Termites and the Endangered Yellow-faced Parrots of Paraguay


Flock of yellow-faced parrots in Paraguay showing various amounts of yellow and red on their abdomens

Rising up from the pasture and scrub, termite mounds dot the Paraguayan landscapes. They are home to not only the termites which build them, but a host of animals, including the yellow-faced parrot that we are studying and protecting.

Termite mounds abound, as do lapwings!

Southern tamandua (lesser anteater) resting during the hot day in one termite mound we inspected (photo by Dr. Andres Alvarez)

Not much is known about this unusual bird, which shows color variation that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with sex or age. They also have feather loss on the face around the nares and upper beak – and no one knows why. They are highly social, congregating in low-flying flocks throughout the year, sometimes mixed with young turquoise-fronted amazon parrots. They also sleep in the same roost area with turquoise-fronted parrots as well as orange-winged parrots. Pairs do split off from these flocks during breeding season, and it is these couples that we are in search of so that we can register their nests, and protect them.

Feather loss around the face of a this parrot

Ranch hand showing Dr. Andres Alvarez a parrot nest in a termite mound

To register nests, the quickest method is to ask the local ranch hand to show us suspect nests. This serves doubly to let the ranch hand know that the birds matter, and that if the chicks go missing, we know that ranch employees were aware of the nest, and could be the suspected nest robbers. Usually though the ranch hands are more interested in their work with cattle, and enjoy showing us their fields and byways. Having the ranch hands show us where nests are saves us a lot of time, though we can’t take just the word of the cowboy. We have to confirm the nests because birds could enter a termite mound without it being an active nest, or the nest could have failed or been predated.

Often ranch hands don’t go everywhere where nests could be, or haven’t been observant, so we have to start from scratch. First we look for pairs acting like they are defending a territory or are in reproductive mode, which means a male feeding a female or the pair copulating. As this species doesn’t seem as territorial as others, that is, they don’t call loudly at the edges of their territory or chase birds away much, it can be hard to track them down to a possible termite mound.

Pair caught mating near a row of termite mounds. Poor quality of the picture highlights how far away we have to be and the often poor light of pre-sunrise and post-sunset.

A yellow-faced parrot was seen on this mound a lot one evening, but might have only been using it for a perch

I watched one mound in August 2019 to confirm it as a nest, and was heartened to see and hear birds mating, and the male feeding a female nearby. This was all very suspicious of an active nest, and thought I had struck gold. But the nest watch was just beginning. I would have to observe the female entering the cavity and spending the night. Unless the female enters the cavity to spend the night, meaning she likely has eggs or small chicks, we can’t be sure it is a nest. The challenge is that the birds can approach the nest site quietly, enter when it is nearly dark, seem to know when you are looking directly at them, and if they are in the mound when you approach, they often sit tight and you don’t know they are there. One has to be as sneaky as the birds, not moving a muscle as the mosquitoes descend, or even when the field’s bull approaches you with apparent alarm, which is mutually shared. Finally, at near dark, I had burrowed myself deep enough into the scrub and cow patties, and been still enough that the female entered the cavity.

Me at nest watch described above, and curious cows come to keep me company during the observation period below.

Yellow-faced parrot in her termite mound nest. She didn't want to leave even though we were right above her taking pictures to confirm activity.

Chicks that hatched from nest showed in previous photo. However, the parents lost their three chicks to poachers

Sometimes though the female is less shy, such as the nest below confirmed and photographed by Dr. Andres Alvarez (below). He merely ducked behind a tree and the female entered!

Even if we see a female enter, we need to confirm that there are eggs or chicks inside. This means trying to find a way to see inside the mounds, which have curved entrances and deep cavities. We use small cameras, flash lights, and endoscopes (photos below). We never know what we are going to find, and a venomous snake is not out of the question. For this reason, we don’t use our hands to inspect a cavity.

Endoscope inspection camera (in photo above) doesn't yield good pictures, but does confirm the presence of parrot eggs. It's an active nest!

This is our first year for studying and protecting this species’ nests actively, so we are still learning methodology and biology, which we do because we need more information if we are to protect them. And protecting them we need to do. I was out doing a nest watch when a couple of guys stopped on a motorcycle and asked me if I wanted to buy parrots from them. They saw my binoculars and camera and assumed I had the means and desire to take birds from the wild. I politely declined with hand gestures, as Spanish was for both of us a second language. As they push-started their motorcycle down the dusty road I turned my attention back to the suspected nest, dreaming in the sun…that one day when those with power and privilege are spied out amongst the birds, that it will be assumed that it is to protect the people and the parrots of the land, and not to ravage them.

Destroyed termite mound by poachers in search of parrots

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