Thick-billed parrot   Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha
ESA status: endangered

thick-billed parrot pc Mark Watson

Once, two parrot species inhabited the United States. Tragically, the Carolina parakeet is now extinct. The sole surviving North American parrot species, the thick-billed parrot, is hanging on south of the border in Mexico, and we have a chance to bring it back to its historic range in Arizona and New Mexico. If the thick-billed parrot makes a successful comeback and regains the population strength it enjoyed around 1917, we can look forward to an amazing sight: nomadic flocks of thousands of these bright green and red birds traveling through highland pine-oak forests in search of their favorite food – pine seeds – their calls filling the air with a sound like human laughter. But to see these endangered birds in the United States again, we will need to make some changes.

The last confirmed sighting of a naturally occurring flock in the United States was in 1938. The United States population was shot for food or logged out of its old-growth pine forest habitat. The parrots’ remaining stronghold in Mexico is under siege – loggers have cut down approximately 99 percent of the original high-elevation pine-oak forest that the parrots need to find suitable nesting cavities. This beautiful bird is also threatened by the pet trade; young birds are taken from the wild by pet traders who cut down nest trees to reach them and destroy rare nest locations in the process. Thousands of parrots of all kinds are illegally captured in Mexico every year, and the thick-billed parrot was eighth on the list of the top ten parrot species seized at the border by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) from 1995-2005. The majority die before reaching markets in the U.S. after suffering horrible transport conditions and lack of care. Many more are captured for the domestic pet trade within Mexico.

The thick-billed parrot has been listed as “endangered” ever since the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was implemented in 1973. But in all that time, the parrot got very little help. No recovery plan, critical habitat designation, or conservation plan was developed, despite the fact that the FWS has a stated policy of adopting a recovery plan for a listed species within two and a half years of listing. An attempt at reintroducing the parrot into southeastern Arizona in the 1980s and 1990s apparently failed – about a fourth of the reintroduced birds were captive-bred and thus were never taught by their parents how to effectively flock, forage, or avoid predators. The remainder of the flock, wild-caught birds liberated from the pet trade, suffered further setbacks from drought and fire. Though scientists believe reintroduction could be successful if this highly social bird could be released in large enough numbers, only 88 birds were ever released and the attempt was terminated in 1993. The reintroduced flock was not seen after 1995.

The wild population in Mexico continues to decline; scientists estimate that only approximately 1,760 birds remain. Recovering the parrot population will require a consistent, dedicated effort from the United States government, in collaboration with Mexico, to protect pine forest habitat and enforce restrictions on the pet trade. Though the difficulties of bringing this bird back to its historic range are evident, we are working to one day see the return of these stunning birds to the forests of the southwestern United States where they once flew.

Watch this entertaining video of two thick-billed parrots preening.
Listen to the thick-billed parrot's call.

photo credit: Mark L. Watson
video credit: Greg Homel
sound credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Macaulay Library