The Parrots Next Door

Thick-billed Parrot

Thick-billed Parrot © Tom Wood

The Parrots Next Door by Tom Wood

One of the saddest stories in American ornithology is the loss of the Carolina Parakeet, the only parrot native to the eastern United States, in 1918. I remember being brought almost to tears by the specimen of Carolina Parakeet on display at the Smithsonian Museum, imagining a southern swamp made alive by parrot voices.

Out west, we had another parrot that visited our border mountain ranges. The large, noisy, Thick-billed Parrot was a frequent visitor to the pine forests of Arizona and New Mexico as far north as the Verde River. They ventured north from their stronghold in Mexico in years when drought reduced their food supply and were commonly seen from the 1880’s to the 1930’s. In 1917-18 thousands of Thick-billed Parrots were present in the Arizona mountains. But the parrots are big, noisy and tasty – a dangerous combination in the days before regulated hunting. Historical photos show hunters and miners with dozens of dead parrots. The last wild bird in the U.S. was seen in the Chiricahua Mountains in 1938.

But Thick-billed Parrots are not extinct. In fact, across the border in the mountains of Mexico Thick—billed Parrots still fill the air with their raucous calls. The nearest population at Mesa de las Guacamayas (mesa of the parrots) is 50 miles from the border and within sight of the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona. For years, we have been traveling 150 miles south from our home to the logging village of Madera, Chihuahua to see the parrots. We usually associate parrots with tropical forests, but here, high in a pine forest in Mexico the loud chatter of parrots is unmistakable. We usually hear the birds long before we see them; the call may carry two miles and the birds are rarely quiet. With local guides we visit the nesting site, groves of the largest aspens I have ever seen. High overhead the birds return to the roost in late afternoon after feeding in the nearby pine forests. It never fails to give me goosebumps.

These parrots are among the most endangered parrots in the world with an estimated population around 2000. A number of groups have been working on preserving this rare species, but no partners are more important than the local ejidos, the farming cooperatives that control the land. Locals have set aside areas protected from logging in order to protect the birds. Our birding trips help provide funds to the local community and encourage conservation.Efforts to reintroduce the birds into the U.S. were complicated by the complex social order of the flocks and the inability for naive captive bred birds to evade predators. Perhaps the best hope is to ensure that the birds do well in Mexico. If they decide to immigrate, the Chiricahuas are a one hour flight from Mesa de las Guacamayas.

Sheri and Tom (Southwest)

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One Response to “The Parrots Next Door”

  1. Rich Wagner says:

    Nice post, Tom.

    I, too, have enjoyed the raucous noise of Thick-billed Parrots in pine forests near Madera, watching in amazement as chips of pine cones fell like rain as the parrots fed. There is really no experience like it.

    As recently as 2006, there was discussion of a second reintroduction program in Arizona, using wild-caught birds from Mexico, but for numerous reasons the reintroduction efforts were abandoned. In addition, current Mexican law (General Wildlife Law Decree 60 Bis 2) bans the exportation of all parrot species, and it is not clear that an exemption exists under the legislation to allow for translocation of birds into the U.S. After a December 2010 Stipulated Settlement Agreement between WildEarth Guardians and the Secretary of the Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepared a recovery plan for the Thick-billed Parrot. The draft (June 2012) is available here:
    and the final Recovery Plan is due to be finalized by June 2013.

    Of course, the biggest threat to the survival of this magnificent bird is deforestation of the Sierra Madre Occidental, which is driven in large part by the drug trade. Even in 2006, marijuana was being grown right in the protected nesting areas of the parrots.
    Complex socioeconomic factors make conservation of this species difficult, as with essentially all other endangered species. Obviously, anything that we can do to tip the balance in the birds’ favor is worthwhile.