Chile: 35 years of successful recovery of the Burrowing Parrots

The Burrowing Parrot species, Loros Tricahue. Endemic to Chile. Foto: Eduardo Pávez.

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The Burrowing Parrot, in spanish, ”Loro Tricahue”, (Cyanoliseus patagonus), also known as the burrowing parakeet or the Patagonian conure, is a species of parrot native to Argentina and Chile. The Burrowing Parrot was on the brink of extinction, with small populations fragmented throughout Chile.

The Burrowing parrots/ Loros Tricahue, that inhabit Chile are an endemic subspecies, that is, they cannot be found anywhere else in the world. It is one of the four native parrots and also the largest. It was on the brink of extinction,” says Marcia Ricci, head of Conservation of Biological Diversity at CONAF in the O’Higgins region.

However, the protection of three nesting sites in the O’Higgins Region allowed the number of parrots to increase from 217 to more than 4,000. A testimony to good conservation practices.

The story of Cristián Bonacic and the Río de los Cipreses National Reserve is, in a way, a love story at first sight: they met in the summer of 1986, when he was studying veterinary medicine and those 38 thousand hectares of foothills had not yet been officially baptized as a reserve. Since then, their existence have been intertwined. That first time, Bonacic aimed to observe animals; count and record them. In those years, having the right clothing and equipment was difficult and expensive, he remembers. For the rest, he did not know much about wildlife yet, and less about mountains: he put the tent on top of a damp meadow and the thin sleeping bag he had did not keep him warm. “I slept for a while in the morning, when the sun beat down on the tent,” he recalls.

Above, in the upper part of this mountain range representative of the central zone, he was looking for guanacos (Lama guanicoe). Down in the Cachapoal River basin, he spent days counting Burrowing parrots (Cyanoliseus patagonus bloxami), which were easier to spot than guanacos and certainly louder. However, the outlook was not looking encouraging for the parrots. There were only 217 Burrowing parrots and in all of Chile the estimated number was 3,300 individuals, according to the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF), not sufficient for a healthy genetic gene pool. The flocks of Burrowing parrots that previously inhabited the area from Copiapó to Valdivia – a distance calculated in a straight line equivalent to approximately 1,500 kilometers – now were reduced to fragmented populations, divided into three regions: Coquimbo, O’Higgins and Maule.

Before Cristián Bonacic finished his research in his first visit, the park rangers gave him the news: the place where he had made his sightings had been officially declared the Río de los Cipreses National Reserve.

“I like to think that I started my wildlife conservation journey from that point. As if the Reserve and myself were somehow born together, ”he says. That was also the moment when the protection of the Burrowing parrots began in full, one of the most successful conservation strategies that have been implemented in Chile and that has allowed 4478 parrots to live in the reserve today. In 35 years, the population of this species increased 20 times.

Burrowing Parrot /Loro tricahue. Foto: Jorge de la Torre


They are known as burrowing parrots, because they form colonies and make their nests in ravines or slopes, on river basins and water courses. Each pair of parrots digs tunnels in the earth walls that can be up to three meters deep. In the background, they create an incubation chamber, carefully cleaning the place to make it as smooth as possible. From there they enter and leave during the breeding season, from September to February.

“At that time there were three sectors —or loreras— active,” says Bonacic, who is now director of Fauna Australis, a laboratory at the Catholic University of Chile that is dedicated to researching and solving challenges of conservation and wildlife management. “To count them,” says the researcher, “we would locate ourselves at dawn in a semi-hidden place and for two hours we would record how many parrots came out of their nests and then, at sunset, how many entered”.

The tricahue that inhabit Chile are an endemic subspecies, that is, they cannot be found anywhere else in the world. It is one of the four native parrots and also the largest. It was on the brink of extinction, says Marcia Ricci, head of Conservation of Biological Diversity at CONAF in the O’Higgins region. Their populations were reduced by 72%, says the expert, and local extinctions occurred. In Valparaíso, the Metropolitan Region and further south, they disappeared, says Ricci.

Loreras. Foto: José Besa

Reasons why they were driven to the brink of extinction.

Three: the loss of habitat as a result of agricultural and livestock use in the area, hunting, poaching and animal trafficking, the extraction of chicks from the nests to be sold as pets. The Burrowing Parrot’s plumage is of olive green feathers, a yellow chest and blue wings, moreover being an intelligent animal made it an attractive pet and good business for poachers and the illegal pet trade.

The nest robbers used ropes down the ravine and then put long hooks at the bottom of the nests to remove the young,” says the CONAF official, who has been working with native flora and fauna for 33 years. It was also the favourite pet of street musicians typical of Chilean urban culture who roamed the streets of the city with their musical instruments with a trained parrot for busking. With so many parrot chicks being taken for the pet trade and no chance for the chicks to grow in the wild to reproduce, the wild colonies were dying and driven to the brink of extinction.

Although there has been a decree since 1972 that prohibits the hunting and commercialization of some species, including the Burrowing Parrots, in 1982 the situation was critical. It was then that CONAF developed the first National Plan for the Conservation of Burrowing Parrot, a national evaluation of the species status was made and a strategy was outlined to prevent its extinction.

The recovery of the Burrowing Parrots

The declaration of Río de los Cipreses as a national reserve allowed park rangers to constantly guard the three loreras nesting sites that remained in the Cachapoal river basin. A few years later, they were included in the IUCN Red List Book of Terrestrial Vertebrates of Chile in the Endangered category and three years later, the hunting law definitively prohibited their capture throughout the country, also the collection of eggs and capture of hatchlings became a punishable offence.

As for the loss of habitat, habitat protection was increased and destruction prevented. “These hectares used to be a cattle range for farmers to graze cattle, from which almost 6 thousand cattle were withdrawn little by little. Just by taking the pressure off the areas disturbed by grazing, dogs and humans, the native vegetation began to be restored, ”says Ricci. Even herbaceous plants and flowers appeared that were not previously recorded, because they were transformed into food before they reached flowering.

Tricahues. Foto: Antonia Cornejo

Thus, 3,000 hectares of forest and sclerophyllous scrub, the type of vegetation typical of the central zone of Chile and which is strongly threatened, were able to grow and recover. A combination of peumo, quillay, guayacán, coirón and chilli, in addition to the trees that produce the seeds that feed the tricahue: retamillo, boldo and liter.

The virtuous circle was completed: protected parrots and more chicks that were able to reach adulthood in order to reproduce, added to more food availability allowed them to begin to thrive and recover their drastic depletion. This had a positive consequence as the colonies became increasingly dense and populated, to such an extent that some parrots emigrated and founded new Burrowing parrot flocks. Without the need to reintroduce them or create suitable environments, but instead maintaining the existing ones, the parrots could be heard again in the Cachapoal basin. In 2008, the number increased to six, three years later, there were 11 and currently, 15. In addition, there are two new flocks outside the reserve. In 2017 there were 3,500 parrots. Today, there are 4,478 according to the latest CONAF census.

Loro tricahue. Foto: Aves Chile – José Cañas

Eduardo Pávez, who is part of the Union of Ornithologists of Chile (UNORCH), says that at some point the idea of ​​reintroducing the Burrowing Parrot into the Metropolitan Region was discussed, but he did not agree. On the other hand, he considers that parrots themselves are the best “environmental evaluators” to re-settle in their old territories and that the most efficient thing to do is to protect the nuclei, the active parrot flocks, as has been done in recent years.

The recovery of the Burrowing Parrot flocks has been so successful that the parrot went from being considered Endangered to Vulnerable in the south central zone, according to the Species Classification Regulation of the Ministry of the Environment. In fact, there are already parrot sightings in Alto Jahuel and Río Clarillo, two places located not far from Santiago, the capital. “It is a matter of time for the parrots to establish themselves in the Metropolitan Region again,” confides Pávez. A justified hope that splashes into the other conservation initiatives.

In the north, although their number has also increased, they still remain “Endangered”, according to the same Classification Regulations.

Reserva Nacional Río de los Cipreses. Foto: Diego Alarcon

The Burrowing Parrot/ Tricahue are dynamic, says the Chilean ornithologist. The pairs of parrots, are monogamous in general, are faithful to their parrot partners and return to their nest every year. The borrowed earth cavities and the fact of forming large groups, protect them from predators, birds of prey such as eagles and hawks that hover around the ravines. But when the chicks start to fly, the colony moves to the valley looking for food, there they rest in trees that they use as roosts. During the day, they can travel up to 60 kilometers all together. While some are feeding, others have to watch and alert the flock to dangers.

“They are gregarious and in general they stay with those of the same colony. They regularly descend from the Cordillera de Los Andes, crossing the entire central valley, flying over the cities, towards the Cordillera de la Costa, looking for places where there is seasonal or readily available food ”, explains the ornithologist. This is relevant, because “that knowledge of the territory, of the food supply, is in the memory of the oldest parrots and the youngest ones learn when they follow them,” says Pavez.

Parrot allies

At the Chacayes School, located in the town of the same name, just a few meters from the entrance to the reserve, Wednesday is the day of the environmental workshop. The 38 students who are between 5 and 12 years old, learn about the wildlife of the nature reserve, thanks to the CONAF park rangers, they learn about the guanacos, burrowing parrots, pumas, the high-altitude steppe, the glacier and the trees that surround them. All of them conservation objectives outlined in the Management Plan of the Río de los Cipreses National Reserve 2017 – 2027.

The workshops are now virtual, but before the pandemic they were held in the reserve. On the banks of the river to talk about water as a source of life or in the shadow of a boldo to learn about ‘culpeos foxes and colo-colo cats.

Students of Chacayes school at Chcayas Nature reserve. Foto: Escuela Chacayes

“The school has always had an environmental seal, closely linked to CONAF and which is also part of its National Policy on Environmental Education,” says Katherine Cuadra, teacher in charge of the school and president of the Reserve Advisory Council. The relationship between the school and the protected area is so symbiotic that until 2010 the classrooms were located within the reserve. The earthquake forced them to be moved to a safer place, but always close to their origins. Now it is adjacent, so that the trails and excursions continue to be part of their curriculum.

“We also address the main threats, such as invasive species, fires, climate change, livestock and pets. We want them to be participatory citizens of their community, aware and active in the protection of their natural environment and to understand themselves as part of that environment, ”says Cuadra. Therefore, the activities of the workshop include cleaning the streets of the town where they also put up the environmental posters they make and the creation of a school magazine at the end of the semester with student work and park rangers’ stories to distribute at the gate to those who visit the reserve.

Cristian Bonacic en el sector cordillerano de la reserva. Foto: Cristian Bonacic

Both Cristián Bonacic and Eduardo Pávez agree that one of the key aspects has been raising awareness about the protection of the Burrowing Parrot, and promoting the reports and crimes of hunting and illegal possession made by CONAF and the Agricultural Livestock Service (SAG) at a national level. Parrot populations have also increased in the Maule and Coquimbo regions. In the latter, in the Monte Patria commune, these birds have even made power lines their roosts.

Filmed by © Walter Baliero

A long way

In the current scenario, flocks of Burrowing Parrots/Tricahues explore the valleys and find that their retanilla, liter and boldo seeds that are a part of their regular diet are gone. Nor are the puyas abundant as before. So some parrots, the most daring, adapt to this new landscape and renew their diet for what there is: walnuts and almonds, explains Bonacic.

Already in 2006 the farmers of Monte Patria, in Coquimbo, dedicated to the production of these fruits, alerted the SAG of this situation. But studies carried out by the institution that same year determined that, in reality, the parrots were being blamed for crop damages that did not correspond to them. The damage to the crops was less than 1% and in the case of the vineyards, the parrots can only eat the shoots of vines and not the grapes because they are not able to feed in an inverted position.

The SAG recommends various dissuasive measures, from patrolling crops every few hours to simulating calls by birds of prey to scare them away or installing perches to be used by these natural predators. But the most sustainable measure is to give the Burrowing Parrots a diverse array of vegetation that they can use: surround the crops with native vegetation, native plants and preserve the hills that may exist within the region, so that the parrots stay in those spaces and not disturb crops.

Reserva Nacional Río de los Cipreses. Foto: Cristian Bonacic

Biologist Jessica Barría, a member of the Paleontology Laboratory of the Austral University of Chile, explains that Tricahue or Burrowing parrots are part of a network of connections and cooperation, “Because this is not a competition, much less a war for territory,”. Parrots eat the hard seeds and while they eat, they leave some pieces to other birds that they would not be able to break themselves. When they dig their nests, they sometimes abandon the task, so those holes are taken up and used as residence by swallows and reptiles. The Burrowing Parrot themselves are food for birds of prey as part of this dynamic ecosystem. It is necessary to speak of living landscapes, a ‘grega bonacic’, that is, to integrate wild fauna into productive activities.

“We conservationists cannot transmit the message that everything we humans do is bad, because that does not give anyone the motivation of action. Humans will continue to need job opportunities, goods and services, that will not change ”, she says. The strategy it promotes is not to oppose any productive activity, but to infiltrate wildlife into all the interstices of daily life everywhere. Plant native vegetation in every square meter possible to provide habitats for entire ecosystems. “Wildlife does not only belong to national parks, which are marginal spaces in proportion to the entire territory. If so, it is doomed to become extinct, because it will not have an appropriate population size or the genetic variability that allows it to be resistant “, explains the expert.

As Marcia Ricci and Eduardo Pavez predict, Bonacic also believes that it is a matter of time for the Tricahue parrot to repopulate the regions from which they became extinct. Perhaps the first explorers to venture back are the descendants of the 217 parrots that survived 35 years ago in the Reserve.

Original Article in Spanish by Alejandra Olguín at Mongabay

Translation done by Carlita Shaw at Evolve to Ecology

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