The 20th Anniversary of “Proyecto Ognorhynchus”: Back from the abyss, the Yellow-eared Parrot unites a nation

February 9th, 2020 | by David Waugh
The 20th Anniversary of “Proyecto Ognorhynchus”:  Back from the abyss, the Yellow-eared Parrot unites a nation
Conservation projects

Please raise a glass to the beautiful Yellow-eared Parrot (Ognorhynchus icterotis), because 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of a remarkable project to save a species teetering on the edge of extinction, following its rediscovery in Colombia. Fundación ProAves, the Loro Parque Fundación and other contributors are celebrating the historic accomplishments of shared relentless efforts in research, conservation, and education over the last two decades of ‘Proyecto Ognorhynchus’.

Yellow-eared Parrots (Ognorhynchus icterotis).

Throughout the 20th century to the present day the decline of wildlife populations, particularly in tropical forests, has been inexorable, but few species showed such a catastrophic decline as the Yellow-eared Parrot. At the beginning of the last century the Yellow-eared Parrot, a large brilliant yellow and green parrot, was common in mountain forests in the Andes of Colombia and Ecuador, where it depended on Quindío wax palms(Ceroxylon quindiuense), the world’s tallest palm, for nesting in their trunks, roosting on fronds at night and feeding on the fruit.

A rare patch of Quindío wax palm forest.
Cattle-grazing prevents the growth of new wax palms.

By 1991 only two flocks were known to survive, none were recorded in captivity, and the global population numbered less than 50 individuals. Extensive conservation and research efforts in Ecuador were led by Dr. Niels Krabbe and supported by the LPF and the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Populations and Species (ZGAP). The LPF purchased land to protect a stand of palms and forest used by the last dwindling flock of 21 individuals in Ecuador, but this last flock vanished in 1998, and extinction seemed inevitable. In 1986 the wax palm was declared the national tree of Colombia, but is also threatened, having been assessed as globally vulnerable by the IUCN. Deforestation for cattle pastures combined with overharvesting of the trees’ leaves for use in the Catholic celebration of Palm Sunday have nearly wiped out the wax palm.

A pair of yellow-eared parrot on a wax palm trunk.

However, in 1997 there was a report of a flock of 24 Yellow-eared Parrots in the Cordillera Central of Colombia, prompting a team to establish a search and recover project, ‘Proyecto Ognorhynchus’ (and eventually to establish Fundación ProAves), with support from the LPF, ZGAP/Fund for Threatened Parrots (FfBP), American Bird Conservancy and Sociedad Antioqueña de Ornitología. Subsequently the species could not be relocated, but just as efforts were drawing to a close the project team visited the remote Cucuana valley in the Central Andes of Tolima. There, on 18th April 1999, Yellow-eared Parrots were found once again, with a total of 81 birds, including a breeding pair at a nest at the site. There was hope after all!

Plumaged Yellow-eared Parrot chicks in the nest.

The Proyecto Ognorhynchus team immediately launched a conservation programme in an emergency response to study and protect the species, gathering a wealth of information on the species’ ecology and natural history. It was clear that the Yellow-eared Parrot was an exceptionally social and strongly bonding species, dispersing from the wax palm roost sites at first light, gradually returning and arriving at the roost sites by mid- to late-afternoon. Multiple major threats faced the Yellow-eared Parrot and the wax palm upon which the bird depends. The four principal threats were hunting for food and sport, habitat loss and complete lack of protected areas where the species occurred, lack of nest site availability because dead standing wax palms were cut down by farmers, and overharvesting of wax palm fronds for Palm Sunday by felling wax palm stands. With these principal threats identified, the team formulated a conservation strategy, and its implementation has been fully supported by Loro Parque Fundación, to date with US$1,611,444.

Juvenile Yellow-eared Parrot in a weighing bag.

The project sought permission to work at the newly discovered colony, located within a stronghold of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) guerrillas and a zone for confrontations with the National Army of Colombia. The FARC declared that any person who killed a Yellow-eared Parrot could face death.  Unsurprisingly, local inhabitants strictly adhered to the ban so that the threat from hunting stopped immediately, and thereafter the ProAves team had no evidence of a parrot being harmed.

A precarious climb to maintain a nest-box on the wax palm trunk.

A majorobstacle was lack of enforcement of wax palm protection, and by the 1990’s the core populations of Quindío wax palm were restricted to 12 sites in Colombia (and four in northern Peru). Wax palms develop slowly, not reaching maturity until 75+ years old. In the Cucuana valley, sporadic pastures have stands of uniformly mature wax palms of almost 100 years and over 20 meters tall. The height of the palms makes them ideal nesting sites for the parrots, being largely inaccessible to terrestrial predators. However, cattle grazing of palm seedlings results in almost zero recruitment. Research by ProAves showed that standing dead palm trunks were scarce, causing a lack of suitable nest sites to form a colony. From the Cucuana flock of 81 birds, just one chick fledged in 1999 from a 20-meter standing dead hollow palm. To address these problems, Fundación ProAves sought the collaboration of local farmers to change farming methods.  Once the rural community of Roncesvalles Municipality was made aware that the fate of the parrot and palm was in its hands, that knowledge triggered an extraordinary positive response from farmers and the entire community. 

Yellow-eared Parrot leaving the nest through the cut entrance.

No more dead palms were cut down and project staff helped farmers to protect forest patches from cattle. A palm nursery was established by the project to grow seedlings and plant a future generation in secure locations. Within just a few years, Yellow-eared Parrot breeding activities and reproductive success rates drastically increased. Furthermore, the project developed one of the first artificial nest-box campaigns in the Neotropics to supplement natural sites.  Using wood shaped and painted as palm trunks, nest-boxes were mounted on live palms. The parrots’ use of the boxes was slow at first, but later deployment in new colonies with limited dead palms proved more successful.  The most successful technique to facilitate nest availability was to cut a small (10-12 cm diameter) hole half-way up the side of a recently dead palm. Parrots readily took to these palms and breeding productivity accelerated. Within only three years the breeding colony grew and fledged 93 young in 2002, with two “back-to-back” nesting seasons per year. The fledgling recruitment success rate averaged 64% for all breeding pairs. Of successful nests, an average 55% of nests fledged one chick, 31% fledged two chicks and 14% of fledged three chicks.

Sign for the Loro Andinos Reserve.

The Yellow-eared Parrot feeds on more than 18 different fruiting trees, regularly changing routes to seasonal sources of fruit, but predominately feeds on only six plant species. With 89% of montane cloud forests in the region having been cleared, mainly for cattle pasture, and the last surviving forests of the Cucuana and Cucuanita valleys totally unprotected, habitat protection was the next focus for the project. While the Loro Parque Fundación continued its support of all on-going project activities, in 2009 the Rainforest Trust and the American Bird Conservancy helped the purchase of private properties to establish the 3,998 ha Loros Andinos Bird Reserve in Roncesvalles Municipality (Tolima). The 189 ha Loro Orejiamarillo Bird Reserve was also established in Jardín Municipality (Antioquia) to create a base of conservation efforts for this new population. Furthermore, private property owners in the Cucuana valley were willing to enrol in a land stewardship scheme to set-aside land for regeneration and reforestation.

Yellow-eared Parrot feeding on fruits.

Palm Sunday is observed by hundreds of thousands of adherents to the Roman Catholic Church across the Andes of Colombia. Sadly, just in Jardín alone in 2001, 200-300 wax palms were cut down to secure the 4-5 innermost emerging fronds used in the Palm Sunday procession. Wax palms were decimated ahead of each Holy Week, presenting perhaps the single biggest long-term threat to the survival of the parrot and palm. However, the project succeeded in convincing several priests in rural villages to stop using wax palms. ProAves helped by providing hundreds of wax palm seedlings for parishioners to carry in the processions with the message to plant them at home.  This was largely a success, with only a few wax palm fronds used. From 2002, with Loro Parque Fundación support, ProAves and Conservation International-Colombia united with regional environmental corporations across Colombia to form a major national awareness campaign, called “Reconcile with Nature”.  This immediately gained media attention, with a free TV advertisement on the palm and parrot repeated on national TV channels before and during Holy Week for several years. The attention galvanized authorities to enforce the law and then, in 2004, the Cardinal of the Catholic church of Colombia instigated a nationwide ban on using wax palms in Palm Sunday processions, which from that moment celebrated nature and life.

Children celebrate the Yellow-eared Parrot in front of their school.

To sustain the momentum, ProAves in partnership with governmental entities sent the “Loro bus” (Parrot Bus), a mobile environmental classroom, to reach hundreds of remote rural schools and communities across the Andes. For almost five years the bus toured the Andes educating and involving an average of 2,600 children and 400 adults per month.  Saving the wax palm and Yellow-eared parrot was the new tradition, embraced and institutionalized across all generations of Colombians. 

Palm Sunday with no wax palms, but many other colourful plants.
The whole town participates in its Yellow-eared Parrot and wax palm festival.

How has the Yellow-eared Parrot population responded? In addition to 93 chicks fledging successfully by 2002, a second breeding population of Yellow-eared Parrots was located in the Western Andes between the Municipality of Jardin (Antioquia) and Rio Sucio (Caldas), 155 km directly north of the Cucuana valley. This was the beginning of the species recolonizing areas with wax palms from the two source populations with significant nesting activity.  By 2010, the population had risen to 1,103 although only 106 breeding pairs were active (most individuals were immature), and by 2013, there were 1,408 individuals. A national parrot census was organized by ProAves in December 2018 which was simultaneously conducted at 41 sites in seven Departments in the Western, Central and Eastern Cordilleras, and confirmed exactly 2,250 individuals. A repeat census in April 2019 surveyed 12 locations in four Departments and documented 2,601 individuals, including 998 in Roncesvalles (a 13-fold increase since 1999). The April count is deemed most accurate as it was undertaken when most individuals congregate at roosts in the breeding colonies. The current best estimate of 1,000+ mature individuals and the continued recovery warrant a downgrade of IUCN threat status to Near-threatened. Flocks have already expanded southward to within 110 km of wax palms in Ecuador, where the Yellow-eared Parrot’s expected return is imminent.

The Global Big Day Bird Count also includes the Yellow-eared Parrots.

Two decades of an intensive, multifaceted, science-driven conservation effort initiated by Fundación ProAves, with twenty years of major support from Loro Parque Fundación, have resulted in the most successful recovery of a species on the brink of extinction in the Americas. Many other individuals, organizations and entities also deserve gratitude for supporting the initiative to make a difference. Last but not least, thanks are due to the people of Colombia. The dire plight of the parrot and palm united a nation to work collaboratively, to make changes and give nature hope.

Author: Paul Salaman1, Alex Cortes1 and David Waugh2

1. Fundación ProAves de Colombia, 2. Loro Parque Fundación

Title photo: A pair and one helper of Yellow-eared Parrots at a nest-box. (c) Fundación ProAves

Other photos: 1,2,4-16 – Fundación ProAves; 3 – A. Advent


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