Parrots in America are getting attention
U.S. researchers are launching studies on Mexico's red-crowned parrot. The species has been adapting well to living in cities in California and Texas. The birds escaped from the pet trade. The total U.S. population may now rival that in its native country.
The research comes amid debate over whether some of the birds flew across the border into Texas and should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Parrots in U.S. urban areas are just starting to draw attention from scientists. That is because of the birds' intelligence, resourcefulness and ability to adapt. There is a growing realization that the city dwellers may offer a population that could help save certain species from extinction.
Parrots are thriving today in cities from Los Angeles to Brownsville, Texas. Meanwhile, in the tropics and subtropics, a third of all parrot species are at risk of going extinct. This is because of habitat loss and the pet trade.
Most are believed to have escaped from importers or smugglers over the past 50 years. Tens of thousands of parrots were brought into the United States from Latin America.
Scientists only now are starting to study them.
One is Donald Brightsmith. After doing most of his research in places like Peru, Brightsmith is concentrating on the squawking birds that nest in Washingtonian palms. The birds line avenues and roost in the oak trees in front lawns in South Texas.
"Parrots in urban settings are of great interest to me," the Texas A&M University biologist said. "I see these as kind of future insurance policies."
Brightsmith has received a two-year grant. It came from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Researchers want to get an official count on the state's red-crowned parrot population. And they want to determine whether threats against them are increasing.
The research could help drive ways to maintain the population that prefers the cities and suburbs.
"It's more of an urban planning, landscape, ecology issue. And not so much how do we protect an area of pristine nature," he said. Brightsmith would like to team up with scientists in California.
Researchers want to someday study the gene pool. They have one big question. Do genetically pure red-crowned parrots still exist? If so, they could replenish the flocks in their native habitat.
"We could have a free backup stock in the U.S.," Brightsmith said.
In Mexico, biologists are working on getting an updated count. The last study was in 1994. It estimated the population at 3,000 to 6,500 birds. That was a decline from more than 100,000 in the 1950s. This is because of deforestation and raids on the nesting young to feed the pet trade.
"We suspect the population in South Texas could rival the number found in the wild in Mexico," said Karl Berg. He is a biologist. He teaches at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Berg received a grant to study the red-crowned parrot in Brownsville.
Biologists estimate the population at close to 1,000 birds in Texas. More than 2,500 live in California. There, they are the most common of more than a dozen parrot species.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 2011 listed it as an indigenous species. It is thought the parrots flew north across the border. They came because lowland areas in Mexico were cleared in the 1980s for ranching and agriculture. But scientists debate that.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that same year announced that the red-crowned parrot warranted federal protection. This is because of habitat loss and poaching for the pet trade. The red-crowned parrot remains a candidate. The agency reviews it annually.
Some in the pet trade fear a listing under the Endangered Species Act. It could prevent them from breeding the birds and moving them across state lines.
Conservationists question whether any of the birds are native to Texas. They ask, why should parrots be listed when there are so many species in need of protection in the United States?
"It seems odd to me," said Kimball Garrett, a parrot expert at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. "I don't know that there is enough evidence to show the birds flew for hundreds of miles from their native range and went across the border."
Brooke Durham said the birds need more protection. Durham runs a parrot rescue center. It is called SoCal Parrot. The center is in the town of Jamul. It is east of San Diego. The center treats up to 100 birds a year.
Recently at her sprawling home-turned-sanctuary, dozens of birds were being nursed. The birds had suffered broken bones and pellet gun wounds. Most were red-crowned parrots.
Animal cruelty laws offer about the only protection for the birds in California. That is because they are not native to the state or migratory.
"People complain about the noise. But they're just not educated about the birds," she said. "They don't realize these birds are endangered."
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why didn't these parrots get attention before?
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