Although most of us could not identify a Gray-breasted Parakeet in a line-up, this species is now undergoing one of the bird conservation world's most impressive comebacks. It's one of a number of highly effective efforts to save parrots using a very specific conservation tool: nest boxes. These encouraging results remind us that we can save endangered species – sometimes quickly – if we mobilize and work together.
Back in 2009, I visited American Bird Conservancy's (ABC) Brazilian partner Aquasis, meeting with Alberto Campos, who was then Executive Director, and Fabio Nunes, manager of a new effort to use nest boxes to save Gray-breasted Parakeets. The hope was that the nest box program would turn things around for a bird with a highly restricted range, very little remaining habitat, few available nesting sites, and added pressure from poachers seeking to snatch their young for the pet trade.
We searched all day for Gray-breasted Parakeets, finally seeing five, which flew in, then shot downslope and out of sight. That first year, despite everyone's high hopes, no parakeets nested in the boxes put out for them.
But by 2011, persistence combined with trial and error paid off, when Aquasis' Gray-breasted Parakeet conservation program, with annual support from the Loro Parque Fundación, counted 33 chicks fledging from the 10-by-10-by-18-inch wooden nest boxes.
Since then, the project's success has mushroomed: In the last eight years, the Aquasis nest box program has yielded an astounding 841 chicks. In 2018 alone, 234 chicks fledged from 62 nest boxes — seven times the number of fledged chicks in 2011!
Illegal captures are way down, too. Since 2009, to counter the illegal pet trade, the program has been expanding local awareness of the parakeet and the need to protect it, with the help of ABC since 2016.
Why are nest boxes so essential to these birds? Unlike woodpeckers, parrots cannot excavate wood, relying instead upon existing tree cavities for nest sites – usually abandoned woodpecker holes and rotted holes left after tree limbs snap off. Prime real estate, these sheltered sites are also sought by other birds, as well as bees. Plus, the cavities have to be large enough to house an extended family because a Gray-breasted Parakeet breeding pair is assisted by family helpers.
Humanity's insatiable appetite for land and timber compounds this already tight “housing shortage.” Even in otherwise intact forests, it is not uncommon for the oldest, most valuable trees to be cut and hauled away. But today in northeastern Brazil, very little forest of any quality remains, following extensive conversion to farm fields and pasture.
As part of ABC's continued support to its conservation partners, I revisited the Gray-breasted Parakeet project in March of 2018. ABC is interested in supporting Aquasis' efforts to relocate individuals to other areas with similar habitat that have lost the species in the past, as well as continuing to support the education and awareness program as it moves to surrounding areas as the population expands.
As we visited different nest box sites, I kept contrasting what I was seeing in 2018 with memories of my 2009 visit. This time, the birds were plentiful: We saw nest box after nest box with healthy Gray-breasted Parakeet families raising eager chicks. Also, while driving, Aquasis' Fabio several times heard the flight calls of Gray-breasted Parakeets in new areas where the species had not been recorded. It was very encouraging. We expect to see the parakeet numbers continue to climb.
The Gray-breasted Parakeet was downlisted on the IUCN Red List from Critically Endangered to Endangered in 2017, although it remains Critically Endangered on the Brazilian Red List. Regardless of the differing status designations, it is clear that the Aquasis conservation program, with its nest boxes, along with habitat protection and fewer illegal captures, is saving an important species from extinction.
Luckily, although people endangered the bird, we now seem to be saving the species. The Gray-breasted Parakeet joins ranks with other promising nest box ventures for rare parrots:
Thanks to these efforts, involving communities, governments, and organizations such as Aquasis, ABC, and others, it's likely that nest box programs will become a standard conservation practice for large cavity-nesting birds. And that will be a good thing for parrots around the world, their habitats, and the people who admire them.