Parrots 'most-threatened bird group'

Paradise Parrot is now extinct, but many species are now in danger of following it into oblivion. Photo: W T Greene (commons.wikimedia.org).
Paradise Parrot is now extinct, but many species are now in danger of following it into oblivion. Photo: W T Greene (commons.wikimedia.org).
New research indicates that parrots are the most threatened group of bird species, with 28 per cent of extant species classified as Globally Threatened on the IUCN Red List.

Scientists, including staff from BirdLife International and the Australian National University, have just published their findings that 111 out of 398 psittaciform species are potentially in danger of extinction. Parrots are known to be the most common bird group reported in the wildlife trade.

On average, the study confirms that parrots are more threatened than comparable orders of birds with a similar number of species (including tubenoses, pigeons and raptors). Parrots with a small historical distribution (for instance, those found on islands), large body size, a long generation time, and a dependency on forest habitats, are more likely to be threatened. Large-bodied birds tend to have low population densities and are more at risk from human hunters, while forest parrots are overwhelmingly tree-cavity nesters, meaning that primary forest destruction has a severe impact on the availability of their nesting sites and consequent reproductive success.

Dr Stuart Butchart, Head of Science at BirdLife International, said: “This study confirms that, as a whole, parrots face a higher rate of extinction than any other comparable bird group. Indeed, 56 per cent of all parrot species are in decline. They face a wide range of threats, but loss and degradation of forest habitat, agricultural expansion, and hunting and trapping ... are all major factors. However, this study identifies conservation priorities for these attractive, intelligent birds – which have beguiled and fascinated humans since we first set eyes upon them – and offers a way to prevent more species [from] following the Carolina Parakeet and Paradise Parrot into extinction."

The study found that the following 10 countries are the highest priority for parrot conservation: Indonesia, Brazil, Australia, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Papua New Guinea, Venezuela, and Mexico. The most common actions needed in the Neotropics (Central and South America) are site protection and management, with improved legislation and ex-situ conservation a priority in Africa, and greater awareness and site and habitat protection a priority in South-east Asia and Oceania.

The severity of extinction risk (rising from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered) is also positively related to the per head gross domestic product (GDP) of the countries of occurrence, with more-developed economies tending to have higher rates of urbanisation and a consequent increased pressure on remaining parrot habitat.

Interestingly, and perhaps counter-intuitively, the study also found that the risk of extinction is lower for those parrot species widely held in captivity as pets, backing up recent studies that show that the vast majority of species within the domestic and international bird trade are non-threatened. This is largely thought to be because most parrot poachers concentrate on species that are more readily available and easier to catch. However, illegal trade is rapidly driving a number of species towards extinction.

A total of 14 of the 16 parrot species BirdLife officially classifies on the IUCN Red List as Extinct were restricted to islands, and disappeared following the arrival of Europeans from the mid-17th century onwards. The two exceptions are Carolina Parakeet, a North American species that was wiped out by human persecution and deforestation in 1918; and Paradise Parrot in Australia, a grassland specialist that nested in termite mounds and which had its last confirmed sighting in 1928.

Olah, G, Butchart, S H M, Symes, A, Guzmán, I M, Cunningham, R, Brightsmith, D J, and Heinsohn, R. 2016. Ecological and socio-economic factors affecting extinction risk in parrots. Biodiversity and Conservation 2: 205-223.