Blue-Fronted Amazon Breeding Ecology

Blue-fronted Amazons (their distribution and status):

Black billed amazon
Black billed amazon

Blue-fronted Amazons are one of the most popular pet birds in all of North America. Their flamboyant, interactive personalities, talking ability, and striking coloration are some of the qualities that can make them wonderful companions.
In the wild, Blue-fronted Amazons inhabit the tropical and sub-tropical forests, in regions of Northern Argentina, Southwestern Brazil, Western Paraguay, and Eastern Bolivia. The export of wild specimens has been banned in all countries except Argentina, where their populations are being threatened by the legal capture and exportation of thousands of chicks and adults every year.
It is important for citizens of the U.S. to understand the potential impacts of Argentina’s “Sustainable Harvest Management Plan” on both the wild parrots themselves, and the parrots and people of the United States.
In Argentina, Blue-fronted Amazons inhabit only the mid-north to northeast, many breeding in the dry, “Chaqueño” type forests, with lesser numbers breeding in the wetter, cooler regions of low altitude sub-tropical rainforest. The Blue-fronted Amazon Breeding Ecology Project is studying the Blue-fronts that breed in the Chaco. Thus, the following information is based on these sub-populations and may vary to some degree from the Blue-fronts breeding in other areas of Argentina or it’s neighboring countries.

A Short Life History of Argentina’s Blue-Fronts:

Blue-fronts arrive at their Chaco breeding grounds in late September and pairs begin to scope out natural nesting cavities in Quebrachos (a tall hardwood), often re-using their cavity from previous years. Eggs are laid between October and December, and the last chicks are usually fledged (though not weaned) by late-February. A clutch consists of an average of 4 eggs with a 69% hatch rate. The average productivity per pair at fledging was 1.1 in the 2003-04 breeding season.

Blue-fronted Amazons are highly mobile. All but a few of those breeding in Chaco leave their breeding grounds in flocks after their chicks have fledged and the season of fruits and seeds is ending. Exactly where these flocks of Chaco Blue-fronts go is unknown, though it is likely that they move northwest, where ripe fruit is still available.

Argentina’s Parrot Industry

Argentina’s parrot industry peaked during the mid-80s, with 263,000 Blue-fronted Amazons harvested from the wild during a five-year period. The dramatic population decline caused by this unregulated capture was finally addressed in 1992 when the export of Blue-fronts was temporarily banned. It began again, with far reduced quotas, in ’93.
Between ’94 and ’96 Proyecto Elé was designed by the government with the intention of harvesting parrots sustainably. In 1997 Proyecto Elé was officially implemented, as a governmentally run project. In respect to the Blue-fronts, while less than five thousand Blue-fronts were exported in each of the first two years of Proyecto Elé’s control, their numbers have risen steadily since then, due to an increase in nest searching and added areas of harvest. In 2005 the export quota for Argentina’s Blue-fronts was 6,700. Proyecto Elé also regulates the harvest of 5 other parrot species. In 2005 the quota for all six species totaled to about 50,000 wild caught parrots.
In the harvest of Blue-fronts, Proyecto Elé harvests chicks, free-flying juveniles and adults from an area of approximately 200,000 square kilometers. This is the range in which they are “abundant” in Argentina, and half of their absolute range (in Argentina). In contrast, the three small reserves, from which parrots cannot be harvested, has a total area of 467 square kilometers, only one quarter of one percent of the collection area. Proyecto Elé was created with noble goals: to harvest parrots using science-based, sustainable quotas. They used a certain percentage of the profits to create and maintain a reserve for the Blue-fronted Amazons breeding in Chaco.

The Major Pros and Cons of Proyecto Elé:

· Local landowners, with important parrot habitat, have incentive not to clear-cut their land (The timber can be sold and land used for agriculture).
· A percentage of the profit from each parrot is used to create or maintain reserves.
· It is a vast improvement from the prior, uncontrolled harvest.
· Under the control of a single organization, there is a higher in-country survival rate for harvested chicks.

· The quotas are not science-based and the future impact on the species is unknown.
· Many exporters do not have the knowledge or resources to provide proper care to parrot chicks, reducing their strength and quality as pets.
· Measures to prevent a double-harvest (of both chicks, and later adults, from the same flock) are lacking, creating a serious threat to the Blue-fronts breeding in Chaco.
· The basic population dynamics of Blue-fronts in Argentina is unknown, including an estimate of population size and it’s rate of decrease.

The Blue-fronted Amazon Breeding Ecology Project:

This will be the 3rd year of PhD student Igor Berkunsky’s Blue-fronted Amazon Breeding Ecology Project (Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina; Universidad Nacional de La Plata, Argentina). This project aims to gather basic information on the reproductive ecology and population dynamics of Blue-fronted Amazons. This knowledge can then be used to revise the current standards of Proyecto Elé, to ensure a truly sustainable harvest program (if such harvest can indeed be sustainable.)
Igor’s team consists of a project coordinator and three technicians from Buenos Aires, as well as a select group of volunteers from around the world. In the past two seasons volunteers have come from New Zealand, Hungary, Switzerland, Spain, Japan, England, and the U.S. Members of this team work in the field during the breeding season, September through February (spring and summer in Argentina),

and again for a shorter period during the winter. Camp is located on the Blue-fronted Amazon reserve, the largest and most valuable of the three reserves, located in the “impenetrable forest” of Chaco, an essential breeding habitat. All nests within this reserve, and many outside of it, are studied to make comparisons.

Basic Project objectives:

· Determination of nesting site characteristics and availability.
· Determination of survival rates for eggs, chicks and fledglings.
· Determination of the incidence and intensity of parasitism and its effect on chick growth rates and survival.
· Determination of the relative contribution of each sex to parental care and the incidence and contribution of a third party.
· Determination of effects from harvesting on the chicks that remain (one per nest), through comparison of reserve and non-reserve nests.

 Fieldwork includes:

  • · Daily nest checks: a variety of measurements are taken from the chicks, and adult behavior is observed
  • · Blood samples are taken once from each chick for the analysis of endoparacites.
  • · Ecto-paracites are sampled when chicks begin to feather and feces are collected regularly for the inspection of internal parasites.
  • · Parrot Censuses are completed at dawn and dusk from a canopy platform.
  • · Vegetation Transects are completed every 2 weeks to measure the amount and type of flowering or fruiting plants near nest and non-nest sites.
  • · Chicks are banded (when in the reserve, or remaining in the nest after harvest). Adults are banded when possible.

Measuring toe #3

Why is this project important?

With so little known about the reproductive ecology or population dynamics, the current level of chick and adult harvest could eventually devastate Argentina’s wild Blue-front population. A group of 97 scientists from around the world, writing to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expressed their opposition to the bill (currently pending) to approve the importation of Argentinean Blue-fronts to the United States. In a multi-page explanation of their concerns with Argentina’s “Sustainable Use Management Plan”, they state:

“We see no sound biological basis for the harvest quotas in this Proposal, nor does the Proposal or the management plan (Argentine Wildlife Office 1997; hereafter, the Plan) provide sufficient detail for evaluating whether the level of the proposed harvest is ‘sustainable’ as required under the WBCA (Wild Bird Conservation Act). In the three years since this Proposal was submitted to the Service, the Argentine CITES (Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species) quota for this species has continued to grow each year; in fact it has nearly doubled to 5,980 birds in 2003, based on no apparent science…
To predict the impact of the planned harvesting all-but-one chick from parrot nests, one must have detailed knowledge of key demographic parameters…From studies of other harvested species, we know that all these factors are fundamental to an understanding of population dynamics, and ultimately the impact of harvesting. Data supporting such parameters are not included in the Proposal, nor apparently were they used to any degree to set the quota. Moreover, we are unaware of any such modeling effort for any species of parrot with a similar life history to that of A. aestiva.”

The Blue-fronted Amazon Breeding Ecology Project is beginning to fill some of the gaps in this lack of knowledge. Blood samples were taken for the first time last season, but not all chicks could be sampled because the project lacked funding for sufficient supplies. Volunteers access between 50 and 100 nest cavities throughout the season, which requires the use of ropes and harnesses. Many of the ropes are wearing out and knots must be tied for their continued use. Radio-telemetry experiments have never been carried out for this species and would be extremely useful in preventing a “double-harvest” of the population breeding in Chaco. Thousands of adults and juveniles are captured each year from citrus orchards northwest of Chaco, with the assumption that this is not the same population from which chicks were already harvested, several months earlier in Chaco. This issue is also addressed by the 97 scientists in the letter to the USFW:

“In contrast to the assumptions of the Proposed Rule, the deleterious impacts of the harvest on these two age groups are likely shared and additive, rather than independent. Attempts therefore to control so-called “pest” populations in the citrus orchards will further impact the populations already harvested in breeding areas; a population this program presumes to promote and conserve…In a long-lived species like the Blue-fronted Amazon which has a relatively low reproductive rate, such take of reproductively valuable individuals has dramatic and long term impacts on productivity.”

And their conclusion:

“…The Proposal demonstrably fails to satisfy a number of other essential requirements set forth in the Act such as a stable or increasing population, rigorous monitoring, controlled domestic trade, minimizing disease risks, and the humane treatment of the traded animals. The Service’s Proposed Rule overlooks the appalling lack of science behind the Plan and its quotas…”

Who I am and how I am involved:

My name is Sarah Faegre. I have been fascinated by animals all my life, and my heart was forever captured by parrots when, at age 11, I got my first cockatiel. I went on to raise several broods of cockatiels and to own an African Grey parrot. One year ago I graduated from Hampshire College with a Bachelor’s degree in Animal Behavior/Biology after studying with Raymond Coppinger (Animal Behavior) and Donald Kroodsma (Ornithology). I spent the summer of 2004 at the Klamath Bird Observatory trapping, banding and studying birds, and training volunteers. I then headed off to Argentina where I spent 3 months working on a horse ranch and 4 months volunteering with three different parrot conservation projects, each working to help a different Amazon species (Blue-front, Alder, and Vinaceous-breasted). I am nearly fluent in Argentinean Spanish.
The most impressive project, and the one that seemed to need the most help, is Igor Berkunsky’s Blue-fronted Amazon Breeding Ecology Project. I volunteered with Igor’s crew for the last 2 months of the breeding season (Sep 15- Feb 15). An amazing amount of work and energy was being put in by all involved, but it was clear that the data was suffering for lack of funds and equipment. This part of Argentina is severely economically depressed-there is no electricity, let alone TV or Internet access. The parrot harvest is an important source of income to some of the families in this economy. However, there is little funding or support by the government for scientific research because more essential human services come first.
I returned home to Oregon in mid-April, vowing to raise money and return to Chaco for the full breeding season, September 2005 through February 2006. Currently, I am working part time in Portland and spending the rest of my time fundraising for the Chaco Blue-fronts. Those baby Blue-fronts are always on my mind and literally, I dream about them almost every night.

 I will never forget the thrill of watching a full nest of chicks fledge from the reserve, the parents feeding their begging fledglings on the nest tree. Nor will I forget the sadness when one of the farmers returned from the forest with a burlap sack full of baby parrots, some of which I recognized, and handed them over to the parrot exporter.

How You Can Help:

In sending this booklet to people who have a love and respect for parrots, be they domestically bred companions or their free-flying ancestors, I hope to find the help these wild Blue-fronts need. I am asking for donations in an effort to raise at least $6000 by September so that I can return to help the study for another breeding season (six months).

Blue-fronted Amazon Breeding Ecology Project Pledge Form

Initial Breakdown of Costs:

Three thousand dollars will cover my plane ticket, travel insurance, and in country travel and living expenses. The other three thousand will be used for equipment for the project. Some essential items include: scales, GPS’s, climbing equipment, bird bands and pliers, tents and food for volunteers, equipment for blood, feces and ecto-paracite samples, lab tests for the aforementioned samples, bicycles (we use them to access more distant nests), bicycle repair equipment, and an emergency medical kit for technicians and volunteers.

Some non-essential, but very important, items not included in the $6000 budget are: digital cameras (to see contents of a nest hole without disturbing the nest, help with parrot census, documenting behavior, etc.), a truck (better access to farther nests and ability to transport equipment), and radio telemetry tags or collars and tracking device.

All who donate to this project will be presented with a certificate of their donation and be thanked in the end-of-season Newsletter, which I will write and circulate widely to interested parties. Donors will also receive periodic e-mails (as access to town allows) updating my work with the Blue-fronted Amazons throughout my six-month stay. Before my departure to Argentina and after my return I will be available to provide a slide show and discussion of my work for a donor’s employees, members, or customers. I would only ask for travel assistance to your location from Portland, Oregon. I have a great slide show of last years work and will have an even better show available when I return!

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