New Reserve and Nest Box Success Offer Hope for Eventual Reintroduction of Endangered Thick-billed Parrots to the U.S.

(Washington, D.C. – November 19, 2008) A project to boost the population of the endangered Thick-billed Parrot in Mexico by creating protected reserves to conserve habitat and providing nest boxes to increase reproduction may make it possible for the species to be once again found in the United States. In September, American Bird Conservancy worked with its Mexican partner group Pronatura Noreste to support the acquisition of 2,470 acres of vital old-growth nesting habitat at Mesa de las Guacamayas in northwestern Mexico, one of three primary nesting areas remaining.

“The Thick-billed Parrot, a species which once occurred in Arizona, has declined in numbers over the past century,” said David Wiedenfeld, American Bird Conservancy’s Assistant Director of International Programs. “It disappeared completely from the United States by the 1920s, and now lives in the wild only in Mexico, where its population probably numbers fewer than 2,000 individuals.”

The land purchase, a critical aspect of the Thick-billed Parrot conservation project, will protect over half of the mesa’s 40 nest sites, as well as protecting forest habitat that is important for hundreds of other bird species including the Eared Trogon, Northern Goshawk, and the threatened Mexican Spotted Owl.

The Thick-billed Parrot is one of only two parrot species whose former range includes the United States. The other is the now extinct Carolina Parakeet.

The parrot was the subject of an Aldo Leopold essay "The Thick-Billed Parrot of Chihuahua," that was later included in the “Sand County Almanac.” Leopold encountered the parrot while on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Madre Occidental in 1936, and decided the species represented the ecological spirit or “numenon” of the region. His finding was published in the ornithological journal The Raven.

The Thick-bill Parrot’s decline is related to hunting, trapping for the pet trade, and the logging of forests in the Sierra Madre Occidental of western Mexico and southeast Arizona, a mountain range once forested with large conifers. One result of logging has been the loss of large trees that provide nesting cavities for the parrots, which cannot excavate their own holes. Adult birds may not be able to breed simply because they cannot find a place to nest. Less than 1% of the old growth forest remains intact in the Sierra Madre Occidental.

To compensate for the scarcity of nest trees, American Bird Conservancy supported Pronatura Noreste in placing 20 nest boxes in large trees in the nesting area of the parrots, near the town of Madera. When the parrots returned in May, they investigated the boxes, and three pairs decided they liked them well enough to move in. In July, nesting was confirmed in one of the boxes, and suspected in two others.

“We expect that the other parrots in the area will discover the nest boxes, and we hope to have more new tenants next year,” said Alfonso Banda of Pronatura Noreste. “By securing protected habitat and providing more nesting opportunities for the Thick-billed Parrots at Madera, we could be on the way to helping save this endangered species and eventually reintroducing a population to the United States.”

The Arizona Fish & Game Agency and the Sonoran Joint Venture have been planning to reintroduce the species to the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona using parrots captured in the wild. An effort to reintroduce Thick-billed Parrots to Arizona in the 1980s and 90s failed because the released captive-bred birds were unable to learn how to avoid the numerous predators in the area. If the Mexican population continues to grow, some of the birds may be able to be relocated into Arizona.

The Thick-billed Parrot conservation project has been made possible by the generous support of Jeff and Connie Woodman and the Robert Wilson Trust.
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American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is the only organization that works solely to conserve native wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. ABC acts to safeguard the rarest bird species, restore habitats, and reduce threats, while building capacity in the conservation movement. ABC is the voice for birds, ensuring that they are adequately protected; that sufficient funding is available for bird conservation; and that land is protected and properly managed to maintain viable habitat. ABC is a 501(c)(3) membership organization that is consistently awarded a top, four-star rating by the independent group, Charity Navigator.