Earlier this year ten members of staff from Chester Zoo went on an expedition to Ecuador in the hope of helping to protect the Ecuador Amazon parrot from extinction. The team spent two weeks following the bird, which was only recognised as a species in its own right in December 2013 after years of study by Dr Mark Pilgrim, the zoo’s director general.
Dr Mark Pilgrim in Ecuador
The Ecuador Amazon parrot was previously considered to be a subspecies of a common group of birds, with a population of about 5 million, and as a result of the size of the population it did not rank among conservationists’ priorities.
However, since the bird received full species status the parrot has now taken on a new level of importance with only 600 individuals estimated to be left, prompting the species to be officially listed as endangered and put at a very high risk of extinction in the wild.
The listing was made for the first time by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, which evaluates the conservation status of plant and animals species.
Based on the findings of our Chester Zoo researchers the IUCN is now classifying the birds as an endangered species.
Ecuador Amazon parrot
The expedition team were based in the Cerro Blanco forest in South West Ecuador where they managed to gather new information on the parrots’ behaviour and feeding habits. They conducted a survey on the two unique types of habitat that they rely on to survive – mangroves and dry forest.
Dr Mark Pilgrim tells us more:
“Very little was known about the Ecuador Amazon parrot in the wild. That’s precisely why the team and I spent a number of weeks trekking in the oppressive humidity of the forest - one of the few remaining remnants of tropical dry forest in the world – to gather new data about the species.
Chester Zoo team walking through the forest
"If truth be told though we actually came back with far more questions than answers. Suddenly, there are a number of things that we didn't expect and we now have questions about – but that’s science.
"We knew from past literature and from a previous visit we had made that the parrots roost in the mangroves and fly to the dry forests to feed. The assumption was that they did that to protect themselves from predators that were not found on the mangrove islands.
"However, the birds fly very, very far out into the mangroves – why do they need to do that? Nearby shrimp farms use bird scaring devices, which are designed to frighten herons and shore birds and stop them eating the farms' stock. So is this affecting the parrots' behaviour? We just don't know.
Ecuador Amazon parrots in flight
"From our survey of 30km of forest trails and from images we managed to obtain via our camera traps, we saw there is a wide amount of biodiversity within the Cerro Blanco Forest, illustrating a healthy ecosystem.
"We saw no evidence of illegal activity and areas that just 20 years ago used to be farm land are now on their way to be restored to their former glory. This is excellent news – a credit to the work that the Pro Bosque Foundation [a local conservation organisation working to protect the forest] puts in and a real basis for hope in terms of preserving not only the parrots but all of the other wonderful wildlife that calls the forest its home as well. In that sense, it is very reassuring that the area appears to be well protected.
"While there is concern, there is still a lot to do before we can make clear and bold statements about exactly what is happening to this fantastic species."
We now hope to repeat the Cerro Blanco survey every three years in order to build up a long-term dataset that would allow researchers to monitor the parrots' population dynamics.
Read more about our Ecuador expedition here in our series of blogs here.
We are Chester Zoo and we Act for Wildlife
We currently have 12 Ecuador Amazon parrots in our rare parrot breeding centre at Chester Zoo, and there are 80 parrots being housed in the endangered species breeding programmes in zoos across Europe.
Chester Zoo Ecuador Amazon parrot
According to scientific literature the expedition team were there during the parrots’ breeding season (late January/ early February), however the team recorded very lone bird activity in the forest, which would be expected as a lone bird would be a single feeding whilst the mate is on the nest. This suggested that very few birds are breeding in what literature records would have as being the breeding season.
The Ecuador Amazon parrot nests in cavities in tree trunks/branches. They prefer trees with softer bark and need the trunk/branch to be wide enough to host a cavity with an entrance hole of 15 cm wide. These cavities are usually made by woodpeckers then expanded by the parrots before nesting
A total of 209 trees were plotted on the 27.45 km of trails walked by the expedition team, with any potential nesting tree within 30m either side of the path recorded
This means that 1.65 km2 was surveyed in a total area spanning 60 km2. This works out as 126.6 trees per km2. Therefore it is estimated that there are 7,600 potential nesting trees in the 6,000 hectares reserve.