Arizona's effort to save thick-billed parrots in Mexico preserves biodiversity in Pinal County skies

Jeff Kronenfeld

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Thick-billed parrots on a branch.(OVIS)

Jeff Kronenfeld / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Pinal County, AZ) Arizona was once home to one of two parrot species occurring naturally in the contiguous U.S. Though the last known Carolina parakeet died in 1918, thick-billed parrots live on in Mexico, some tantalizingly close to the Arizona border.

From 1986 through 1993, attempts to reintroduce thick-billed parrots to the Copper State failed.

However, the Arizona Game and Fish Department continues to support the preservation of these colorful, curious creatures in Mexico, which also protects other migratory birds that call Pinal County home.

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U.S. soldiers pose with thick-billed parrots shot in the Chiricahua Mountains in around 1904.(National Park Service)

Poaching Poly

Before the reintroduction effort, Arizona's last sighting of thick-billed parrots was in 1938. Before the 1920s, they were more common in southern and even central Arizona.

Some evidence points to parrots making it much further north in the past.

“There are archaeological records of parrots near Flagstaff,” said Edwin Juarez, Arizona bird conservation initiative coordinator for AZGFD. “It's not certain whether those were local birds that the Native Americans were collecting, or whether they were being traded.”

Whether the talkative birds ever bred this far north isn't settled, though no early reports of nests in the U.S. exist.

Then again, the remote locations of such nests — in mixed conifer forests at high elevations — made stumbling on them at the time unlikely, according to a paper in The Condor: A Journal of Avian Biology by the scientists who led the reintroduction effort.

They argued the parrots might have been breeding in Arizona, and the lack of discovered nests resulted from no professional ornithologists being there to document it.

The authors also included a theory on what caused the feathered creature’s extinction in the state: people shot them. Many early reports of parrots in Arizona end with flocks brought down by hails of bullets.

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Thick-billed parrots in a waterfall.(OVIS)

Reintroduction fails to fly

The reintroduction program released 88 thick-billed parrots over seven years. Sixty-five were obtained through confiscations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, while the remaining 23 were bred in captivity. Unfortunately, the latter didn’t fare well in the wild, becoming easy prey for northern goshawks and other predators.

First released in the Chiricahua Mountains, the avians soon proved quite adventurous. Sightings occurred in the Graham Mountains, Tonto Basin, Oak Creek Canyon, and between Flagstaff and the White Mountains. However, the Chiricahuas and the Mogollon Rim saw the only documented attempts to nest.

In addition to other hungry animals, drought and wildfires took their toll

“We believe that the reintroduction efforts failed because there was probably not a critical mass of individuals that were released to establish a flock size large enough to be sustainable,” Juarez explained. “At that time, there was a drought, so there may not have been as much food availability.”

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Thick-billed parrot gets a helping hand.(OVIS)

Current preservation efforts

High mortality rates combined with a lack of parrots led to the reintroduction effort ending, but this didn’t mean the state gave up completely. The AZGFD supports Organización Vida Silvestre (OVIS), a non-governmental organization working with communities to protect birds in Mexico.

Other partners include the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas, Mexico’s agency for managing protected areas. Together, they continue researching the animals and developing new conservation strategies.

Parrots prefer to nest high in old, twisted trees called snags. OVIS convinces landowners and forestry consultants to preserve these invaluable slices of arboreal real estate.

Since there aren’t always enough snags for all breeding pairs, Orvis builds artificial nesting sites, essentially wooden boxes attached to trees.

Going one step further, they also install metal sheets at the base of nesting trees to keep bobcats out, which have been revealed as major parrot predators. The barriers appear to be working, at least for the birds.

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Thick-billed parrot in an artificial nest site.(OVIS)

Juarez reports that around 1,000 thick-billed parrots breed in five primary nesting sites across northwest Mexico, though the actual number fluctuates and could be slightly larger. The closest breeding site to Arizona is in the Janos Biosphere Reserve in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Recently, researchers solved the biggest mystery about the bird's range.

“We knew that they went further south into Mexico for the winter, but we really didn't know exactly where,” Juarez said. “Through the deployment of these satellite transmitters on some of these birds, we have been able to map the actual migration routes of these parrots. They basically fly south on the ridge top of the Sierra Madre Occidentals, down Chihuahua, Durango, and some have gotten into Nayarit and Sinaloa.”

The AZGFD currently has no plans to revive the reintroduction effort. However, helping our neighbor to the south isn’t just an act of altruism. Ongoing drought and increasing wildfires threaten many species across the region, including the parrot and the trees it lives off.

“It’s not just conserving the parrot,” Juarez explains. “We're actually conserving a whole suite of other species that use this habitat that are Arizona species, which we share with Mexico and other countries.”

Even if the green game never again graces Arizona skies, preserving their habitat also helps Pinal County’s broad-billed hummingbirds, Scott's orioles, yellow-billed cuckoos, sulphur-bellied flycatchers, and summer tanagers.

Correction: NewsBreak incorrectly attributed the photos in this article to the AZGFD. The black and white historical image is in fact courtesy of the National Park Service, while the other images are courtesy of OVIS. We regret the error. 

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Jeff is an award-winning freelance journalist covering news, business, science and the arts. His work has been published in Discover Magazine, Vice, the Phoenix New Times and other outlets.

Tempe, AZ
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