An endangered parrot species is making a home in South Texas, much to the delight of researchers who say it’s a unique case of animals expanding into urban areas.
Texas has an estimated population of 900 endangered red-crowned parrots that have been spotted in areas like Brownsville, Harlingen, Weslaco and McAllen — all of which have confirmed roosts.
The mostly green parrots, which have a cluster of bright red feathers on their heads, are an unusual example of a species that has adapted well in the face of poaching and the pet trade moving them from their native areas, according to researchers at Texas A&M.
Red-crowned parrots were originally native to a small region of Northeastern Mexico, but habitat loss and poaching have diminished their numbers over the past several decades.
“Parrots are popular pets in places like South Texas and Latin America,” said Simon Kiacz, a School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences graduate student. “Unfortunately, most people, even law enforcement officers, don’t realize that these parrots are protected.”
Kiacz was part of the team that studied the parrots to better protect the endangered birds.
He and Donald J. Brightsmith, who led the research team, found that the animal trade is one reason the red-crowned parrots can now be found in Texas.
“Some of them certainly flew across the border, but many were brought over during the 1980s when it was still legal to buy and sell them,” Brightsmith said.
Given the species’ success in urban environments, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department named the red-crowned parrot a native species.
“Without native species status, it would be much more difficult to provide protection for the species,” Brightsmith said.
The research team found that the parrots are especially prevalent in areas in the Rio Grande Valley, including towns like Brownsville, where the red-crowned parrot is now the official mascot.
Typically, species that have adapted to urban environments are considered neutral or even invasive, but the research team found a more symbiotic relationship between the parrots and the people of Texas.
“Humans have basically created the perfect environment for these parrots,” Kiacz said. “They want what we want — ornamental plants with fruit and seeds that are well-watered and look attractive all year-round.”
“All of the palm trees that we plant in South Texas are non-native,” Kiacz explained. “They eventually die, and then woodpeckers come and make holes that are perfect nesting cavities for these parrots. But they’re also happy to use holes in the sides of buildings.”
Researchers also found that the parrots love to eat non-native species of plants and haven’t caused much competition with other local species over food sources.
The only downside Brightsmith and Kiacz have found is the noise.
“You’ll often see these birds roosting together,” Brightsmith said. “They sleep in groups of a hundred or more, and they may end up choosing someone’s front yard, even right over the mailbox. Then, when it gets light outside, they’ll start making noise and flying around. Some people find that to be a nuisance.”
What can you do to help these endangered parrots? Kiacz says the best way to help is to spread awareness by teaching people how to live with their colorful, squawking neighbors.
“For example, maybe you have a dead tree in your yard that doesn’t look very pretty, but it’s not a danger to you or your home,” he explained. “Consider keeping it so these parrots can nest there. That’s the best way to be a good neighbor to these birds.”
According to TPWD, less than 2,000 red-crowned parrots are thought to remain in the wild.