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Yellow-earred Parrot
Yellow-earred Parrot on endemic wax palm

Appeared in March-April 2012 Audubon Magazine

Summary: Fifteen years ago the Yellow-eared Parrot was presumed extinct. Its rediscovery in Colombia forced the Catholic Church to abandon an age-old tradition, and brought about one of the most amazing comebacks in the Americas. Below is an excerpt from the story, written by Susan McGrath. For the full story and photos, please see the March-April 2012 Audubon Magazine, or email info@rainforesttrust.org for a scanned PDF copy of the article.

Excerpt: The chance to observe Ognorhynchus icterotis, the Yellow-eared Parrot, is well worth scrambling in the dark.  It’s among the world’s most endangered psittacide, says the Australian ornithologist [and Rainforest Trust Chief Executive Officer] Paul Salaman, and one of the most specialized. Endemic to the high, cloudforested flanks of the northern Andes, the Yellow-eared Parrot is the sole species of a single genus and dependent for its survival in Colombia on one species of endemic wax palm, Ceroxylon quindiense. The parrots will nest in no other tree. In the absence of quindío palms with commodious cavities, they forgo nesting. They die out.

The immediate threat to this bird is unique, too: the observance, by tens of thousands of adherents to the Roman Catholic Church, of a beloved annual tradition, Domingo de Ramos. Palm Sunday, the Sunday preceding Easter… Therein lies the crux of the matter. The parrots require the tree; the church requires its palms.

“We have used this palm for 1,000 years,” Pastor Raul Ortiz pronounced when the Yellow-eared Parrot was discovered in his parish, late in 1999. “It is God’s will that we use it. He will never let the wax palm run out.” More than a century ago naturalists knew of large populations of Yellow-eared Parrots in Colombia and Ecuador, tens of thousands of birds, likely living everywhere the quindío palm (and in Ecuador a closely related wax palm) was found. The birds’ unique brand of habitat was a broad swatch of the central and oriental cordilleras of the Andes, in cloudforests at elevations between 6,000 and 9,000 feet. Altitude proved no sanctuary. European settlement brought deforestation, and hunters and weekend warriors would shoot everything that moved–including Ognorhynchus and the mountain tapirs, curious long-snouted herbivores that ingest and disseminate wax palm nuts.

By 1996 the species was presumed extinct. That year a flock of 30 Yellow-eared Parrots popped up in Ecuador, but by 1997 they had vanished. No one knows why.

Enter Salaman, a hotshot young birding guide leading 15 intrepid life-listers on a high-speed traverse of Colombia. One day a raucous flock of yellow-mustachioed birds flapped by. Salaman posted the unexpected sighting on a birding listserve. Within 18 months, with funding from Spain’s Loro Parque Foundation, a young Argentinian ornithologist was ensconced at a field station near the farming town of Roncesvalles in Tolima state; monitoring the newly discovered population of 61 birds.

To his surprise he found that the Ognorhynchus were barely nesting. They can’t cut through palm trunks on their own, he discovered. The parrots have to find a palm with a woodpecker hole. Or a dead palm decapitated by a storm, exposing the pith at the headless neck, down through which the birds can scoop a cavity. Unfortunately, Roncesvalles had long ago been stripped of cloudforest, and woodpeckers with it. The wax palms survived in pastures, tolerated because dead palms yield excellent fence posts–easily spilt and naturally water-resistant. Hence palms but few nests. Out of 30 possible pairs, only one nested; a single precious chick hatched.

The conservationists launched an awareness campaign: These birds are something to be proud of, the last of their kind in the world. You can help them.

“People responded,” Salaman says. They stopped taking potshots at the parrots. A sympathetic local priest counseled his human flock to protect the wax palms. And the avian flock began to prosper.

Three years later a sharp-eyed state forester in Jardín, 100 miles north of Roncesvalles in Antioquia state, heard squawking overhead and glimpsed something remarkably Ognorhynchus-like. Plunging headlong after it, the forester found 22 Yellow-eared Parrots’ merrily stripping fruit from a tree. The Roncesvalles team confirmed the find. And a young bird enthusiast began to search for dormitory sites–an epic task here where the cloudforest was still extensive and wax palms, once the dominant tree, mysteriously scarce.

On a Sunday in April three months later, the mystery of the missing palms was solved. From a balcony overlooking the plaza in Jardín, Jose Castaño, Salaman, and others watched as hundreds of joyous celebrants streamed behind Pastor Raul toward the church, each rattling a segment of quindío wax palm spear.

“The calculations were whizzing through our heads,” Salaman says. “There were enough branches to down there to account for what–200, 300 wax palms? Trees that don’t even flower until they are 25 years old. Protecting these parrots was going to be nothing like Roncesvalles. We would have to tackle this problem in a completely different way.”

In fact they’ve used “just about every tool in the kit,” says Salaman, and in working to save Ognorhynchus have improved the prospects for all of the region’s birds.

“First we thought, well we’ll ask the pastor for his support,” Castaño says. It had worked in Roncesvalles. Padre Raul, however, was an autocrat of the old school.

“It is God’s wish that the palm of Palm Sunday be wax palm,” he pronounced.

Then a forestry lawyer unearthed a wonderful fact: In 1985 Colombia had designated Ceroxylon quindiense its national tree. Chopping down a quindío wax palm, it turned out, is a federal offense. The conservationists had the law on their side. But what constituted their side, exactly? A clutch of ardent ornithologists, birders, and students without portfolio.

“You have to do these things properly,” Salaman says. “Build an organization, not just something you run out of your own bank account. So we got together near the end of the year in 1999, wrote some bylaws and a constitution, and kicked things off.”

“Oh! We were full of dreams and plans,” says Castaño, one of the first secretaries of the newly hatched ProAves, Colombia’s first national bird conservation organization and a BirdLife International collaborator. The founders (Castaño, Salaman, and eight others) started meeting landowners, monitoring the birds’ behavior, and instituting a public awareness campaign and a school program. The forestry lawyer sent an official letter hinting of repercussions if the church allowed use of the palms.

Padre Raul, the town’s priest, blew a gasket. Fulminating from the pulpit, he admonished parishioners to stand fast and keep using the palms, insisting that these were not the wax palm, and it was just a lie that the parrot nested in them. On Palm Sunday 2002, ProAves distributed balloons and all manner of branches in the square. The forestry police reluctantly confiscated quindío boughs before people joined the processional and fined their bearers.

In the end, perhaps in acknowledgement of the changing times, it was the church itself that broke the deadlock. Padre Raul was transferred. His successor was Padre Mario Agudelo, Jardín born and bred.

“God doesn’t care what branches we use,” Padre Mario announced to the ProAves staff in 2003. “Bring us some options.” Padre Mario initially chose bamboo. It was not a success. …

Flash forward to the present. The ProAves kids are doing a brisk business in the square selling iraka. Native, common, and abundant, it has been the sanctioned frond since bamboo was ditched in 2004. People are pouring in from the countryside–on horseback, squeezed onto motorcycles, packed into coffee-cooperative jeeps. The forestry police staked out the roads before dawn, looking for wax palms coming into town. Every year there have been fewer. This morning there are none.

“Sometimes people feel so daunted,” Paul Salaman says. “It’s so difficult to save species, they say, so expensive. Well, it turned out that the Yellow-eared Parrot was suffering from challenges that could be addressed. And its recovery–from the blink of extinction to more than 1,000 individuals–has been one of the most amazing in the Americas. I think there’s an important message for all of us here: Take heart.”

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