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Study identifies parrots as most-threatened bird group

By Ed Parnell, 18 Feb 2016

Scientists, including staff from BirdLife International and the Australian National University, have published new research indicating that parrots (Psittaciformes) are among the most threatened groups of bird species, with 28% of extant species (111 out of 398) classified as globally threatened on the IUCN Red List.

On average, the study confirms that parrots are more threatened than comparable groups of birds (including seabirds, pigeons and raptors). Parrots with a small historical distribution (for instance, those found on islands), large body size, a long generation time, and a dependency on forest habitats, are more likely to be threatened. Large-bodied birds tend to have low population densities and are more at risk from human hunters, while forest parrots are overwhelmingly tree-cavity nesters, meaning that primary forest destruction has a severe impact on the availability of their nesting sites and consequent reproductive success.

“This study confirms that, as a whole, parrots face a higher rate of extinction than any other comparable bird group. Indeed, 56% of all parrot species are in decline. They face a wide range of threats, but loss and degradation of forest habitat, agricultural expansion, and hunting and trapping – parrots are the most common bird group reported in the wildlife trade – are all major factors. However, this study identifies conservation priorities for these attractive, intelligent birds – which have beguiled and fascinated humans since we first set eyes upon them – and offers a way to prevent more species following the Carolina Parakeet and Paradise Parrot into extinction” Dr Stuart Butchart, Head of Science at BirdLife International.

The study found that the following 10 countries are the highest priority for parrot conservation: Indonesia, Brazil, Australia, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Papua New Guinea, Venezuela, and Mexico. The most common actions needed in the Neotropics (Central and South America) are site protection and management, with improved legislation and ex-situ conservation a priority in Africa, and greater awareness and site/habitat protection a priority in South-east Asia and Oceania.

The severity of extinction risk (rising from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered) is also positively related to the per head gross domestic product (GDP) of the countries of occurrence, with more-developed economies tending to have higher rates of urbanisation and a consequent increased pressure on remaining parrot habitat.

Interestingly, and perhaps counter-intuitively, the study also found that the risk of extinction is lower for those parrot species widely held in captivity as pets, backing up recent studies that show that the vast majority of species within the domestic and international bird trade are non-threatened. This is largely thought to be because most parrot poachers concentrate on species that are more readily available and easier to catch. However, illegal trade is rapidly driving a number of species towards extinction.

 

Dead parrots: a sad lesson from history

The extinct Paradise Parrot of Australia. This specimen (a male) is in the Museum of Liverpool and was one of the first collected by the naturalist John Gilbert in 1844. The last confirmed sighting of the species was in 1928. (Photo: Edward Parnell)

A total of 14 of the 16 parrot species BirdLife officially classifies on the IUCN Red List as Extinct were restricted to islands, and disappeared following the arrival of Europeans from the mid-17th century onwards. The two exceptions are: Carolina Parakeet Conuropsis carolinensis, a North American species that was wiped out by human persecution and deforestation, with the last known bird, a captive male, dying in Cincinnati Zoo in 1918; in Australia (south-eastern Queensland), the Paradise Parrot Psephotellus pulcherrimus, a grassland specialist that nested in termite mounds, had its last confirmed sighting in 1928.

 

The study (‘Ecological and socio-economic factors affecting extinction risk in parrots’) is published in the Feb 2016 issue of the journal Biodiversity Conservation.