The tropical April sun rose at 6:00 am, crimson over the Caribbean pine trees in the Payne’s Creek National Park (PCNP) in Southern Belize.
As the skies changed color to a shade of dark blue, the cool, moist air and the fresh scent of the pines transformed me into a laid back vacation mode as I walked quietly behind the two park rangers. Suddenly, “You ready Mr. Joe?” a voice interrupted my early morning daydream. Obviously, this was no laid back time for the youngest park ranger working for TIDE, Norman Andrew Williams.
Andrew, as we all know him, excitedly strapped on his home-made harness of intricately connected ropes, buckles and straps. This was in preparation to climb an old Caribbean pine tree to see if any yellow-headed parrot chicks had hatched in an artificial nest box they had installed several weeks earlier. The climb was not more than 12 feet and was aided with a portable folding steel ladder carried by Mario Muschamp, Andrew’s supervisor.
In about three minutes of skillfully using the steel ladder and his harness, Andrew reached the nest box. So as not to disturb any nesting chicks that might be in there, he placed his camera in the nest box entrance hole and took a picture to find out what was going on inside. As he lifted his hand and looked at the picture, we saw his face break into a smile from ear to ear, as he excitedly announced “Bwai, two chicks de in ya!” (Two chicks are in here). We were all very excited, as artificial nest boxes had never been successfully used by yellow-headed parrots before.
Earlier in January at the start of the nesting season, TIDE initiated an artificial nest box program for yellow-headed parrots (YHP) in the PCNP. Yellow-headed parrots are cavity nesters that normally nest in large pine snags in the lowland pine savannahs of Belize. Sadly, they are also critically endangered to extinction. TIDE teamed up with Michael Keys from the St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge, Northern Florida, who has a great deal of knowledge on artificial nests for red-cockaded woodpecker in the US, which is also a cavity nester.
By February 2012, YHPs were noticeably visiting the artificial nests; their amazing beaks had left significant marks that were visible around the entrance of the nest boxes. By the end of March, three of the artificial nest boxes each had a pair of YHP eggs. This unexpected activity had the entire staff excited as we weren’t anticipating the use of the nests until next year’s nesting season. The next big question was, ‘Will the YHP chicks hatch successfully?’ That’s why the monitoring event in April was so high in anticipation and why Andrew smiled so broadly when he found two chicks of this rare and beautiful parrot alive and well in one of the artificial boxes he had helped install.
As Andrew made his way down, we could not help but wonder whether more of the nest boxes were occupied. Subsequent and similar climbs revealed that three of the 10 artificial nest boxes were being used by YHPs, the other two with a pair of un-hatched eggs each. At the end of the nesting season in July, a total of three eggs hatched successfully. That’s a 50% survival rate, which is greater than the 10% survival rate we observed in natural nests that year. YHP chicks and eggs would naturally become food for small mammals and occasionally snakes.
It is estimated that more yellow-headed parrots exist in cages in people’s homes than in the wild
The fate of the 3 missing YHP chicks were all of natural causes as indicated by the feathers around the nesting areas. However, unfortunately over 90% of the young chicks in other accessible areas outside of PCNP are poached by humans and sold in the illegal pet trade to local villagers throughout southern Belize and even further afield. Aside from their vibrant green and yellow metallic colors, these parrots have an amazing and exceptional ability to mimic virtually any sound with very little training. Payne’s Creek National Park is one of the very few protected habitats for YHPs in Belize.
TIDE must congratulate the coastal fishing communities of Punta Negra and Monkey River for being visionaries and for recognizing the importance of this very important habitat to protect such a magnificent endangered avian species.
However, had it not been for the generous financial support from Massachusetts Audubon Society, the survival rate of YHPs in Payne’s Creek National Park in Belize would probably be 0%, their habitat gone, burnt down by wildfires set by hunters to lure white-tailed deer out into the open where they can be easily hunted for food.
TIDE is committed to do its best to save the yellow-headed parrot from extinction. We plan to build on the success of our artificial nest project. We plan to install additional nest boxes and use video cameras to monitor breeding success and factors affecting chick survival in order to improve the design and location of nest boxes. Video footage of chicks will also be an extremely useful tool in education and outreach activities. Outreach and involving communities will be of critical importance if we are save the parrot since the pet trade is its most severe threat.
It is estimated that more yellow-headed parrots exist in cages in people’s homes than in the wild and so we plan to team up with Belize Bird Rescue to rescue captive parrots, rehabilitate them and release them back into the wild. TIDE has a strong education and outreach team and personal connections in the communities involved. We will engage community members, involve them in conservation efforts and help them to see that these parrots are worth far more in the wild than in cages.