As a field biologist I research, track and help save endangered parrots in central America, ask me anything.

Jack Haines
Jun 15, 2017

I work for The Ara Project, an NGO that works to re-establish, protect and enhance populations of endangered parrots across their former range in Costa Rica. We achieve this in several ways, primarily: re-introductions into suitable areas which historically saw species thrive; captive breeding and release; habitat and nest management/protection; increasing stakeholder involvement/interest; and educating local human populations. We currently have three main sites in Costa RIca and our efforts are focused on the Scarlet Macaw and the critically endangered Great Green Macaw. 

My job is to assess and manage the wild populations of Scarlet Macaws in the north-west of the country. This requires a large amount of field work such as conducting behavior observations, population counts and chick ringing. However, I am also responsible for mapping and translating the data I collect into  reports for stakeholders, donors and the project directors. 

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How can you raise awareness about endangered parrots?

Jun 15, 9:02AM EDT0

Hi Diane

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea. My focus is on behaviour and biology as well as population and group level dynamics. We have others in the team that would know more than me about this (and they do a fantastic job). However, I would think that the key is to decide who it is you are raising aweness to. Whilst local populations are a sure group to be engaged it is likely in a very different way to how you would engage with a big financial donor. So raising awareness will change in both method and priority depending on the target group. I would assume, in this day and age, social media has a big role to play but that is not something I would know anything about. All that said, I have no doubt that an Attenborough documentary would raise substantial awareness.

Jun 15, 5:31PM EDT0

How does the trade in exotic pets affect parrot species?

Jun 15, 7:21AM EDT0

Hi Dennis

For certain species the effect can be huge, and in others it can be insignificant. Poaching for the pet trade is often cited as one of the main causes for the decline of Scarlet Macaws (along with deforestation and hunting) as well as several other species such as the Hyacinth Macaw and the Yellow-naped Amazon. This is often despite their status as a CITIES listed species, which makes their unauthorised international trade illegal. As such, poaching continues due to the demand in countries such as the United States of America where they are desired as pet species because of their remarkable beauty, ability to mimic speech and reputation as being affectionate pets. Unfortunately ,they are one of the most re-homed and released pet species due to several reasons. Primarily their behaviour changes when they reach sexual maturity and they can become very aggressive and territorial, this is accompanied by frequent, loud scream-like screeching, destructive behaviour and self mutilation. All these factors can then be compounded when the species is given incorrect husbandry, attention and stimulation. However, the supply and demand situation often results in incredibly harmful methods of poaching such as felling trees to access nests and transporting them in incredibly inhumane conditions that result in low survival rates. This dynamic serves to push the price of many species up, in turn making them an even more desirable pet species where used as a display of wealth.

Jun 15, 5:09PM EDT0

Why do you think people keep parrots for pets?

Jun 15, 3:18AM EDT0

Hi Elizabeth

In the US and other countries where the birds must be imported, I think it is split between those that know what to expect from parrots and love them for it, and those that have no idea what they are getting themselves in to. Many parrot enthusiasts love them because of their intelligence, beauty, grace and companionship. However, inexperienced owners are often disillusioned and expect something akin to a talking dog. Once this type of owner realises how much effort, care and knowledge must go into developing a healthy, happy parrot-human relationship they all to often abandon, sell, release or re-home the birds. This often increases instability in the parrots and exacerbates the problem, particularly if they go through this process several times.

An additional reason for owning a pet parrot is often seen here in Costa Rica, and that is their cultural/traditional status as pets. Whilst I know a lot less about this style of ownership I still believe that in order to justify ever having a parrot as a pet you must be able to provide a level of welfare that rivals a life of freedom and proof that the bird itself has been responsibly sourced.

Jun 15, 5:44PM EDT0

What is your view on cloning as a way to save or bring back animals?

Jun 14, 10:47PM EDT0

Hi Mckenzie

I think cloning is not going to help us with anything. Apart from the fact that it is going to be a long time before it is cost effective with high success rates, the idea of letting a building burn down rather than to put out the fire because “we might be able to rebuild it in the future” is absurd. More importantly most species go extinct because of a complex system of changes to their range/environment. So unless these issues are fixed and their prior range is completely restored to how it was when the species thrived, it has no hope for survival when reintroduced/revived/reincarnated.

Jun 15, 5:57PM EDT0

What is the main thing that could save parrots from extinction?

Jun 14, 2:51AM EDT0

Hi Andrew

 

If it had to be just one thing, I would say the expansion of effectively protected habitat. By doing this it would effectively ensure that not only will there be a chance for species recovery, but there will also be a chance for populations to become self sustaining. One of the biggest problems that parrot populations face is deforestation, this both reduces the available habitat for the species in which to thrive but also fragments it. This means that populations get dispersed and become isolated, which in turn leads to a loss of genetic diversity in those sub-populations, which leads to inbreeding depression and susceptibility to stochastic events and disease etc.

More protected land would allow sub-populations to thrive, expand and eventually meet with other sub-populations which would help to ensure the survival of species. Although simple on paper, self interest, the value of land, governmental dissonance, bureaucracy and simply public knowledge/interest remain the biggest road blocks.

Jun 15, 4:25PM EDT0

What are the special challenges to birds, in terms of species survival?

Jun 14, 1:41AM EDT0

Hi Derek

I couldn't really talk about all birds as there are just too many different situations to consider, but I can say that parrots are one of the most endangered avian family with just under a third of the species classed as threatened and over half of them in decline. Parrots in particular suffer from habitat loss and fragmentation caused mainly by human development and deforestation; poaching for the pet trade;  and hunting for their meat, feathers or as a result of human wildlife conflict.

Even more specifically I can talk about the Scarlet Macaws in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica. Whilst we enjoy much more tropical dry forest cover than other areas across Central America, much of it is young secondary forest regrowth. This means that there are very few old, large trees, the Macaws preferred nesting sites. The result of this is that many of the macaws choose the dead trunks of quickly growing palm trees as these can be readily available. The problem, however is that these have a very high turn over and are likely to fall within a few years of becoming a suitable nest site. The weather here is very extreme and I have seen a lot of evidence of the Macaws choosing these trees to nest in, which results in failure as the trees collapse. Essentially we need to protect areas for regrowth for much longer periods of time ad refrain from harvesting veteran trees or over developing agricultural land.

Jun 15, 8:50AM EDT0

Why should a typical American care about extinction of parrots?

Jun 13, 7:04PM EDT0

Hi Jonathan

That’s a really good question and one that is always hard to answer. I guess a sense of social responsibility has lead me to the point where I believe society should try and help those (humans and animals) that cannot put up their own fight for survival due to the systems (and ecosystems) that we have manipulated for the success of the few (pronounced rich) across the globe today. It is hard to tell somebody they should care about the extinction of parrots unless they already know inside it is an issue which they wish to support, especially when you consider how many other species, human populations (think South Sudan) and environments are at the brink of extinction. I think these are all issues which we should be aware and concious of when making everyday decisions, as we are all too often benefiting in some way from the misery of those that are most exploited.

With that said, I do think people should care about the extinction of parrots, but not above or over any other endangered species as each are important to their ecosystem and cannot be replaced once they are gone. Furthermore, no matter how insignificant a species is perceived to be they all help to sustain and stabilise healthy ecosystems that provide us with services, both known and unknown, that we can not hope to replicate or efficiently replace. Essentially, as we continue to loose species at a rate never seen before by human eyes, we will inevitably collapse more and more ecosystems and therefore lose the invaluable services they provide.

 

* ecosystem services are of huge importance to the stability of society and the survival of humans, in a very brief and over-simplified way they can be thought of as providing, regulating or supporting: clean water, food, oxygen, disease control, climate control, flood protection, pollination and recreation to name but a few.

Jun 15, 6:00PM EDT0

How many mating pairs are considered sufficient to save parrot species?

Jun 13, 6:17PM EDT0

What is your favorite parrot species, and why?

Jun 13, 1:47PM EDT0

Hi Derrick

My favorite has to be the Hyacinth Macaw, my reasons are entirely aesthetic though. They are the biggest (fact) and most beautiful (IMO) with striking blue colouration with yellow highlights around the eyes and formidable beak. I have not had the pleasure of working with them yet but I would jump at the chance. Scarlet Macaws or possibly Red-lored Amazons would be a close second as I think they are both very playful and I can happily spend hours watching them socialise and play.

Last edited @ Jun 15, 7:06PM EDT.
Jun 15, 4:49PM EDT0

What kind of education do you need to be a field biologist?

Jun 13, 12:20PM EDT0

Hi Christopher

I have an masters degree (MSc.) in global wildlife biology and conservation. However, I know a bachelors degree and some relevant voluntary experience would also provide employers with the background that they are looking for in a field biologist. Furthermore, a degree in anything biology, ecology, veterinary or wildlife based will be sufficient as the most important academic skills are the ability to work alone, self direct, complete projects on time and above all a sound understanding and respect for the scientific process.

 

On the other hand, in the conservation sector there are people off all types of academic backgrounds and many highly respected contributors with no higher education to speak of. I believe this is important to understand as a passion and drive to help save endangered species along with good interpersonal skills and a willingness to learn backed up by plenty of volunteer experience will serve you much better than a blank CV with only a costly university education to speak of.

Jun 15, 8:03AM EDT0

How does the fate of birds impact the fate of humans?

Jun 13, 6:58AM EDT0

How do you work with indigenous people to save wildlife?

Jun 13, 6:45AM EDT0

Hi Elizabeth

We have an education officer who does a lot of great work with both local communities and indigenous communities. Personally, I have no official role in the education side of things, but I am aware of the importance of involving all stakeholders in the conservation process. Whilst this can be challenging, particularly when our work may be opposed to traditional activities such as hunting, our team is well trained and respectful, ensuring a positive relationship. Additionally we employ many staff members who are from all over Costa Rica, all with different cultural backgrounds, both indigenous and non-indigenous. This helps to secure a responsibility for the birds that foreigners, such as myself, cannot provide.

Jun 15, 7:01PM EDT0

How do you track parrots for research purposes?

Jun 13, 6:17AM EDT0

Do you have any heroes in the field of animal biology?

Jun 13, 5:23AM EDT0

How are bird populations an indicator of global health?

Jun 13, 5:20AM EDT0

What were you most surprised to discover about central America?

Jun 13, 5:09AM EDT0

Hi Shawn

I think my most surprising revelation is that of the effects of the tourism industry. It seems to me that it is a double edged sword with many complex factors. On the one hand it provides jobs and crucially is bringing value to wildlife and nature through the booming “eco-tourism” industry, whilst on the other it is also the cause of tension and division between local populations and tourists and often the destruction of nature and even endangering wildlife. There is a lot of literature about how many of the “eco-lodges” can be damaging to the environment that they are profiting from, but a book called The Quetzal and the Macaw by David Rains Wallace sheds some light on the situation very well. In a nut shell, when done correctly the tourism industry can work to protect areas of forest and the wildlife within whilst supporting local communities and driving sustainability. When done badly, however, they benefit only those at the top of the chain at the expenses of the land they exploit (including the communities and wildlife), they then reinvest elsewhere when the land becomes unmarketable as a nature spot and the process starts again.

Tourists themselves can have a huge impact as well. Whilst many people feel they can go on holiday to experience a weeks worth of paradise they have little consideration for the effects of how they choose to spend their money. Package tours and “must see” hotspots advertised by travel guides often serve to over populate previously scenic spots and secret gems. They simultaneously remove the excitement (and in my opinion, reality) of travel and the intrinsic value of the very experience that the tourist are trying to have. Again it can be argued that this is how jobs are made and how money is brought into the country and communities, but the real cost for these instagram-ed facebook profile picture experiences can be all too high.

Jun 15, 8:31AM EDT0

What role should zoos play in preventing animal extinction?

Jun 13, 3:31AM EDT0

How did you dress for field work in central America?

Jun 13, 1:08AM EDT0

Hi Stacey

It all depends on the day/weather and the task at hand. Think very hot, very humid and a chance of torrential rain. On an average day I will go out in military style jungle boots, tough khaki shorts a tshirt and cap. More important is the kit I take with me. At the very least my field kit will contain:

Rucksack+cover+liner

notebook +pen

sunglasses

schmagh

waterproof jacket

suncream+bug spray

toilet paper

5l of water

binoculars

mobile phone +field charger

multitool/penknife

GPS unit

Jun 15, 8:35AM EDT0

How can we get young people excited about saving parrots?

Jun 12, 10:59PM EDT0

What role should central American governments play in this issue?

Jun 12, 9:59PM EDT0
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