Red-tailed Amazons, bees and drones

March 8th, 2021 | by David Waugh
Red-tailed Amazons, bees and drones
Conservation projects

What kind of mattress suits you best for a good night’s sleep? Is it the spring kind, or foam, or maybe air or water, or even one that has hexagonal cells called a honeycomb base. If it is the latter, you are sharing this honeycomb experience with the Red-tailed Amazon (Amazona brasiliensis) except that, in the case of the parrot, it is real honeycomb. This has been observed in a long-running project of the Brazilian NGO, the Society for Wildlife Research and Environmental Education (SPVS), for the conservation of this species throughout its coastal distribution in south-east Brazil, especially in the State of Paraná. The Loro Parque Fundación finances this project, and since 1995 has supported activities for the study and protection of this species.

The Red-tailed Amazon is the flagship species for this poster, “Know and protect our coastline”.
Two well-feathered chicks at the entrance to a natural nest.

The Red-tailed Amazons nest in forest of the low-lying islands and neighbouring coastal plains, where they face diverse challenges to reproduce successfully. One of those challenges is that suitable nest cavities, both natural and artificial, can become colonised by introduced aggressive Africanized honeybees (Apis mellifera). While the bees are in residence the parrots are excluded, but after the bees vacate a nest, the parrots return to use the cavity again in the following breeding season. Pieces of broken honeycomb piled-up on the cavity floor, although not the usual substrate, do not deter the breeding amazons. Indeed, one can imagine that the body heat from the chicks (and brooding female) gradually softens the honeycomb in a way somewhat akin to a natural memory foam!

Nest-boxes occupied by Africanized honeybees are off-limits to Red-tailed Amazons.
The native Yellow jataí bee produces honey.

Unfortunately, the occupation of artificial nests by Africanized honeybees has increased in the past year, despite efforts to keep them in check. One initiative, which has been in progress for several years, is to train and support people from local communities in the Red-tailed Amazon breeding zone to keep native species of bees. The objectives include to help the native bees sustain healthy populations, and to provide local people with an additional source of income from the sale of honey, which in turn gives them an incentive to help protect the forest. The native bee species most favoured for honey production is the Yellow jataí (Tetragonisca angustula).

Native bees are used by beekeepers in the Red-tailed Amazon project region.
Honey from Yellow jataí bees.

During the 2019/2020 breeding season in Paraná, the lowest number of hatchings of Red-tailed Amazons in the last ten years was recorded. A total of 105 cavities suitable for forming nests were monitored, of which 74 eventually had breeding activity. A total of 155 eggs were laid, from which 69 (44.5%) chicks hatched. Of those, only 15 (21.8%) successfully fledged. On the south coast of São Paulo State, 23 suitable nest cavities were monitored, with only five of them showing breeding activity. In those, nine eggs were laid, seven chicks hatched and five of them successfully fledged. The poor results are surprising, the numbers being 34% lower than those recorded for the previous breeding season, and similar to the results prior to the installation of artificial nests from 2003.

Red-tailed Amazon chicks hatched on old honeycomb.
Climbing to a Red-tailed Amazon nest.

The SPVS researchers postulate that natural predators, human interference and climate change could all have influenced the reproductive output. Predation was higher, and climate changes took temperatures to extremes, increasing the possibility of diseases and decreasing the food supply. Even with the research team in place to monitor the breeding areas, cases of theft of parrot chicks for illegal sale are still recorded, especially on the coast of São Paulo, as well as illegal felling of trees used by the amazons for nesting. The project has witnessed an increase in the Red-tailed Amazon from perhaps less than 2,500 in the mid-1990s to almost 10,000 nowadays, and it has been removed from the IUCN Red List as a threatened species. However, the presence of the threats shows the prudence of continued monitoring. In 2019, the Red-tailed Amazon annual census recorded approximately 9,365 individuals, with about 80% of the population concentrated in Paraná.

Flying a drone (indicated with red arrow) over forest to monitor Red-tailed Amazon nests.
Drone`s-eye view into an open-topped nest cavity in a clearing.

The monitoring of the nests can be arduous. Not only is the forest dense with mosquitos during the breeding season, every nest tree must be climbed several times during the season using all the expected safe climbing paraphernalia. After so many years, the field team is hardened to it, and knows it must continue. However, the project is now testing a new method of nest monitoring using technology: it is using drones to search for new breeding sites and to verify occupied tree cavities. In the municipality of Cananéia, in one of the breeding sites with nests already mapped by the project team, testing of the utility of a drone to verify the occupation of the tree cavities, by means of taking photographs inside the cavities, has been conducted. Drone use is likely to become more versatile and sophisticated, but from the testing done so far, the project team have proven that the type of tree cavity available in the Queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana), with the cavity opening upwards, is the most effective for drone monitoring. In addition, it has been found that the sparser the vegetation, such as in forest clearings, the better is the guidance of the drone for nest cavity search and verification.

Author: David Waugh, Correspondent, Loro Parque Fundación

Photos Credit: title, 1, 3-10 – SPVS; 2 – Rafael de Rivera/SPVS


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