Thursday, July 24, 2008

Back to the Future--The Red Browed Amazon Parrot

It’s that special time of year—the weather is getting warmer, the days longer and the aviary is alive with activity.

For the past 20 years, the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation has been working with—among other species—Aamazona rhodocorytha, the red-browed Amazon parrot. Red-brows are endangered, listed as CITES Appendix I on 2 June 1970. For those of you unfamiliar with the species, red-brows are, simply put, beautiful birds. Large—adults can reach up to 700g in weight—with flaming red feathers on their foreheads, blue and yellow cheeks and throat, and a bright green body. Native to eastern Brazil, fewer than 800 likely remain in the wild.

The red-brow fascinates and inspires me. Anyone who breeds any species of parrot can attest to the almost “addictive” quality of working with these amazing creatures. Parrots have captured the attention of humans for centuries. The red-brow is, for me, an enigma of a species. Unlike more common Amazons, the red-brow is shy, relatively quiet, and extremely difficult to breed in captivity. In fact, all the red-brows in the U.S. are derived from perhaps 15 wild caught birds brought into the country from 1975-1985, and many of these birds were “mistakenly” identified as festive and blue-cheek Amazons.

I love to cheer for an underdog and the red-brow is a perfect example. Rosemary Lowe herself believed the species doomed, writing in 1984:

"Were there as many as one dozen pairs in captivity there would be some spark of hope for the future of the Red-browed Amazon. Instead, there is none."

Well, don’t count the red-brow out yet—there is some good news to report. For many years now, RSCF has been focused on red-brow recovery with the ultimate goal of red-brow repatriation. That’s right—we hope to one day to help re-establish red brow populations in the wild, in Brazil. Beginning with eleven birds in 1982, our captive population now numbers 34 from three generations. As I write, there are two fertile eggs in the incubator and judging by the behavior in the aviary, more are on the way.

As I said, the species inspires me. The red-brow simply doesn’t want to give up. That being said, this blog posting isn’t about how to raise red-brows. I’m not going to list incubation techniques or nest-box designs. I wanted to talk about red-brows because to me, the species represents what the future of aviculture could be—a collective group working together to maintain and recover endangered avian species with the ultimate goal of supporting habitat protection and supplementing dwindling populations in situ. If this can be done with red-brows, the precedent will be set that aviculture can—and should be—much more than a consumer-driven hobby. There have been attempts to reintroduce parrot species before but unfortunately there are few shining success stories. The red-brow could change that.

I’ve spoken, blogged and written many times about the history and current status of aviculture. The past few years have been tough, to say the least. Private bird breeders have been dealt some serious blows to the industry and currently the trade in captive raised pet birds is on the decline. Economic woes, bad press, animal rights activism, tightened legislation in animal trade, and the threat of avian flu are but a few of the troubles dramatically affecting bird breeders all over the country. While this may sound like totally bad news, I see it as a fantastic opportunity. What better way to promote aviculture in a positive light than by working with scientific organizations to breed and repatriate endangered species? How about giving range states for endangered species real sovereignty over their wildlife, no matter where the animals live? Imagine the pride that comes with local communities seeing their own famously rare parrots rebound with the help of international friends and support.

You may ask, “isn’t all of that what zoos are supposed to do?” Good question, and the answer is usually “no”. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) is the governing body for all accredited zoological institutions in the United States. The mission of the AZA is primarily to educate the public. They also “Promote and facilitate collaborative conservation programs”, ( What this means is that many zoos and aquariums don’t have sufficient staff or money to independently implement conservation programs on their own—at least not substantially. Zoos know how to house and exhibit animals. When it comes to conservation programming, with few notable exceptions, zoos partner and fund those programs that bring them the best return for the dollar (i.e. more people through the gate).

Again, I see all of this as an opportunity. I would challenge aviculturists as an industry to begin a dialogue to come together as a unified force to support avian conservation programs in a structured, powerful and public way. The face of private aviculture, in my opinion, has to change. I’m not directing this to the folks out there with a few budgies or cockatiels—although they can certainly support conservation programs as well. I’m really directing this to those folks who have been breeding parrots for decades, who know that the future of many species can directly benefit from their expertise, and who also recognize that something has to be done now. Parrots are a perfect flagship species—one of those select few charismatic groups of animals that have a direct link to human influence and history. People love—and will support—saving parrots in the wild. Aviculturists have an opportunity here: take part in protecting and preserving the very animals that have paid the bills for so many years before they, and the aviculture industry, disappear forever.

If ever there was a need for a super-hero for parrot conservation and aviculture it’s now. Luckily, we just may have one in the mighty red-brow.

Author’s note: As of this writing, RSCF is hosting the organization’s first conference with representatives from Brazil to begin a collaborative program supporting the captive breeding of red-browed Amazon parrots in Brazil. For more information about this program contact

Posted by RSCF Curator, Karen McGovern

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