The Uncertain Future of the Yellow-Eared Parrot
The strident cries of a pair of parrots grew louder through the heavy afternoon mist that fell over the Antioquia mountains one day of October 2001. A group of twelve persons including researchers, students and curious people like me waited the arrival of eighty of one of the most endangered birds in the world to their roosting site. Between the surprise and deception of the onlookers (in my case emotion for seeing this bird for the first time) only a couple of Yellow-eared parrots appeared through the fog. They settled on the top frond of the endemic Wax palm of Colombia and while we were trying to pinpoint them with binoculars they decided to fly again to an uncertain place; probably as uncertain as their future.
The Yellow-eared Parrot, whose scientific name in Latin is Ognorhynchus icterotis, ranged originally the Andes mountains from mid Colombia to the north of Ecuador but the population that crossed regularly the border between these two countries apparently became extinct twelve years ago. Experts believed that this disappearance meant there were only two colonies left at Colombia's Central Cordillera. One of the colonies gathered in the Toche river valley, also known as the Cocora Valley, a beautiful place distinguished by the quantity of the wax palms silhouetted against the sky. Many travelers, me included, have gotten to know the wax palm here for the first time. However, since five years ago the researchers' efforts to confirm the birds' presence at this place have been in vain and the bustle of the parrots is not heard there anymore. And that is a strange fact since the parrots' dependence on the wax palm is absolute; no sighting or record has been known of a flock that doesn't sleep or nest in the wax palm trunks. So, to save the Yellow-eared means saving the wax palm, the endangered national tree of Colombia, and vice versa.
I met Paul Salaman, General Director of the Ognorhynchus Project, in Medellin where we planned to leave to one of the recently discovered colonies in Antioquia. Salaman is a young and witty Englishman with the bird passion inside; and a lot of passion is needed to start a project with the idea of saving a species of parrot whose numbers at the beginning were estimated in less than 100. "The discovery of the new colony is very good. There are approximately 180 parrots at this site so we are very excited" Salaman told me in his good but accented Spanish. As we rode in a cab crossing the Antioquia mountains Salaman shared more details about the precarious state of the species. "In any article you write, the identity of the place has to be kept secret since there are many wildlife poachers searching for the parrot and we cannot run that risk". One of the favorite wildlife to poachers is parrots; appreciation for their colorful plumage, the people fondness for having them as pets and habitat destruction have 89 species in the world at the brink of extinction.
We arrived at a small town where the researchers and coordinators of the project conduct the necessary activities to try to keep the parrot reproducing in the zone. Just as in the other site in the Tolima department, the plan is to capture several individuals to install receptors so their feeding and moving habits come out to light. Since the nests are always made inside an old and hollow wax palm trunk, artificial nests shaped like the palm and made from fiber-glass will be set up in order to increase the number of nesting pairs every season. Such dependency on the wax palm could be the sentence for the Yellow-eared or it could become its salvation. The project tries to 'save two birds with one stone' by creating enough ecological consciousness about saving the wax palm. One of the most critical times comes in Semana Santa (Easter) when Colombians brandish religious braids woven from the palm leaves to be blessed during a popular Catholic celebration. Usually, manufacturing these icons means felling the whole tree. So the project is encouraging people to use some other materials less predatory of the natural environment. In another front the cattle ranch owners of the zone are fencing patches of land where wax palm seedlings would risk being trampled by grazing cows and, finally, the inhabitants, mostly peasants, receive conferences and posters with the parrot's image. I witnessed the enthusiasm of several kids that were always asking questions and wanted to see the parrot close-by so it seemed to me that this strategy is producing good results.
One morning at one of the roosting sites I woke up early before the parrots and waited under one of the wax palms where some 80 parrots were still asleep squeezed on top of leaves that bent like Christmas tree branches loaded in excess. As the sunlight reflecting from the sky brightened the valley, the parrots began their usual gabble, some pushing their partners off the palm, others grooming mutually, puffing their feathers, getting ready to fly. Suddenly all took off at once, letting themselves drop down with a swooping sound just to recover stability about 6 feet from the ground and head to the crest of the Cordillera. I imagined this group as the last remnant of an unknown tribe whose identity is about to being lost forever in the taxonomy annals and I felt grateful to God for having been able to watch a being that may disappear or, just as easily, may recover from almost certain extinction.
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