- According to a recent study, 28%, or 111 out of the 398 extant parrot species, are classified as Threatened under IUCN criteria.
- Researchers concluded that large body size and specialized habitats such as islands or specific types of forested areas are biological factors that most significantly affect the extinction risk of parrots.
- Conservationists warn that if scientists fail to implement new conservation strategies, parrot populations face the risk of continued population decrease.
Known for their intelligence and extraordinary rock star-like appearances, parrots inhabit subtropical and tropical regions across the globe. They are one of the more well-known tropical bird species in the developed world, with appearances in popular culture ranging from their familiar role as a pirate’s talkative companion to colorful sports team mascots. These unique birds are valued for their beauty, companionship and intellectual abilities, making them a popular choice for household pets. However, their popularity comes with a great price.
“Parrots are the most threatened of any bird order of comparable size,” said George Olah, a Ph.D. scholar at Australian National University and the lead researcher of a recent study published in Biodiversity and Conservation that explores the parrot crisis. According to the paper, 28%, or 111 out of the 398 extant parrot species, are classified as Threatened under IUCN criteria. The avian group has also experienced a general decline in population over the past 25 years. Conservationists warn that if scientists fail to implement new conservation strategies, parrot populations face the risk of continued population decrease.
A Diverse Group in Decline
Parrots, which comprise the taxonomic order Psittacidae, are highly diverse in size, appearance, and habitat. There are currently over 300 species of parrots distributed around the world, with a majority of them living in heavily forested areas in Central and South America, Africa, and Australasia/Oceania.
“We are in danger of losing many species from this extraordinary bird group,” said Olah, who has conducted research on the parrot species group in countries including Argentina, Bolivia and Mexico. He has also worked for the Tambopata Macaw Project, a long-term research endeavor focused on the conservation of parrot species in Peru.
To uncover how parrots are faring in the Anthropocene, Olah and the research team examined trends in extinction risk for parrots from 1988-2012, utilizing a combination of the Red List Index (RLI), data collection of both the attributes of parrot species and the countries they live in, and statistical models as the criteria for determining parrot species’ endangerment. Their results show that trends in parrot populations are just as complex and diverse as the parrots themselves, with multiple factors possibly affecting populations and the severity of those effects differing across regions and habitat types.
Certain Biological Factors May Increase Risk
The study found that several biological variables contribute to increased extinction risk for certain parrot species, body size being one of the more influential of these variables. Larger parrots experience a highly increased threat of extinction, likely as a result of longer life spans, less progeny, and a higher risk of being hunted.
Parrots that have specialized habitats also face a higher risk of population decrease, according to the study. Researchers concluded that parrot species with habitats restricted to living in specific types of trees and a smaller habitat distribution area, faced a higher extinction risk than species that are able to thrive in a wider range of tree types. With approximately 70% of all parrot species depending on tree cavities for nesting in addition to relying on tree seeds and fruits as a food source, deforestation is destroying essential habitat areas for this predominantly tree-dwelling bird species group.
Not surprisingly, island endemism may be another factor in increasing extinction risk. The study notes that 88%, or 14 out of the 16 already extinct parrot species were restricted to island habitats. Although this factor is applied to extinct species, the results show that a restrictive island habitat may dramatically increase the chances of population loss, hence the high proportion of extinct island-dwelling parrot species.
Other variables considered in the study include migration patterns as well as social and nesting habits. However, researchers concluded that large body size and specialized habitats such as islands or specific types of forested areas are biological factors that most significantly affect extinction risk. Deforestation continually presents a risk to a majority of parrot populations, as many of these species rely on forested areas as a nesting area and a food source.
The Consequences of Human Development
In its analysis of the threat that human activity poses to parrot diversity, the study included factors such as invasive alien species, agriculture, hunting and trapping, energy production and mining, as well as residential and commercial development. The researchers note that the top three overall threats to parrots include agriculture, logging, hunting and trapping.
The results of the study indicate that agriculture, commercial, and residential development negatively impact parrot populations across all regions. However, the influence of factors on extinction risk varies by region. In Central and South America, agricultural development poses the greatest threat to parrots, while in Africa, hunting and trapping is the most damaging human-related factor. In Australasia/Oceania, logging coupled with commercial and residential development are the greatest dangers to the abundance of this species group.
Economic development certainly plays a role in extinction risk. Developing countries with rapidly increasing populations may encroach on certain parrot species’ habitats. Agricultural expansion in these countries greatly contributes to decline in populations, impacting approximately 30% of parrot populations worldwide. Logging poses a significant risk as well, affecting over 50% of parrot species living in the Indomalaya region alone.
Additionally, the results indicate a relationship between Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and level of extinction risk. Olah elaborates that “the severity of extinction risk (vulnerable to critically endangered) [is] positively related to the GDP of the countries of occurrence.” As a country’s GDP increases, so does the threat of parrot extinction.
The study also includes a ranked list of the countries with the highest extinction risks for parrot populations. The list reveals that Australia is ranked third out of the top 20 countries that present the highest extinction risks for parrots, which Olah found to be a bit surprising. While Australia is considered a developed country with considerable wildlife conservation regulations, the risk to its native parrot species is still high. Its ranking reinforces the relationship between GDP and increased risk to parrot populations.
The Role of Wildlife Trade
According to Olah’s study, parrot species are the most commonly sold type of bird in the wildlife trade. While one may think that the trapping and selling of these birds as pets could create dramatic increases in extinction risk, especially for birds living in specialized habitats, the recent study presented somewhat different results.
The results showed that the majority of species that were most commonly traded and bought as pets belonged to populations with lower endangerment status than other species.
However, Olah cautions that this does not mean that the wildlife trade is not affecting parrot populations. He explains that species such as the African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) are “heavily targeted for the pet trade and leading to local endangerment.” While the wildlife trade may not be one of the overall factors affecting parrot populations, it may still present dangers for parrots in more localized areas.
According to the study’s findings, it will be a challenge to devise solutions to decrease overall extinction risks for the species. Since the factors affecting extinction risks varies in different regions, it will take more than a global, blanket solution to address the issue.
Olah and his research team conclude that parrot extinction risks must be addressed at the regional and local levels. He asserts that “targeted conservation efforts are needed locally,” and adds that “further regional or country level analysis with more details would be needed to come up with local ‘remedies’ for parrot conservation.”
The study incorporates possible regional approaches to decreasing extinction risk in different regions. In South and Central America, it is critical that governments dedicate more attention to parrot site protection and management, especially concerning the sprawl of agriculture into parrot habitats. In Africa, where illegal hunting and trapping threaten bird populations, the study suggests that governments more consistently enforce hunting legislation.
There has been some progress in conservation efforts for parrots, with Olah describing “a new parrot plan [being] assembled by international researchers.” He hopes that his work will help these new efforts in creating solutions to decrease the extinction risk for the species group, as well as inspiring others to conduct more research on these charismatic birds.
There is much work to be done concerning the issue of dwindling parrot populations, and Olah contends that this study is “the first broad plank in our quest to bridge our knowledge gaps concerning these remarkable birds.”
Australian National University. Australian parrots need more protection (February 4th, 2016). http://www.anu.edu.au/news/all-news/australian-parrots-need-more-protection
Olah et al. (2016). Ecological and socio-economic factors affecting extinction risk in parrots. Biodiversity and Conservation, 25, 205-223. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10531-015-1036-z
Olah et al. (2014). Nest site selection and efficacy of artificial nests for breeding success of Scarlet Macaws Ara Macao Macao in lowland Peru. Journal for Nature Conservation, 22, 176 – 185. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jnc.2013.11.003