Chile’s burrowing parrot marks 35 years of a slow but successful recovery

  • The Chilean subspecies of the burrowing parrot used to be on the brink of extinction, with small fragmented populations scattered throughout the country.
  • Conservation measures adopted 35 years ago have now seen the number of parrots increase from 217 to nearly 4,500.
  • Key to this success has been the protection of one of the bird’s key habitats, Río de los Cipreses National Reserve, and the native plants it depends on for food.
  • Conservationists say they’re hopeful the burrowing parrot is on track to repopulating areas from where it has gone extinct; sightings have even been reported near Santiago, Chile’s capital.

The story of Cristián Bonacic and Río de los Cipreses National Reserve is, in a way, a story of love at first sight: they “met” in the summer of 1986, when Bonacic was studying veterinary medicine and the 38,000 hectares (93,900 acres) of foothills had not yet been officially declared a reserve. Since then, their lives have been intertwined.

At first, Bonacic wanted to observe, count, and record animals. In those years, having adequate clothing and equipment was difficult and expensive. Besides, he knew little about the wildlife and even less about mountains. He pitched a tent directly on top of a damp meadow, and his thin sleeping bag did not keep him warm. “I used to sleep for a little while in the mornings, when the sun beat down on the tent.” he says.

In the higher part of the mountain range, which is representative of central Chile, Bonacic searched for the guanaco (Lama guanicoe), a close relative of the llama. Down in the Cachapoal River Basin, he dedicated days to counting burrowing parrots (Cyanoliseus patagonus bloxami), which were louder and easier to find than guanacos. However, the outlook was discouraging. There were only 217 parrots, and Chile’s National Forest Corporation (CONAF) estimated that there were 3,300 in the country. The flocks of parrots that had previously inhabited the land between the provinces of Copiapó and Valdivia, which sit 1,500 kilometers (about 930 miles) apart, were now reduced to fragmented populations.

Before the end of that initial visit, park rangers told Bonacic the news: the area had officially been declared a protected area: Río de los Cipreses National Reserve. “I like to think that I began my ‘wildlife life’ at that moment. As if, in some way, we were born together,” Bonacic says.

That was also the moment when full protection of the burrowing parrot was implemented. In the 35 years since then, it has become one of the most successful conservation programs in Chile, achieving a twentyfold increase in the population of the species, which now numbers 4,478 individuals in the reserve.

The threats

Burrowing parrots got their name because they form colonies and dig their nests in ravines or hillsides along river basins and water bodies. Each pair of parrots digs tunnels in walls of dirt, often going 3 meters (10 feet) deep. Inside the tunnels, they create an incubation chamber, carefully cleaning the area to make it as smooth as possible. They enter and leave their tunnels throughout the mating season from September to February.

A burrowing parrot. Image courtesy of Jorge de la Torre.

“At the time, there were three sectors, or parrot colonies, that were active,” says Bonacic, who is now the director of Fauna Australis, a laboratory at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile that is dedicated to investigating and resolving challenges related to conservation and wildlife management. “To count them we would go to a semi-hidden place at dawn and for two hours, we would record how many parrots exited their nests and later, at sunset, how many would enter.”

C. p. bloxami is endemic to Chile, meaning this subspecies of the burrowing parrot isn’t found in the wild anywhere else in the world. It’s the largest of the country’s four native parrots, and was once on the brink of extinction, according to Marcia Ricci, CONAF’s director of biodiversity conservation for the O’Higgins region where Río Los Cipreses National Reserve is located. The burrowing parrot population had decreased by 72%, and in some areas it went locally extinct.

Parrot colonies. Image courtesy of José Besa.

Three factors caused this disappearance: loss of habitat due to agricultural and livestock activity; hunting; and the removal of chicks from nests to be sold as pets. The parrot’s olive-green plumage, yellow chest and blue wings, combined with its intelligence, made it an attractive and profitable target for the pet trade. “The loreros, parrot traffickers, hang from ropes in the ravine and use long hooks to take the chicks from the bottom of their nests,” says Ricci, who has worked with the region’s native flora and fauna for 33 years. The parrots were also a favorite pet of the organilleros, the street musicians typical of urban culture in Chile. They walk down the streets playing music on a barrel organ while holding a trained parrot. With their chicks being plucked for their nests, the parrots’ wild colonies were dying.

Despite a law in place since 1972 banning the hunting and sale of some wildlife species, including the burrowing parrot, the situation for the bird became critical in 1982. At that point, CONAF developed the first national conservation plan for the subspecies. It then conducted a national “diagnosis” of the bird’s status and developed a strategy to prevent its extinction.

The recovery of the parrot colonies

The declaration of Río de los Cipreses as a national reserve allowed for round-the-clock protection of the three parrot colonies in the Cachapoal River Basin by park rangers. Within a few years of the declaration, the parrots were categorized as endangered in the national red list. Three years after that, in 1996, a new law on hunting definitively prohibited their capture throughout the country, including the collection of eggs and chicks.

The habitat loss within the limits of the reserve also stopped. “These hectares were once a cattle ranch from which almost 6,000 head of livestock were removed little by little. Simply by removing the pressure in the area from grazing, dogs and humans, the native vegetation began to be restored,” Ricci says. Even herbaceous plants and flowers appeared that hadn’t been recorded before because the livestock used to eat them before they could flower.

Burrowing parrots. Image by Antonia Cornejo.

This allowed for the growth and recovery of 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of forest and sclerophyllous brush, a type of vegetation that is typical, but highly threatened, in central Chile. These include trees like Chilean acorn (Cryptocarya alba), soapbark (Quillaja saponaria), holywood (Guaiacum sanctum), coiron (Festuca gracillima) and the guindilia (Guindilia spp.). They also includes plants whose seeds the burrowing parrots feed on: French broom (Genista monspessulana), boldo (Peumus boldus) and litre (Lithraea caustica).

The virtuous cycle had begun: parrot colonies were protected, more chicks were reaching adulthood in the wild and reproducing, and more food was available. As a direct consequence, the colonies became denser and more populated, to such a degree that some parrots emigrated and founded new colonies. With a shrinking need to reintroduce the parrots to their old haunts or create adequate environments from scratch — and by maintaining existing ones — people began to hear them once again in the Cachapoal River Basin. By 2008, the number of colonies had increased to six. Three years later, there were 11. Today, there are 15 parrot colonies in the reserve, and two outside it. In 2017, there were 3,500 parrots; today, according to the most recent CONAF census, there are 4,478 burrowing parrots.

A burrowing parrot. Image by José Cañas for Aves de Chile (Birds of Chile).

Eduardo Pávez, who is part of the Chilean Union of Ornithologists (UNORCH), says that at one point, the idea was discussed of reintroducing the burrowing parrot into the Metropolitan region (which includes the country’s capital, Santiago), but that he was against it. However, he says the parrots themselves are the best “environmental evaluators” of whether they returning to their former territories, and that the most efficient thing is to protect the nuclei — the active colonies — just as has been done over the past few years.

The parrot colonies’ recovery has been so successful that the burrowing parrot went from being categorized as endangered to vulnerable in the south-central zone, according to the Ministry of the Environment’s classification standards. In fact, there are sometimes parrot sightings reported in areas close to Santiago. “It is only a matter of time before the parrots establish themselves in the Metropolitan region again,” Pávez says.

In northern Chile, although the parrot population has also increased, it remains endangered, according to the same classification standards.

Río de los Cipreses National Reserve. Image by Diego Alarcón.

Burrowing parrots are dynamic, according to Pávez. Breeding pairs are generally monogamous and also faithful to their colony, returning to their nest each year. These nest cavities, coupled with the fact that the birds form large groups, protect them from predators like eagles and falcons that hover over the ravines. When the chicks begin to fly, the colony moves toward the valley in search of food, where they roost in trees. During the day, the whole group can travel up to 60 kilometers (37 miles) together. While some eat, others stay on alert for threats.

“They are gregarious, and in general, they stay around others from their own colony. They regularly descend from the Andes Mountains, crossing the entire Central Valley, flying over the cities, toward the Chilean Coastal Range, searching for sites where there is seasonal or occasional food,” Pávez says. This is relevant because “that knowledge of the territory, [and] of the food supply, is in the memory of the oldest parrots, and the youngest parrots learn it when they follow them,” he says.

The parrots’ allies

At the Chacayes School, only a few meters from the entrance to Río de los Cipreses National Reserve, an environmental workshop is held on Wednesdays. The school’s 38 students, ranging in age from 5 to 12 years, are taught by park rangers from CONAF. The curriculum features guanacos, burrowing parrots, pumas, high-altitude steppes, glaciers, and the trees that surround them. These topics are all within the conservation objectives outlined in the 2017-2027 management plan for the national reserve.

The workshops are now held online, but before the COVID-19 pandemic, they were conducted in the reserve. The students would walk along the riverbank to discuss the importance of water for all life, or sit in the shade of a boldo tree to learn about Andean foxes and Pampas cats.

Students from the Chacayes School. Image courtesy of the Chacayes School.

“The school has always had an environmental seal, [it is] closely linked to CONAF, and it is also part of the National Policy on Environmental Education,” says Katherine Cuadra, the teacher in charge of the school and president of the reserve’s advisory board. The relationship between the school and the protected area is so symbiotic that, until 2010, the classrooms were located within the reserve. An earthquake forced the school to move to a safer area, but it remains close to its origins. It now sits adjacent to the reserve so that the trails and excursions can continue to be part of the courses.

At the school, Cuadra says, “we also address the main threats, like invasive species, fires, climate change, livestock, and pets. We want [the students] to be participatory citizens of their community, [to be] conscious and active in the protection of their natural surroundings, and to understand themselves as part of those surroundings.” This is why the workshop’s activities include cleaning the streets of the town and creating and putting up informational posters. The students also design a school magazine at the end of each semester, complete with their own work and the park rangers’ stories. The magazine is then distributed to visitors to the reserve.

Cristián Bonacic in the mountainous area of the reserve. Image courtesy of Cristián Bonacic.

Both Bonacic and Pávez agree that a key aspect is raising awareness about the protection of the birds and promoting the work that CONAF and the Agricultural and Livestock Service (SAG) do to crack down on their hunting and illegal possession at a national level.

A long journey

Beyond the reserve, flocks of burrowing parrots flying through the valleys they once frequented have found that the French broom, boldo and litre trees whose seeds they eat are gone. The puya plants (Puya spp.) are also less abundant. According to Bonacic, some parrots, often the most daring, have adapted to this new landscape by changing their diet to match what’s available: walnuts and almonds grown by farmers.

In 2006, farmers in the town of Monte Patria, in central Chile’s nut-growing heartland, alerted the SAG to this situation. However, studies by the SAG from that same year determined that, in reality, the burrowing parrots were only responsible for 1% of the damage to the crops.

The SAG recommends various deterrent measures to keep the parrots away from crops, such as patrolling farms every few hours, simulating the calls of birds of prey, and installing perches for natural predators to use. The most sustainable of these measures is to give the burrowing parrots spaces that they can use. This includes surrounding the crops with native vegetation, planting portions of land with native species, and keeping any existing hills intact within the farms so that the parrots prefer those spaces.

Río de los Cipreses National Reserve. Image by Cristián Bonacic.

“This is not a competition, much less a war over land,” says biologist Jessica Barría, a member of the Paleontology Lab at the Austral University of Chile. Barría says burrowing parrots are part of a network of connections and cooperation. The parrots eat hard seeds and leave pieces of them for other birds that would otherwise not be able to break into them. When they make their nests, they sometimes abandon their work, leaving these half-completed smaller spaces for swallows and reptiles. Burrowing parrots themselves are prey for raptors, and humans are part of this dynamic system. According to Bonacic, it is necessary to discuss living landscapes — that is, a way to integrate wildlife into productive activities like farming.

“As conservationists, we cannot transmit the message that everything that humans do is bad, because this does not give the possibility of action to anyone,” Barría says. “We humans are going to continue to need work opportunities, goods and services; this is not going to change.” The strategy that she promotes is to not oppose any productive activity, but to instead help wildlife infiltrate every aspect of daily life. Planting native vegetation on every available square meter would help to provide habitat for entire ecosystems. “Wildlife does not belong only to national parks, which are marginal spaces in proportion to the rest of the land,” she says. “If it were this way, [species] would be destined for extinction, because they would not have an appropriate population size nor the genetic variability that allows them to be resistant.”

Just like Ricci and Pávez, Bonacic also says it’s only a matter of time before burrowing parrots repopulate the regions from where they disappeared. Perhaps the first ones to venture back will be the descendants of the 217 parrots that lived in the reserve 35 years ago.

Banner image of burrowing parrots courtesy of Eduardo Pávez.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team first and published here on our Latam site on May 4, 2021.