Little-known Parrots of the Colombian Andes


When I was asked by Laro Parque Fundaci6n (LPF) to help publicise their conservation work, I was enthusiastic. I had followed for several years, and with increasing interest, the reports of the projects concerning the endangered parrots of the Colombian Andes. Two of the species there were of particular interest to me. One made headlines around the world when it was re-discovered in 2002 after not being reliably reported since 1911. This was Fuertes' Parrot (Hapalopsittaca fuertesi). The other was the Yelloweared Parrot (formerly called conure) (Ognorhynchus icterotis).

At the fourth International Parrot Convention held at Laro Parque, Tenerife, in 1998, film was shown of the last few survivors of this species, reduced to about 60 birds and declining so fast that it seemed inevitable that this would be the next parrot species to become extinct. But that is another storyD

I wanted to focus on the Colombian projects as they have achieved so much in such a short time. To do this I contacted Paul Salaman, an English ornithologist now based in Bogota, who oversees the LPF parrot projects in Colombia. When he was next in England, could we meet?[] asked. Back came an e-mail: Dam unlikely to be in the UK in the foreseeable future. Why don't you come out to Colombia and I will take you to some of the project sites?D

The prospect was so exciting that I lost no time in booking a flight for eight weeks ahead. I had been to Colombia once before, about 25 years previously. I knew of course that Colombia has one of the highest, if not the highest, number of bird species within its shores of any country worldwide 1:1turrently believed

to be 1,875 (Compare that with just over 300 species found in the UK!). This high number is attributable to its unique location and to its topography. It is the only country in South America that has an Atlantic and a Pacific coast and it is also unique in stretching from Central America to the Amazon River. Three mountain ranges of the magnificent Andes occupy the western part of the country; in the east the habitats vary from lush rainforest and flat grasslands to sandy desert.

Given this variety of habitats, it is not surprising that Colombia has the second or third highest number of parrot species worldwide, a total of 52. This is exceeded by Brazil with about 72 species and possibly by Australia with 52 or 53 species. (These numbers could be revised at any time as DNA research often indicates that a particular species is, in fact, two species). There is a sad statistic connected with Colombia's 50 plus parrot species: at least 12 are in imminent danger of extinction.

Eighty per cent of the human population of Colombia (approximately 34 million people) live in towns and pueblos in the Andes because much of the rest of the country is uninhabitable. In extent, Colombia covers 440,00 square miles (about four and a half times bigger than the UK with a little over half the human population). After more than a century of cutting down forest, even on gravity-defying slopes where coffee and other crops are cultivated, most of the natural vegetation of the Andes has been destroyed. No wonder, then, that the endangered parrots are mountain species, living either in the Andes or in the Santa Marta mountains to the north. A poster depicts the parrots in danger of extinction and I was surprised to see that it included the Hyacinthine Macaw. Reputedly this macaw lives in Colombia just over the border from Brazil.

I was due to arrive in Bogota, Colombia's capital, at 8pm on January 27 but as the result of two delays at Miami airport it was nearer 3am on the following morning when I landed. Paul was there, waiting. After two and a half hours sleep I was up and ready for the visit to the first site to see one of Colombia's four parrots that are found in no other country (endemic). It is interesting that two of these species are Pyrrhura conures. The Santa Marta Conure (P. viridicata) is confined to the mountains of that name while the Flame-winged or Brown-breasted Conure (Pyrrhura calliptera) has survived in a few fragmented populations in the Eastern Andes between 1,700m (5,600ft) an 3,400m (11,000ft). Both these species are unknown in captivity and were little known in the wild.