Parrot Conservation Changes a Catholic Tradition
Fifteen years ago the yellow-eared parrot was presumed extinct. Its rediscovery in Colombia forced the Catholic Church to abandon an age-old tradition, and brought about one of the most amazing comebacks in the Americas.
It doesn’t look promising. They come every evening, we’ve been told. As sure as sunset. You can practically set your clock by them . . . though there are always exceptions.
A wise caveat, as sunset is upon us and the only creature in sight is a black-billed mountain toucan noisily shelling seeds in a broadleaf evergreen tree. What’s more, as the thin mountain light fades, practical matters loom. Having slithered a mile down a steep Andean clearing to reach this spot, we’ll soon be scrambling back up in the dark. We are six—the driver, three biologists from the Colombian nonprofit ProAves, the Ecuadoran photojournalist Pablo Corral Vega, and me. Between us we can muster a headlamp and two cell phones with which to light our way back to the jeep. It’s pointless to wait. They’re not coming. We should go.
And yet we linger. The evening’s magic has transformed this uneven, boggy clearing. The stillness. The green-scented mountain air. The ghostly ivory columns of the two wax palms towering above the ragged pasture and shreds of forest.
“Perhaps they are arriving on the bus of six o’clock,”
Corral murmurs dreamily.
A querulous squawk answers him. Six human heads snap to attention.
Straggling in from the east like a squadron of bombers returning late to the airfield just as all hope fades in the heart of the ingénue, our long-awaited aviators spike the far sky. We know them by their quizzical, parroty cawing long before their bulldog heads and scimitar tails wing into focus. The birds sweep round our tiny valley in a victory lap, then swoop straight at the crowns of the palms. Inches from crash-landing, each bird fans its flight feathers hard and drops to the woody backbone of a frond. Within minutes hundreds of green parrots stud the branches, their fluffy yellow muttonchop whiskers and mustaches barely discernible in this light. “They are enchanting, these moments in the dormitory trees,” says biologist José Castaño.
Indeed, these are gregarious parrots. They chortle and chuckle. They squabble. They burble sweet nothings, cheek-to-cheek. Vie for position. Nibble at the panicles of strawberry-sized palm nuts—more diversion than sustenance, Castaño says. There’s a little grooming, much preening, what looks like the feeding of fledglings—one’s beak poked down into another’s, with telltale chuffing sounds—and some impressive displays of one-legged dangling.
As the hour advances, trios and quartets of the birds perform Chaplinesque sidestepping routines, tottering down the tops of the long, arching branches to nestle in the gloom of the palm crowns. Gradually more and more birds sidle into the darkness. Soon the two trees look as uninhabited as they did half an hour ago, with only a sleepy burble or two to give the game away.
The chance to observe Ognorhynchus icterotis, the yellow-eared parrot, is well worth scrambling home in the dark. It’s among the world’s most endangered psittacidae, says the Australian ornithologist Paul Salaman, and one of the most specialized. Endemic to these high, cloudforested flanks of the northern Andes, the yellow-eared parrot is the sole species of a single genus, and dependent for its survival in Colombia on this one species of endemic wax palm, Ceroxylon quindiense. The parrots will nest in no other tree here. In the absence of quindío palms with commodious cavities, they forgo nesting. They die out.
The immediate threat to this bird is unique, too: the observance, by tens of thousands of adherents to the Roman Catholic Church, of a beloved annual tradition, Domingo de Ramos. Palm Sunday, the Sunday preceding Easter.
“On this first day of Holy Week we celebrate Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, in His maximum humility, astride a donkey,” says Father Angel José Pareja Garcia, new pastor of Jardín, home of these parrots. “It is said that people along His path saluted him with boughs and hailed Him Cristo Rey. In the processions, we reenact Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem. For this we use the palms.”
Therein lies the crux of the matter. The parrots require the tree; the church requires its palms.
“We have used this palm for 1,000 years,” Pastor Raúl Ortiz pronounced when the yellow-eared parrot was discovered in his parish, late in 1999. “It is God’s will that we use it. He will never let the wax palm run out.”
More than a century ago naturalists knew of large populations of yellow-eared parrots in Colombia and Ecuador, tens of thousands of the birds, likely living everywhere the quindío palm (and in Ecuador a closely related wax palm) was found. The birds’ unique brand of habitat was a broad swath of the central and oriental cordilleras of the Andes, in cloudforests at elevations between 6,000 and 9,000 feet. Altitude proved no sanctuary. European settlement brought deforestation, and hunters and weekend warriors would shoot everything that moved—including Ognorhynchus and the mountain tapirs, curious long-snouted herbivores that ingest and disseminate wax palm nuts.
By 1996 the species was presumed extinct. That year a flock of 30 yellow-eared parrots popped up in Ecuador, but by 1997 they had vanished. No one knows why.