The thick-billed parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha) is one of only two species of parrot that once inhabited the United States (the other is the Carolina parakeet, which is unfortunately extinct). They are bright green in color with a large black bill and red crown, shoulders and thighs.
Thick-billed parrots primarily eat pine seeds and some acorns, though they are also known to eat juniper berries, conifer buds, agave nectar and insect larvae.
There are currently approximately 500 to 2,000 thick-billed parrot pairs in the wild.
The thick-billed parrot used to live in Arizona, but is now found only in northern Mexico. It is unusual in that it lives in high elevation temperate forests. The summer (breeding) range of the thick-billed parrot is limited to high elevation forests of the Sierra Madre Occidental of northwestern Mexico, in the states of Chihuahua, Sonora and Durango. The winter range is less well known but extends south and east, possibly as far south as Veracruz.
Did You Know?
The thick-billed parrot's genus name Rhynchopsitta is derived from the Ancient Greek words rhynchos which means beak and psitta which means parrot.
Thick-billed parrots are highly social. They live in flocks and feed and roost in groups. They don’t mind cold weather, and have been seen eating snow as a water source. Their loud calls, which sound like human laughter, can be heard almost a mile away. On extended flights, thick-bills often fly in a V formation, much like geese.
During the breeding season, pairs find a nest cavity high in an old-growth pine tree (or in one area in Mexico, an old-growth aspen), and usually enlarge and modify the nest by chewing and spiting out or kicking out wood chips.
Mating Season: Summer.
Gestation: Eggs are usually laid between mid June and late July, and hatch between mid July and late August.
Clutch size: 2-3 eggs.
About two months after hatching (three months after the eggs are laid), the young parrots leave the nest (fledge). For up to a year after hatching, the young are dependent on the parents to feed them and help them learn to forage.
Threats to Thick-Billed Parrots
Thick-billed parrots were likely hunted to extinction in Arizona. In their current range in Mexico, they are threatened primarily by logging, and to a lesser degree by trapping for the pet trade.
The thick-billed parrots’ preference for mature pine forests and mountainous Sky Island habitats make it particularly vulnerable to climate change. As species are pushed upslope, their habitat shrinks, to the point where they can literally be sent "over the top."
Finally, thick-billed parrots' ability to disperse may be limited by hotter, drier conditions in the surrounding desert. Climate change is also increasing fire threat and outbreaks of insects that could threaten the pine trees that provide their food supply.
What Defenders Is Doing to Help Thick-Billed Parrots
A long-term research, monitoring and conservation program, lead by a team from the Instituto Tecnologico de Monterrey in Coahuila, has been underway since 1995. The thick-billed team monitors population numbers, chick survival and forest conditions in nesting areas, performs experimental translocations between sites, and works within communities to protect and enhance habitat. Also, despite years of searching, interviewing, and radio-tracking attempts, no one knows where the thick-billed parrots, which are studied at their summer nesting sites, go during the winter. This information is vital, because these unknown wintering areas also need protection.
This research and conservation work is supported by Defenders, the Mexican environmental group Pronatura, and several others.
Defenders also participates in a binational planning group on thick-billed conservation. This group makes recommendations for research and conservation efforts in both the United States and Mexico. Plans are currently being made to translocate thick-billed parrots from Mexico to Arizona.
It is critical that efforts to re-establish extirpated populations in both Arizona and Mexico be accelerated. Reestablishing the parrot in Arizona would provide an extension of range into suitable habitat that is not threatened by logging, and an Arizona population may be vital to the species’ survival. In order to guarantee the long-term survival of thick-billed parrots, it will be essential to restore them to multiple places in numbers large enough to protect against natural or manmade disasters and with enough connectivity to other populations to provide for dispersal (and therefore gene flow) between populations. The first step is for populations and habitats in Mexico to be secure enough to provide birds for translocation to other sites, so that a chain of populations can be established from Durango to Arizona.