tide started to turn in favor of recovery over extinction and there were several key reasons why this occurred. One is that many of the key people involved had the invaluable experience of working on the projects for the kestrel and the pigeon. Another is that the scientific director for the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation Dr. Carl Jones thoroughly understood the importance of using the available knowledge and expertise of institutions and individuals from around the world. It’s a very simple philosophy; you wouldn’t hire an electrician to do the work of a plumber, so why for example hire a scientist with no hand-rearing skills to hand-rear birds when there are aviculturists and zoo bird keepers with specific experience available? Additionally, if you were about to undergo open heart surgery and had the choice of having a surgeon with proven skills or a surgeon operating on a live patient for the first time, your probably more likely to go with experience.

In 2007 the Echo parakeet was downgraded from critically endangered to endangered after the species reached a wild population of 300+ in 2006. Long term the target is to have a stable population of around 500 birds, but for now it appears that the carrying capacity of their very small and badly degraded habitat may be less then this figure. I spent three breeding seasons working in Mauritius from October 2002 until February 2005 as the projects hand-rearing coordinator, which as the title states mainly involved hand-rearing but I was also involved in captive breeding, especially my second and third seasons, and the releases of some of the 90 hand-reared and or captive bred parent-reared birds from those three seasons. Throughout my entire Mauritius experience, I actively sort out as much information about other parrot conservation and research projects as possible, especially those involving intensive management and releases. I was surprised by the frequency of articles and papers I read which documented the continued use of methods which were proved sub-optimal many years earlier by the Echo parakeet project. Towards the end of my third season I asked myself the question “why aren’t the people working on these other parrot projects following the methods which have worked so successfully in Mauritius? Surely if they are working with parrots and in particular threatened parrots, they must know about the Echo parakeet?” I knew about the Echo parakeet long before I ever got involved with parrot conservation when in my teenage years breeding birds in the back yard. It turns out however that despite numerous publications and unprecedented successes such as >90% post release survivability, there were still and probably still are a lot of people working with threatened wild parrots who do not know the history of this charismatic green parrot. Worse still though is that there has been many who are aware of the successes with Echo parakeets who do not bother to find out why they have been successful because they either have too much ego or are just damn determined to reinvent the wheel! During the three years I spent working with Echo’s, I never once received correspondence from another parrot conservation project asking for information about the project and I put this question to all the other members of the Echo team as well as Dr. Carl Jones and they could not recall receiving correspondence of this nature either.


3 month old hand-reared Echo Parakeet
© Photo Ryan Watson" width="300" height="202"/>

click to enlarge 3 month old hand-reared Echo Parakeet © Photo Ryan Watson

One of the most common misconceptions about releasing parrots into the wild is that they first need to be trained how to be wild birds; to know which foods to feed on, to avoid predators and to build flight strength in a large in-situ aviary. Off course parrots can be successfully released following this method, but it is just as likely to fail. In the early years of the Echo parakeet program they followed this method, as that was what was being recommended by the experts of the time and being practiced else where in the world. Most of the Echo parakeets released this way either never really became wild birds, preferring to stay permanently close to the immediate area in which they were released and where supplementary food is available always or having to be returned to captivity because they were too humanized. The method sounds like a logical approach but in reality it makes sense to us because we are conditioned or possibly even hard-wired to think anthropomorphically, and this method adopts a similar principal to how we prepare our children and young adults for responsible adulthood.

So how should parrots be released? This depends on the situation, sometimes you do not have a choice but to release adult birds, such may be the case with confiscated wild birds. What I would like to focus on is what to do when you do have a choice. I am firmly in the camp advocating the release of parrots very quickly after weening as was practiced in Mauritius with the Mauritius kestrel, Echo parakeet, Mauritius fody (Foudia rubra)and the Olive White-eye (Zosterops chloronothos) all with great success. Our anthropomorphic way of thinking warns us that birds released so quickly cannot possibly be prepared for the dog-eat-dog world that is the wild and this is a very valid concern that is partially correct. Releasing young parrots can lead to quick death if not carried out correctly but when done properly, it provides a parrot the best possible chance of successfully integrating to nature. The reason for this is that young parrots require a lot of stimulus in order for their sophisticated brains (by non-human standards) to develop and grow optimally. Deny most parrot species adequate stimulus for too long and their ability to learn the skills necessary for survival in nature becomes compromised. Anatomical studies on conspecific captive and wild parrots have demonstrated that the average weight of a wild parrot brain is significantly greater then a captive parrot brain. Extensive research on developing human brains using sophisticated imaging techniques such as FMRI (Functioning Magnetic Resonance Imaging) have demonstrated how children (primarily orphans in understaffed Eastern Europe facilities) denied stimuli such as affection and conversation do not develop a normal size frontal lobe and once they reach a certain age of somewhere between 7-10 years no longer have the ability to learn language or show and accept affection. The situation is similar with parrots and that is why it is best to release them young if your goal is for them to function as naturally as possible.

As any of you who have direct experience with young parrots will know, they are innately curious around the time of fledging and weening and it is this curiosity which leads them to actively experiment with available foods in their environment. Releasing birds shortly after weening takes advantage of this peak in curiosity and therefore cancels out the need to “teach” birds in aviaries first because they learn naturally to feed on the available food resources around them. This method is also far more economic both in terms of finances and manpower then holding parrots back in an aviary for six months after weening, which involves a lot of extra work and for no benefit to the parrots. The process of releasing young parrots is not as simple as just opening the door and wishing them good luck, it is in fact a gradual process which involves conditioning the parrots with positive reinforcement to return to the release aviary. To start with they are released late in the afternoon when there is less then 30 minutes of light remaining. It is important that there are suitable branches close to where the birds are released from, that they can easily fly to and this is typically where they will roost for the evening. The following morning just as first light breaks, you need to be inside the release aviary ready to cue the birds to return to the aviary for food. Once the birds are inside, they are kept inside for the rest of the day until late in the afternoon when the process is repeated, only this time 10-15 minutes earlier then the day before. Each successive day the parrots are released earlier until it becomes very clear that they are comfortable being outside and have gained familiarity with their immediate environment. When they have reached this point they can still have access to the release aviary and the frequency at which they return to the aviary will depend upon the availability of natural foods. What we found in Mauritius is that when natural foods are plentiful, the birds prefer to forage on these over returning to the aviary or nearby food hoppers for parrot pellets.

The reason why it is important to release them late in the afternoon as opposed to any other part of the day is because there is less time for them to be driven into a panic flight and as light starts to fade they instinctively prepare to roost for the evening. Once they are roosting the likelihood of them taking off in a panic flight in greatly reduced as the majority of parrots have poor night vision and most panic flights are in response to a perceived visual threat, such as a shadow cast by a bird of prey. Spending the night outside helps to make the birds comfortable in their environment, so by the following morning they’re pretty much over the excitement of having access to their new surroundings and become focused on food. If you have conditioned the birds well, they will quite quickly return to aviary.

One question always asked is in reference to a young bird’s ability to detect and avoid predators. My personal observations and experience leads me to believe that young parrots are hard-wired with an awareness of potential dangers and respond accordingly. Although the Echo parakeet does not have any natural aerial predatory threats, the young released birds still reacted alarmingly in the presence of a kestrel flying over head. Depending on where you are releasing birds, predation will be in some cases unavoidable and this is natural. The good thing to come out of a predation event is that any other released birds which were present at the time are likely to develop a strong negative association to the responsible predator and similar species, therefore better equipping themselves against the same fate. As a general rule it is always better to release parrots in groups, as many as you have capacity for without compromising standards of husbandry and welfare. Individuals in larger groups fair better because more eyes and ears means there is a greater chance of a predator being detected prior to attack, plus it is always more difficult for a predator to target an individual in a large group then one in isolation.

The final misconception I want to address is the notion that without a wild teacher, captive bred or raised parrots will not learn the skills necessary to exploit their environment as a wild conspecific would. This belief is entirely theoretical, is absolutely not supported by science based evidence and is unfortunately one of the most common statements made to me by concerned parrot lovers who have read it or heard it somewhere from someone credible in the parrot conservation community. I hear it a lot because it is relevant to the species I primarily work with, the Spix’s macaw, which as mentioned earlier is most likely extinct in nature and therefore will not have the option of learning from a wizened wild conspecific. If captive parrots needed a wild teacher to establish in nature then there would be less feral populations of parrots around the world as some of these have established from escaped captive bred birds, such as budgerigars in Florida. Returning to the Spix’s macaw, yes there are many challenges ahead of us to one day be in a position to return Spix’s macaws to nature, but if we are in the situation where we have enough healthy individuals to do so, I am confident we have the knowledge and experience to successfully release them and that they will have retained the ability to become self sufficient wild parrots.

blogs from the field - parrot conservation in real time