Arizona’s Extirpated, Native Parrots

Arizona’s Extirpated, Native Parrots

There’s a difference between book smart and bar smart. You may not be book smart, but this series can make you seem educated and interesting from a barstool. So, belly up, pour yourself a glass of something good and take mental notes as we talk about the native parrots of Arizona.

When most folks think of parrots, they picture a tropical, Southern Hemisphere forest. These birds’ vibrant colors and unique vocalizations would seem out of place in the deserts of Arizona. But that’s exactly where the thick-billed parrot used to thrive.

The thick-billed parrot is one of two species of parrot native to the US (the other is the Carolina parakeet, which went extinct in 1918). At their peak, reports of thousand bird flocks weren’t uncommon. Their native range stretches from Mexico to Utah, Arizona to Texas, but these days they’re restricted to just a few portions of Mexico’s Sierra Madre.

The birds were extirpated from the US in the early 1900s through logging, development and overhunting. Eighty-eight birds were released in the Chiricahua Montains on the Mexico border in the 1980s and 1990s, a combination of captive-bred individuals and specimens confiscated from smugglers.

Lacking flocking instincts and survival skills, the formerly caged birds quickly disappeared and the project failed. Ornithologists speculated that many of them fell prey to hawks, even though the parrots are equipped to outfly almost any predator. A 1995 New York Times article perfectly summed up the blunder.

“Liberated, the parrots took solo journeys to other mountain regions, foraged for pine cones in forests that had no pine trees and showed a lack of interest in socializing with their fellow avians.”

No restocking efforts have been made since, but dwindling thick-billed populations in Mexico may change that. With about 1,700 of the species left in the wild and a downward trend projected, conservationists may look to Arizona and New Mexico as potential opportunities to renew the North American population.

“There are still hopes of returning this magnificent bird to the sky islands,” the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory says on their website.

I’ll raise a glass to that. Here’s to another homecoming for thick-bills in the Land of the Free, but this time not as hawk food.

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