Monitoring, protection, rescue and release help the Yellow-headed Parrots of Belize

January 24th, 2020 | by David Waugh
Monitoring, protection, rescue and release help the Yellow-headed Parrots of Belize
Conservation projects
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“They’re curious about what’s going on, and so they fly in close to take a good look”. Mario Muschamp, land manager of TIDE, is making reference to the wild resident Yellow-headed Parrots (Amazona oratrix belizensis) perched in the trees close to an aviary in the open pine savanna habitat of this endangered species in Belize. The aviary is used for the release of rescued and rehabilitated individuals of the same species, this being just one part of a comprehensive project for the conservation of this eye-catching parrot.

Adult Belize Yellow-headed Parrot. (c) Charles Britt/Belize Bird Conservancy

Since 2016 the Loro Parque Fundación has been supporting the conservation efforts, led by parrot biologist Dr. Charles Britt of the Belize Bird Conservancy, in collaboration with the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) and Belize Bird Rescue, all within the Belize Yellow-headed Parrot Working Group chaired by the Belize Forest Department. Such action is deemed necessary because the species is in danger of extinction across its distribution in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. In addition to habitat loss, A. oratrix is highly valued in trade because of its attractive plumage and ability to imitate human speech, with up to 10% of households in surveyed villages owning a Yellow-headed Parrot. In 1994 there were an estimated 7,000 individuals remaining in the wild, representing an approximate decline of the population by 90% from the 1970’s.

Map of the distribution in Belize of open and closed pine savanna. (c) Charles Britt/Belize Bird Conservancy

The subspecies belizensis is primarily restricted to the lowland pine savannas found throughout Belize, either the open grass-dominanted savanna with scattered trees and shrubs, mainly Caribbean pine (Pinus caribaea) and palmetto (Acoelorraphe wrightii), closed savanna conspicuously dominated by pine or oak (Quercus oleoides). The coastal pine savannas in southern Belize have experienced annual illegal fires that likely reduce the presence of natural cavities in dead pines. Artificial nests have been quickly occupied, suggesting a lack of suitable natural cavities. In contrast, there are areas in northern Belize with extensive occurrence of natural nest cavities in pines resulting from hurricane-related damage. Legal and illegal pine logging is currently occurring across Belize and threatens current and future nesting opportunities for this species, especially because breeding pairs of the parrot tend to select larger, mature pines.

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The Yellow-headed Parrot project vehicle in open pine savanna. (c) Belize Bird Conservancy

In 2016, the initial counts recorded 983 individuals in the lowland pine savannas in Belize, with greater densities observed in the northern and southern portions of the distribution, and fewer in the central region. In that year only 32% of monitored nests survived to fledge at least one young, with poaching the greatest known cause of failure, but there was also natural predation and other nests that failed due to unknown causes. The post-hurricane breeding season of 2017 experienced a reduction in reproductive effort and success, but his rebounded in 2018 and 2019. Nevertheless, the threat of poaching resulted in the need to extract more chicks at extreme risk of being poached, or with health concerns, in those years than the previous two.

Table 1 shows the nest attempts, chicks fledged and chicks rescued over four breeding seasons. The 71 nestlings extracted from nests were raised under laboratory conditions at Belize Bird Rescue, using methods with their basis in aviculture. Following relevant guidelines, in particular the observance of strict screening for potential pathogens, all have been subsequently released into the wild population.

Year Nests Fledglings Nestlings Extracted
2016 76 58 13
2017 66 23 7
2018 74 52 31
2019 72 48 20
Total 288 181 71
A Yellow-headed Parrot chick being assessed in the field. (c) Belize Bird Conservancy

The releases are “soft”, i.e. that the once-confined parrots are gradually introduced back to the wild, with supplemental food being available at the release aviary in order to help the parrots adapt to a completely wild diet and existence over time. In addition to the rehabilitation of extracted nestlings, the Belize Forest Department has conducted a one-year programme for the registration of parrots under human care and has instigated a process to certify their good care. The Department is now confiscating all newly captured and poorly cared-for parrots.

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Mario Muschamp introduces a rescued Yellow-headed Parrot into the soft release aviary. (c) Belize Bird Conservancy

In spite of the success of the rescue and release, the partners working for Yellow-headed Parrot conservation in Belize understand that a strong nest monitoring and protection effort is continues to be essential. One component has been the installation of 41 artificial nests in two protected areas and some private properties in December 2017. They are being successfully utilized by A. oratrix, with 32% used by Yellow-headed Parrots and an additional 31% used by other species of Amazona parrots. However predators, including other birds, arboreal mammals and snakes, continue to have a large impact on nesting success, and therefore the next breeding season will have a new model of nest-box with a double chamber in an effort to reduce the detectability and accessibility of eggs and nestlings to potential predators.

Poachers ripped the nest-box from the tree, but dropped it and fled on hearing the project vehicle approaching. The chick was still inside and unharmed. (c) Belize Bird Conservancy

Furthermore, poaching models have identified time period during the season when susceptibility of nest-robbing increases dramatically. Therefore in 2020, Belize Bird Conservancy and partners will increase monitoring presence and security patrols during those times. Chicks at risk of imminent poaching or with health issues that cannot be resolved in the field will still be extracted and raised at Belize Bird Rescue and then returned for soft release. The combination of these measures aims to increase the number of chicks successfully fledging in the wild, and thereby improve the fortunes of Belize’s Yellow-headed Amazon.

Author: Dr. David Waugh, Correspondent, Loro Parque Fundación

Title photo: A group of released Yellow-headed Parrots on the feeding platform outside the release aviary. (c) Belize Bird Conservancy

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