Thick-billed Parrots: My First Encounter

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Simon and a thick-billed parrot chick seem to have the same expression!

Simon and a thick-billed parrot chick seem to have the same expression!

Simon is in Mexico to research the health of thick-billed parrots. Read his previous post, Thick-billed Parrots: Preparing

It would appear, somewhat surprisingly I feel sure you will agree, that there is a distinct lack of Internet signal in the middle of a mountainous forest at 10,000 feet, and my request for it (the Internet) to be installed has hitherto gone unnoticed by the Mexican State authorities. Something about protecting the natural landscape….

It is for this reason that my ability to keep you updated on our fieldwork here has been a little wanting. Luckily for you (!), I have recently discovered that I can get a great connection by standing on one leg, holding my breath, and performing a Bolshoi-worthy arabesque over an open cliff to catch the southwesterly wind. The things I do for the San Diego Zoo.

It would also appear, although perhaps not surprisingly, that spending time in the middle of a thick coniferous forest, hours from anything even closely resembling a town, does funny things to one’s constitution. Socks, for example, suddenly don’t smell anymore. At least not until day three. Or four.

parrot_thickbill_roostingNow lest I get caught up in the intimate details of exactly how many days it takes to become light-headed at one’s own stench, I should get somewhat to the point: the parrots. As I mentioned in the first post, we are here as part of a collaborative project to aid the conservation of the endangered thick-billed parrots, or guacamaya as they are known locally. Spanish already 100% improved (see first posting). We have joined a team of Mexican ecologists who have been studying these green-and-red birds for many years and documenting the fragmentation of their habitat and subsequent population decline. Our role is to assess the health of the parrots and determine whether habitat changes are creating new opportunities for exposure to disease and whether disease is involved in the decline of this species.

Although we have moved on now, our first field site was in Madera, Chihuahua, and getting my first sight of a flock of parrots flying overhead as I enjoyed my morning coffee was really wonderful. Noisy, but wonderful. If you have never heard these birds, you should visit them the next time you are at Condor Ridge at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park: it is quite something! Here in these mountains their sound can be heard for miles, and they have become such a significant part of the cultural history of the Sierra Madres that many local communities have “iconicized” them in art and pottery. I actually bought a little myself, and quite delightful it is, too!

A thick-billed parrot pair at their nest entrance.

A thick-billed parrot pair at their nest entrance.

When we were in Madera, five-star accommodation was provided in the form of a tiny forest cabin that had a bed (albeit only 4 feet long) and a shower, from which the water poured so pitifully that it would have taken 2 hours to wash your pet hamster. But it was shelter, and given the daily afternoon downpour, it provided the perfect place to set up our mobile lab. Because of this rain, each day started quite early, so add puffy eyes to the unwashed hair and three-day-old socks, and you have a scientist that may not be entirely Vogue ready but is certainly thick-billed parrot ready. Ready, that is, to hike to the high-elevation nesting sites of the thick-bills. Which, I may add, is another thing that is not so easy at 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) and, in common with the requirements for securing Internet connection here, also seems to end up with my not having any breath and, on occasions, having to steady myself (and my samples) with a not-so-Bolshoi-worthy arabesque. Ever the consummate professional.

This is NOT Simon!

This is NOT Simon!

For the most part, thick-bills like to nest in very old, very tall, and very dead trees, using large hollows that are initially carved out by woodpeckers. Many of those we saw were either pine or fir trees, and many bore the scars of the lightning strikes that were probably responsible for their current, rather dead, state. Thick-bill pairs will actually return to the same nest year after year, assuming, of course, that the nest is still there! Sadly we saw many nest-trees that had either fallen or been cut down since last year. When we did find one in the upright position, we would climb the tree to reach the nest and temporarily remove the chicks for a quick health assessment down on the ground. Of course, when I say “we” climbed the tree, I think you have probably already deduced this is not likely to mean “me” but rather the expertly trained Mexican field technicians that you can see in the photos! Those trees are VERY high!

Three thick-billed parrot chicks in their nest.

Three thick-billed parrot chicks in their nest.

In total, we examined chicks from 8 nests in Madera (total of 18 chicks), and once we got back to our little cabin each day, we would do all the molecular analyses of the samples, looking to see if we could find any evidence of infection. Certainly makes the day a long one, but you only have to look at the picture of the little chick here to see that it is worth it.

A thick-billed parrot chick is ready for its exam.

A thick-billed parrot chick is ready for its exam.

At one point I looked up into a tree to see over 30 thick-bills all sitting there, chattering away. It makes you think that things are looking good for these birds, and hopefully over time they will be. However, when you consider that only a few of those birds are actually breeding because of a lack of suitable trees, or because food is short, or even because of disease, it reminds you that there is a lot of work to do!

Right now we are at field site number 2 (Tutuaca), and I have samples to analyze and socks to clean! I will post again in a few days, where I would like to tell you more about the people we are working with.

Now, to get that Internet signal….

Simon Anthony is a research fellow with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

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