Parrot Conservation Changes a Catholic Tradition
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.
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 Argentinean 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. (With a green-and-yellow tuft of parrots perched at the opening, these headless palms have a charming look of misproportioned feather dusters.)
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 split 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. The sympathetic local priest counseled his human flock to protect wax palms. And the avian flock began to prosper.
Nonetheless, one small flock does not a recovered species make; it's too easily annihilated by a storm or a virus or an artillery battle between government and guerrilla forces (as happened twice in Roncesvalles, mercifully with no lasting harm to the parrots). The ornithologists kept looking.
Three years later a sharp-eyed state forester in Jardin, 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 the search for dormitory sites--an epic task here where 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 Jardin, Jose Castano, Salaman, and others watched as hundreds of joyous celebrants streamed behind Pastor Raul toward the church, each rattling a segment of a quindio wax palm spear.
"The calculations were whizzing through our heads," Salaman says. "There were enough branches down there to account for what--200, 300 wax palms? Trees that don't even flower till they're 25 years old. Protecting these parrots was going to be nothing like Roncesvalles. We would have to attack 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 this region's birds.
"First we thought, well, we'll ask the pastor for his support," Castano 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 quindio 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 the thing off."
"Oh! We were full of dreams and plans," says Castano, one of the first secretaries of the newly hatched ProAves, Colombia's first national bird conservation organization and a BirdLife International collaborator. The founders (Castano, 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 a lie that the parrots nested in them.
"It became our propaganda against their propaganda," Castano says ruefully.
On Palm Sunday 2002, ProAves distributed balloons and all manner of branches in the square. The forestry police reluctantly confiscated quindio boughs before people joined the processional, and fined their bearers.
"Oof, it was ugly," Castano recalls with a shudder.