Nest-box revolution for wild Grey-breasted Parakeets

March 26th, 2020 | by David Waugh
Nest-box revolution for wild Grey-breasted Parakeets
Conservation projects

In 2007 the Brazilian NGO Aquasis conducted museum research and exhaustive field expeditions in its historically reported distribution in north-east Brazil. The search was instigated due to the alarming decline in the area of occurrence of the parakeet, caused mainly by habitat loss and the illegal traffic of wild-caught individuals. At least 16 locations were considered to be possible refuges for the species, but at that time only one population was found, in the humid upland forests of the Serra de Baturité in Ceará State. In consequence the Grey-breasted Parakeet was included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as ‘Critically Endangered’ and from that year the Loro Parque Fundación has supported the project of Aquasis to save this species from extinction. The Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP) has also been an early supporter.

The project field base and field team of Aquasis.

Over the intervening years this multi-disciplinary project has registered notable successes. It discovered other small populations in the upland areas of Serra do Mel in Quixadá and Serra Azul in Ibaretama, and very recently has added a fourth, small population located in Serra do Parafuso, Canindé. All these more humid sites are in Ceará State, and all are surrounded by a radically dry lowland environment, called Caatinga, where the species is not found. Surveys by the Aquasis team confirm that 90% of all mature individuals are only in the subpopulation of the Baturité Mountains, and the other three locations have relatively limited forest habitat. In these latter locations the Grey-breasted Parakeet appears to have adapted to these limitations by nesting on the rocky cliffs, whereas in the Baturité Mountains it is a tree-nester.

Grey-breasted Parakeet cooperatively breeding family at a nest-box.

Thus, the main focus of the project is protect and expand population of parakeets in the Baturité Mountains, where it has created a field base and office. From the field base the Aquasis team can liaise with the local environment authority, and especially with local landowners willing to create private reserves which Aquasis agrees to manage for the good of the Grey-breasted Parakeet. From the base the project also raises awareness within the local population about the parakeet and the importance of the forests, and also organizes presentations in the local schools. Another notable milestone of the project is the creation in 2018 of the Grey-breasted Parakeet Wildlife Refuge, an official protected area of 39 hectares created by the Government of Ceará State with the objective of protecting a key breeding area of the species. The area in which the refuge is situated has an environmental police post.

Map of the project area in the Baturité Mountains.

However, without doubt the Baturité population of the Grey-breasted Parakeet has dramatically increased because of the nest-box programme started in 2010. The programme involves weekly inspection of the installed nest-boxes, verification and management of invasive species such as bees and mammals, the selection and cataloguing of coordinates by GPS of new nest-box sites, marking the chicks using leg-bands (supplied by the Brazilian government), and repairing and renewing nest substrate of the boxes before and after each breeding season. At the same time, roost sites and natural nests are found through active searches and from interviews with local people. The leg-bands are important because the presence of marked breeders helps to understand issues such as nest fidelity and breeding site selection.

Putting a leg-band on Grey-breasted Parakeet chick.

The project has increased in the number of nest-boxes to one hundred, the greater number helping to decrease intra- and interspecific competition for nests, and possibly to dilute the effect of predators. By means of specific actions such as reduction of nest-box entrance size, changing the location of nest-boxes with frequent predation, and the capture and removal of predators, the project has reduced predation, but of course these events still occur, and 48 chicks were lost in 2019 due to predation. An opossum took advantage of the weathered wood of one nest-box to break it open and predate the chicks, but the main predator continues to be the paper-wasp, with seven attacks on nest-boxes and one on a tree cavity nest.

The Aquasis team shares project information with the local forest protection unit of the military police.

In some of the attacks the chicks were ready to fledge and escaped, while in some others the chicks flew prematurely or were injured. The project was able to successfully rehabilitate chicks and place them in foster nests. With the creation of the Grey-breasted Parakeet Wildlife Refuge, the Aquasis team placed 8 nest-boxes there and in 2019 recorded the first nest of the parakeet, and two other groups used nest-boxes for roosting. This is good news, because although the public area where the refuge was created is centrally located in the breeding area of the Grey-breasted Parakeet, it previously had no record of nests of the species.

Graph of the population growth of the Grey-breasted Parakeet in the Baturité Mountains.

The increase in the wild population of P. griseipectus in the Baturité Mountains by 2017 was so significant that the IUCN down-listed the species to ‘Endangered’ status. Since then the number of chicks fledging from nests has increased exponentially, and the results for the 2019 breeding season demonstrate a veritable nest-box revolution. There were 65 nest-boxes occupied by breeding parakeets, which between themlaid 523 eggs. From these eggs 379 chicks hatched, and 324 parakeets fledgedfrom the nest-boxes. The 2019 result means that the project has reached the cumulative mark of 1,165 Grey-breasted Parakeets fledged in Baturité Mountains in the 10 years of the nest-box programme. The last two censuses, in 2017 and 2018, of the Grey-breasted Parakeet wild population in the Baturité Mountains revealed a population increase from 314 to 456 individuals. In 2018, more than 120 people participated in three days of activities with lectures, training, bird-watching and the pre-breeding season simultaneous counting at the roost sites mapped throughout the year. Without doubt, the participation of volunteers in the census is an incredible tool for engaging the local community and students in conservation and citizen science.

Confiscated Grey-breasted Parakeets in transport boxes for transfer to Parque das Aves.

In December of 2019 a third census took place and the results will soon be available, with a further increase eagerly anticipated. The final strand of this successful project is that in May of 2019 the first 12 Grey-breasted Parakeet confiscated from illegal trade were sent to Parque das Aves, a zoological institution specializing in birds,to start an ex situ conservation programme in Brazil. These birds are the start of a cooperative breeding effort, in which the Loro Parque Fundación will take part, to create an insurance population, and to reintroduce the Grey-breasted Parakeet into areas of its historical occurrence.

Author: David Waugh, Correspondent, Loro Parque Fundación

Photos: 1,3 – F. Nunes/Aquasis; 2,4-8 – Aquasis


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