Class: Aves (Birds)
Body length: 15 to 17 inches (38 to 43 centimeters)
Weight: 11 to 13 ounces (314 to 373 grams)
Life span: 35 to 40 years
Incubation: 28 days
Number of eggs laid: 1 to 4
Age of maturity: 7 months
Conservation status: endangered
Thick-billed parrots use their strong beaks to clip pinecones from tree branches.
These birds have a call that can be heard up to 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) away!
Besides the thick-billed parrot, the only other parrot species native to the United States was the Carolina parakeet Conuropsis carolinensis, which became extinct in 1918.
Birds: Thick-billed Parrot
Range: northern Mexico
Most people think parrots live only in tropical climates, but the endangered thick-billed parrot prefers higher elevations and makes it home in the pine forests of northern Mexico. Because of their choice of habitat, they are sometimes called snow parrots, or cold-weather parrots. The thick-billed parrot’s green coloring helps it to blend in with the pine needles in the forest. The birds also have red markings on the head and on the bend of the wing and lower leg, and their eyes are ringed with yellow skin that is bare of feathers.
It's all about community
Like other parrot species, thick-billed parrots are intelligent, curious, and social birds, living together in flocks all year. Records from the past tell us of sightings of flocks numbering in the thousands; however, current flock sizes range from 12 to 1,000 birds. Within the flock there is a particular "pecking order" and rules each parrot must follow. Thick-billed parrots are quite noisy: their calls to each other in flight sound like children laughing. They will also alert other members of the flock if predators are near.
These birds are powerful flyers that can usually escape from larger birds of prey. Thick-billed parrots are even able to out-maneuver peregrine falcons by diving toward the ground and flying into trees the falcons will not enter. Their seasonal migrations can cover up to hundreds of miles, but not all flocks migrate. Although they have not been tracked along the entire route, it is believed that the thick-bills have the ability to make the trip in one nonstop flight.
Mmmmm! Pine seeds!
The thick-billed parrot’s main food item is pine seeds, although they do eat other seeds, berries, fruit, insects, and tree bark. Its beak can crack even the hardest nut shell, and the bird can perch on one thick, strong foot while using the other like a hand to hold and turn the stubborn nut. To get at the pine seeds, a parrot will shred the pinecone with its beak, starting at the base, and remove each seed as it works its way to the tip of the cone in a spiral fashion. This is a very complicated process which parents must teach their chicks over time; this can take up to several months! Pine seeds are such an important part of this species’ diet that their breeding cycle matches the peak pine seed production. Thick-billed parrots at the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park are offered pine seeds in shells as well as other seeds and fruits.
A room at the top
Although these parrots do visit lower elevations, thick-bills spend most of their time at higher altitudes, from 3,900 to 11,500 feet (1,200 to 3,500 meters). All nesting activity takes place at the higher elevations, possibly because the preferred species of pine trees are found at those elevations. The parrots build their nests in cavities in dead or decaying trees, preferring to use old woodpecker holes or abandoned flicker nesting holes, which the birds enlarge by chewing the wood. An adult male and female may stay together as a pair for life. In 2006, researchers in Madera, Chihuahua, Mexico, found that many nesting pairs shared trees, with up to three nests per tree. Thick-billed parrot chicks develop slowly and are cared for by both parents. They stay in the nest for two to three months before they fledge and learn to fly, and the parents continue to feed them for a short time while they learn to forage for themselves.
The thick-billed parrot population has dropped since the early 1900s. Although its range once included southern areas of Arizona and New Mexico south to Venezuela in South America, it is now found mostly in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains of northern Mexico. What has happened? Hunting and logging in the parrots' pine forest habitat and the illegal capture of birds for the pet trade are the greatest threats facing thick-billed parrots today.
It is believed that half of the world's thick-billed parrots live in a 6,000-acre (2,400-hectare) tract of forest in Chihuahua, Mexico, which is the birds' most important nesting area. In 2000, a private group that owned the land agreed to stop logging in the area and plans are under way to develop a certified sustainable timber harvest and build cabins for ecotourists.
The San Diego Zoo participates in the Species Survival Plan for the thick-billed parrot and is part of a group of conservation organizations supporting field studies and working to save the birds' remaining habitat.
With their noisy habits and eye-catching plumage, thick-billed parrots are hard to ignore. Today, with a breeding program in place, habitat protection undertaken, and public awareness on the rise, our western mountains just might echo again with the riotous calls of flocking thick-billed parrots!