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Child Protection Services for Parrots

(originally published July l6, 2016 about the La Moskitia, Honduras project 2016))

We are only beginning to learn about the bond between parrots. I have seen parrots become depressed (decreased activity and not eating) after the death of a mate. When one parent has been killed or taken by a poacher, I have a sense of what this means for the surviving mate. There is also a strong relationship between parents and offspring, and it begins in the egg. One recent study showed that some bird chicks in the egg learn their parent’s specific individual call, and that later in development, some parrot chicks learn their own “names.” (see video). There is a lot going on between eggs, chicks, and parents, and we are only now beginning to learn about this topic.

Parents perched nearby

Sometimes when we climb nests to examine the nest status and health of chicks, the parents sit quietly nearby. Other times they circle the nest a few times, calling, and then leave the area. Sometimes pairs circle 20 or more times, calling, swoop close to the climber up in the tree, and if they leave the area, soon return to call and watch over us. Though I have not seen evidence that our presence permanently harms the macaw family, there is stress and uncomfortable feelings for the parents.

Scarlet macaw chick (1-2 days old) and egg from which she just hatched

One scarlet macaw pair this year in our study area near the village of Mabita, Honduras, showed surprising interest in a cavity late in the reproductive season. When we went to climb the tree the female ducked into the cavity and did not come out even though we were talking directly below the nest. We immediately left the area because experience has shown us that if a nest is disturbed in early incubation there is a greater chance the nest will be abandoned. She did not abandon the nest then nor did she a few weeks later when we climbed it when there were eggs, and then again when the chick was only one day old. Today the chick is a healthy and huge, due to fledge in early September. This is the latest fledging date we have of any scarlet macaw at this point in La Moskitia, Honduras.

Two pairs of adults circling a nest we are climbing

Perhaps this even extends to other adults in the area. This year, a nest with a chick was protected by a pair other than the parents, who circled several times calling. Then to our surprise, a nearby pair joined the parents to circle the tree we were climbing. The extra pair soon left but the parents remained perched nearby. I imagine that the parents are torn between self preservation and care for their chicks (as probably are most parents), and our presence elicits many emotions and decisions that must be made.

The chicks, too, warn us off. We can hear the chicks vocalizing with each other if there are two of them, and sometimes even one chick will be chatting in the nest as we approach. Once the climber gets further up the tree, the soft murmurings turn into loud squawks, which can continue until the chick realizes that no harm will come to them. These cries often bring in the parents if they are nearby, and our research team is bombarded by macaw warning calls.

Chick ready to fledge at nearly 3 months of age, but waiting for parents to escort her away

Our climbers have never been attacked, but in one study area, the macaw parents attacked a forest falcon who was carrying off one of their chicks. There is risk for the parents to attack a predator and to defend their nest when predators, such as we humans are present. Parents also protect their chicks after they leave the nest, often for months. Sometimes when the chicks fledge, they do so unsuccessfully and fall to the ground. Parents will perch nearby and guard their fallen chick. If we find a chick on the ground, we put the chick back into the nest cavity where there is greater protection and then the chick can try again. The parents accept this manipulation on our part. If the chick falls a second time, we bring him to the rescue center, because the risk of predation is great with a bird on the ground. This was the case of the chick in nest #55 (see below) where it was found under the nest tree, with blood and a pile of lost wing feathers around her. We don’t know the story here, whether the chick or parent fended off a predator, but the chick survived and is now in our rescue center where she will soon fly free.

Chick on ground after a predator attack. To post this photo, the picture was taken using a cell phone, then a team member climbed a hill to get a phone signal from Nicaragua, and then posted it on Facebook.

Even when chicks are not present, I have heard the calls of parents circling a tree where a chick has recently been poached. Those calls, to my ear, have a different tone and pitch; what I would describe as plaintive.

All of this experience informs me that one does not manipulate wild parrots without due cause and not without some heartache on the conservationist’s part. Hunting and poaching of parrots breaks up family bonds, which is stressful to the birds emotionally and mentally, and also usually has dire physical and health consequences for the chicks who unwillingly become part of the illegal wildlife trade. The parrots are evolutionarily wired to protect their chicks and eggs for nearly 4 months in the nest, and then for many months after chicks leave the nest. This is a huge investment of time, suggesting that the bond is strong to keep parents attentive to their maturing chicks.

School presentation with a parent and chick puppet to help children understand the biology, ecology, and conservation of parrots

When I give presentations or work with school and community groups, I speak about these bonds, and how some parrot parents “name” their chicks. I also share how some parrot species have the intelligence of a 3-5 year old human child (in some cognitive function tests). I then ask, would you want your child or sibling taken from you and placed into a cage for the rest of his life, with no family, no diversion, unable to run, with inadequate food and healthcare, often with injuries sustained during the kidnapping? The answer I hear is always no, as it should be for all children of earth’s family.

Please be part of our parrot child protection services and say no to poaching, no to being part of the illegal wildlife trade, and no to disengagement.

How can you do so?

Keep reading here about the lives of parrots and people and how they work together to protect families of many different kinds of species. Then share these stories, and if possible, your time and financial resources, so as these stories are spread there is a greater chance for parrot wings to spread and fly free. As this is the time for nesting and fledging in most of our projects in Central America, we find our projects busy and expanding to meet the needs of the parrots and teams on the ground. Would you please consider donating today during our April Help Parrot Chicks Fly Free! Fund Raiser?

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