Almost a third of all parrot species are threatened – that’s with extinction, not noise abatement orders or their neighbours by the way! When it came to putting this ‘Parrot Month’ theme together I relied quite heavily on the World Parrot Trust (WPT) for information and clarification, and I have to say that the people I spoke to – in particular Dr James Gilardi (exec-director of the WPT) and Steve Milpacher (WPT’s Director of Business Development & Webmaster) – have been endlessly helpful and approachable.
So much so that Dr Gilardi – a very busy man of course – readily agreed to an interview with me! It’s wide-ranging, touches on many of the issues that we’ll looking at in more depth as the theme develops, and seems to me to be an ideal starting-point to get ‘Parrot Month’ off to a flying start…
NB: The short Video clips with this interview are copyright World Parrot Trust and used with permission. They may take a little while to load depending on your internet connection but they are well worth the wait!
An Interview with Dr Jamie Gilardi, Executive Director of the World Parrot Trust
Dr James Gilardi has been the Executive Director of the World Parrot Trust since November 2000. His work includes developing and implementing field conservation initiatives. He is a conservation biologist specializing in behavioural and physiological ecology with special interest in tropical forest birds and marine vertebrates.
Following undergraduate studies at UC Santa Cruz, he earned a Ph.D. in Ecology from UC Davis studying parrot social behaviour, foraging ecology, and soil-eating in south-eastern Peru. James has also worked on parrot field conservation in Guatemala, St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Mexico.
Dr Gilardi thanks so much for talking to me. Can I ask first, did you always want to work with parrots or have you just found yourself in the position you are and sometimes wonder how you got there?
- J G: Since early childhood, I’ve been fascinated by all birds because they were the most spectacular and observable wildlife I could find in suburban California. Tame parrots were all the more fascinating as they seemed as curious about me and my world as I was in them and theirs. When a neighbour was giving up a parrot in the process of moving, I was thrilled to adopt my first pet – an Orange-fronted Conure or Parakeet Aratinga canicularis from Central America. Only many years later in Guatemala did I get to see and study this species in the wild, learning that they nest in arboreal termite mounds and fly powerfully in spectacular tropical forests.
I first started my graduate research on tropical seabirds in the central Pacific, but switched to working on parrot ecology and conservation when I came to understand just how threatened the parrots were as a family, and how little we understood of their biology. That seemed (and seems) a thrilling and meaningful combination.
You mentioned just then about coming to understand just how threatened the parrots are as a family. Do you think there is sufficient understanding among birders about the problems facing the world’s parrots?
- J G: I’ve been told there is a bit of a disconnect between birding and conservation in general, so my hat is off to you and others like you working to educate and inspire birders to get more deeply involved in saving what they love.
When it comes to parrots, my sense is few birders – or conservationists in general for that matter – have a solid perspective of just how many parrots are seriously threatened, and how many have gone extinct in the last few centuries. A quick look through the Threatened Birds of the World tells you very quickly just how disturbingly over-represented parrots are as a family.
This issue also hits home when we compare notes with our conservation colleagues who are often talking about their “threatened” birds, apes, or elephants numbering in the tens or even hundreds of thousands – for many parrots, we’re looking at hundreds of individuals left, even tens in some extreme cases. For parrots, extinction is not hypothetical, for many species, it’s an immediate reality.
Sun Conures in Guyana ©WorldParrotTrust.org from parrotsdotorg (World Parrot Trust) on Vimeo.
Those are startling figures, and I wonder how many people think about parrots in those terms? I obviously don’t get to talk to the numbers of the general public that you do, but I get the impression that many/most non-birders view parrots in a very stereotypical way that doesn’t really involve conservation issues – that parrots ‘talk’, are colourful, make good pets etc. That they’re almost not typical ‘birds’. Is that something you’d agree with?
- J G: You are absolutely right, and even some birders see wild parrots as not really birds – something to do with one squawk sounding much like another! As you’ll note from our magazine, the PsittaScene, from our video productions, and from our website, we definitely try to encourage people to see and understand parrots as they would any wild bird, even if the bird is sitting on their shoulder and whispering sweet nothings in their ear.
Assuming you want to change that view, specifically how do you go about it when the media constantly re-enforces that stereotype by almost invariably showing parrots with ‘owners’ or in cages?
- J G: A few years ago, we released a video called PollyVision: Strictly for Parrots – it’s all footage of parrots in the wild edited expressly for parrots to watch.
While most parrots do in fact enjoy watching it – and enrichment is in fact a serious issue for most captive parrots – we had an ulterior motive as well. Most people – even those who share their lives with parrots in their homes – have never seen a wild parrot, nor have they seen a parrot in flight! After watching wild parrots for over an hour on PollyVision, we found that people quickly developed a new appreciation for these birds as wild animals. Following on that success, we’ve just released a sequel PollyVision II: Parrots of the Americas which is already selling very well in the EU and USA – of course all proceeds go to parrot conservation and welfare.
Why do you think so many people want to own a parrot?
- J G: I think anyone who has spent any time around a well-adjusted captive parrot finds them to be phenomenally engaging, amusing, and beautiful creatures. Given that humans all over the world have kept parrots – since pre-historic times in some cases -it’s pretty clear that human enchantment with these birds is quite universal. The reasons for this are many, but certainly their intelligence and social skills are high on the list.
Most experts I’ve talked to say that parrots don’t actually make good ‘pets’ because they are so intelligent and highly social: do you agree/disagree?
- J G: Most parrots don’t make good pets for most people, I agree. There are, however, tens of millions of parrots in captivity right now, and they live a long time, so they’re here with us for the foreseeable future, whether they are bred or not. Many of these birds need better homes than they currently have, so we encourage people to learn about their needs, figure out if they can provide a good home for a parrot, and if it still looks like a good fit, to then adopt or foster a parrot in need.
If I’m honest I had quite rigid views about keeping parrots in cages before I started researching ‘Parrot Month’. I’m slowly becoming a little more flexible the more I learn though! Did you start out with rigid views of your own (not necessarily about keeping parrots in cages), do you still have them, are you more the sort of person who generally sees both sides of an argument, or given your experiences have you altered or softened your views?
- J G: I can understand and respect a wide range of views on the question of parrots as pets, parrots in cages, etc. Personally, between the ages of ten and thirty I had taken on several unwanted parrots before really contemplating this issue – it was a moot point, the birds needed homes, I had at the time, the space, and the interest to improve their lot, so it seemed like a no-brainer.
Over the years, I’ve heard a number of well-articulated arguments in support of the wild bird trade. I can respect some of those views if they are honest (and not too self-serving), but in the end, it is hard to imagine feeling good about catching millions of wild birds and putting them in cages for human amusement. That just seems so 19th Century to me … and if that’s the only way we can find for local people to make a go of it in the 21st Century – e.g. the ubiquitous ‘livelihoods’ argument – we’re just not being creative enough.
Patagonian Conures Cyanoliseus patagonus trapped for the trade in Argentina.
© World Parrot Trust. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Captive bred birds are of course an entirely different story; many parrot species thrive in captive environments, live complex and stimulating lives, and often for longer than their wild counterparts. In this context, my sense is that it’s important to bear in mind that life in the wild is no picnic. I’m sure we’ve all watched birds nervously going to roost, every night fearing for their lives, or getting eaten by a predator (sometimes while still alive), to know that all living things face a variety of challenges on a daily basis, no matter where they live.
Given that human over-population is behind most if not all environmental problems facing the planet’s wildlife, what’s the greatest specific threat facing parrots as a result: habitat destruction, climate change, or hunting and collection for the pet trade – or is it not possible or desirable to over-generalise: there are many reasons and each species is impacted differently?
- J G: It’s easy to oversimplify such complexity, particularly when talking about 340+ species, but there is no question that the vast majority of threatened (and extinct) parrots would be far better off today if humans didn’t “love” them so much. Valuable parrots often disappear from the wild long before the forest is cut. So, as a specific threat, the pet trade is far and away the biggest concern. Of course, this has inspired the Trust’s focus on stopping the legal and illegal trade in wild parrots around the world.
Habitat loss is important for many reasons, but it’s important to bear in mind how many parrots, including endangered species, are quite flexible in this regard, and manage quite well in human-altered landscapes. The 5000+ Amazon parrots thriving in Los Angeles are but one of many demonstrations of some parrots’ incredible flexibility and resilience.
That’s quite a thought. When you look at eg LA or Miami is there a particular species of threatened parrot that’s becoming so common in the US as an exotic that its population is becoming internationally important?
J G: It’s also quite a sight! The short answer is “yes,” but of course it depends on what you mean by “important.” In Florida, the most ecologically and economically significant parrot populations are the Monk Parakeets (aka quakers) which now number in the hundreds of thousands. This species is not threatened in the wild, but their growing presence in FL is becoming significant, so far mostly because they often build their huge nests (the only parrot that builds a stick nest!) on power poles.
In LA, there are large and growing numbers of two threatened Amazon parrots which hail from Mexico. It remains unclear whether either could make a significant contribution to the recovery of the species in the wild, particularly because there is a fair amount of observed hybridization among Amazon species there.
But these LA birds are important for another reason. They create a great opportunity to show Americans and our visitors that parrots fly, parrots can be beautiful, and that parrots can live in harmony with people – even in densely populated places like Los Angeles.
That’s becoming a crucial message for many of our conservation projects around the world – parrots and people need not conflict, they often do not, and when it works, it’s delightful to experience. The recent film, “The Parrots of Telegraph Hill” is but one outstanding example of this welcome change in our thinking about parrots and people.
(Photo: Feral Green-cheeked Amazon Amazona viridigenalis offspring due to fledge in Los Angeles, CA. Copyright Bowles/Erickson. All rights reserved. Used with permission.)
This is something you touched on earlier, but in your opinion can parrots ever legitimately be viewed as a ‘resource’ (eg as food, income for poor communities through sales to the pet trade, ecotourism)?
- J G: We generally view parrots, whether captive or wild, as valued rather than valuable, something to learn from, enjoy, and protect when necessary. I suppose by definition, you could call them a ‘resource’ regardless of whether they are being used in a way which is ethical, sustainable, consumptive, etc. That is, if someone takes pleasure in watching wild birds, they are effectively a resource. Clearly, non-consumptive uses stand a much better chance of achieving long-term sustainability, meaningful incomes, and a positive relationship between communities and their wildlife.
But your question raises a deeper philosophical issue. In the developed world, where we’ve been disconnected from the natural world for centuries and more, we tend to think of the natural world as a collection of stuff to use for our own purposes, as resources. When talking to people about plants, insects, birds, etc. you often hear the question, “but what’s it good for, what is its purpose”? I always find that question tricky to answer because it rests on the implicit assumption that things on the Earth were put here for us. While that view may sit well with our Judeo-Christian-Muslim culture (because all harken back to the Book of Genesis), it doesn’t sit particularly well with the science of ecology and evolution because the available evidence is all very much to the contrary.
Nor for that matter does it sit well with many other cultures which live closer to Nature. Indigenous people – and surely our ancestors as well – feel that they are an integral part of the world they live in. On the one hand, of course their very survival depends on their use of local ‘resources,’ but on the other, there is a strong tendency to view the plants and animals in a more neighbourly and respectful light.
We tend to arrive on the scene and ‘teach’ indigenous people how to extract these ‘resources,’ and guess who ends up with the cash? Surely there is a lot of learning to be done in both directions, but I suspect we would gain a great deal by understanding and perhaps emulating their respect for Nature.
You talk there of a “respect for Nature”. Are most threats to parrots deliberate or incidental then – ie deliberate in the sense of collection, or incidental in the sense of habitat loss through things like forest clearance to grow food for people?
- J G: Mostly deliberate in recent years, and mostly created by demand from the developed countries for cheap wild parrots. Now that the USA and EU have banned the importation of wild parrots, and many exporting countries are changing their policies, there is hope that this deliberate threat will soon become a thing of the past.
Is the answer to saving the world’s parrots education, legislation, or a mix of both?
- J G: Of course there is never one single answer … or the single answer is something along the lines of, “everything that works.” All situations are different and solutions generally involve different sets of tools appropriate for that specific situation. Often the political, cultural, and biological considerations in a given scenario make it pretty obvious from the start what’s likely to work and what is not, but it’s crucial to keep an open mind and try creative solutions whenever possible.
On legislation does the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) work when it comes to protecting parrots, if not how could it be improved or what could improve on it?
- J G: For parrots, CITES absolutely does not work; even their chief scientist admitted that fact recently! CITES has had 35 years to prove itself, and it has been an abject failure in the management of traded parrots. Dozens of species have had to be added to their Appendix I after their “sustainable trade” has driven these species closer to the brink of extinction.
Most people think, understandably, that CITES was set up to restrict trade of endangered species, but in truth, the Convention is really designed to ensure that trade can continue under the banner of “sustainable development.” Given that CITES deals mostly with developed countries buying wildlife from developing countries, for parrots anyway, one could reasonably argue that CITES is little other than a feel good exercise which perpetuates and legitimizes the ability of consumers in rich countries to exploit the wildlife of poor countries.
One simple structural change would take care of this problem in nearly all cases. And that is if CITES were to become a “positive list”, meaning that anyone wishing to harvest and trade species X would have to first demonstrate that such a harvest would be truly sustainable. Even setting that bar at a very low level would eliminate nearly all wildlife trade in the world and ensure that any active trade would stand a good chance of achieving sustainability in practice.
Am I correct in saying that trafficking rare birds is a win-win situation for the people involved because the fines or sentences imposed are so small in relation to what the traffickers can earn? If that’s correct what punishment do traffickers deserve?
- J G: If you’re suggesting that existing enforcement often fails to discourage poaching and trade, then yes, you are quite correct. I don’t think it’s as simple as increasing fines or prison sentences, although both can of course have a powerful deterrent impact on trade. Combining enforcement with programs which provide trappers with viable alternatives to catching wild birds is ideal. Because they generally make so little money from the birds, this is often easier than it sounds.
Papuan Lory Charmosyna papou, surely one of the world’s most beautiful birds, feeding in the wild.
© Ron Hoff. All rights reserved.
Given all that you know about parrots are you surprised to see so many of them endangered or not surprised at all?
- J G: Given what I know about people I’m not surprised that so many species are threatened. If we could only leave them alone! Humans have a seemingly insatiable need to ‘own’ things they value, and that hasn’t served parrots well over the millennia. But human love of parrots is deep and universal, and it’s been around since prehistoric times. So we shouldn’t expect it to end, ever.
However, the massive international trade, both legal and illegal, can be largely stopped with concerted effort. And the good news is that these two are often correlated, so if you stop the legal trade, you cut back the illegal trade as well. Once you take the money out of the picture (legal exports to the developed world primarily), most of the incentive to trap and collect parrot chicks tends to disappear. Coupled with the ease of captive breeding, these changes lead to decreased demand, even in developing countries where parrot keeping has been a tradition forever.
Things are turning around, and luckily, this same affinity for parrots also means that some of these same people are enthusiastic supporters of parrot conservation and welfare, that’s why the World Parrot Trust exists and that’s the only reason we’ve been able to work all these years to save parrots, both captive and wild.
You sound quite optimistic. Is that how you feel, or do you actually wake up some nights wondering just when the tide will turn in favour of wildlife in general and parrots specifically?
- J G: I’m generally optimistic and feel like most threatened parrots will likely show positive trends in the coming years. We’ve produced enough success stories in our 20 years at the Trust to feel confident and generally optimistic. Getting the EU to stop importing wild birds just this last year was a huge comfort for us all, reassuring us that, in the face of solid information, governments really can make good and effective choices. That ban alone has now spared some 12 million wild birds – mostly spectacular parrots and passerines from the tropics. Indonesia, Mexico, and other range states have made great progress in recent years as well, and all of this points to encouraging and positive trends in protection for wild parrots around the world.
Eliminating the threat from trade only makes our job saving rare species that much easier and more successful, and of course it keeps millions of wild birds out of cages. So in the end, all these activities dovetail nicely.
You must be expecting to see some species go extinct, though, given how low the numbers of some of them are. Which do you think might be next?
- J G: The next one to go? Probably not the famously threatened ones like Kakapo or Spix’s Macaw. It’ll likely be another Charmosyna lorikeet in the south Pacific or something equally obscure. Naturally, we’ll be working hard to make sure it never happens again!
You said that your optimism is based on the successes the Trust has already had. I’m sure it’s invidious to ask you to highlight one or two above the others, but if you had to name them which do you feel has been your most important successes so far?
- J G: We have had quite a few, yes, but if I had to choose one field conservation success, it would have to be the recovery of the Echo Parakeet in Mauritius – a bird that was down to a dozen or so individuals in the entire world. It was the project the Trust first selected for support in 1989. The Echo is just recently off the critical list and now numbers in the hundreds.
Echo Parakeet Psittacula echo male and female, Mauritius.
© World Parrot Trust. All rights reserved. Used with permission
Thinking more broadly, as I said earlier the Trust’s trade campaign in the EU which came to fruition in 2007 will surely be our longest lasting success (so far!). For us, it was a great lesson in how a small organization can help form a powerful coalition of hundreds of like-minded groups, and use science to inform and change policy. That act alone eliminated > 90% of the legal trade in wild birds around the world, sparing millions of birds every year.
That really was a fantastic piece of news. Did the chance of importing the H5N1 virus in wild birds sway opponents of a ban, and if the threat of H5N1 (which is really a disease of the poultry trade) is ever removed is there a possibility that traders et al might attempt to have the ban lifted again?
- J G: Great questions, both! It wasn’t that the threat of H5N1 swayed opponents so much as it got the attention of the health ministers and gave our concerns about bird trade (biosecurity, conservation, and welfare) a place at the table. Our sense all along was that if we could just get the right doors open, the EU would make the right decision in its own economic self-interest. Put another way, the risks to agriculture and human health are measured in billions, the potential economic gains from importing birds are measured in millions – so very roughly a thousand fold difference! Once the appropriate health agency in Brussels was willing to look at the questions we were raising and commission a scientific study, we had a strong sense that they would have a basis for a ban. It could have come out differently of course, bad science, bad policy, but in the end, the study was amazingly thorough and the ban is a very strong one.
While you are technically correct about H5N1 being primarily a disease of poultry, it can and does infect many other species, sometimes much more dangerously. One reason is that non-poultry birds can carry and shed the virus without showing symptoms, and the other is that many exotic birds in trade are in VERY close contact with humans.
There is little doubt that people involved in the bird trade will try to get the ban overturned, and there have been legal attempts to do so already. Of course many of us in conservation and welfare would have liked to see a ban passed with stronger language about these issues as well. But because the scientific report is so substantial with regard to the biosecurity and welfare risks created by importing wild birds, to convince the EU that this analysis is somehow incorrect, or that we should once again take known risks – all so a handful of people can make a handful of money – just seems very unlikely. More likely I think is that bird enthusiasts in Europe will become more skilled at maintaining, breeding, and trading captive bred birds, and it’s quite possible that their profits will actually go up in the long run.
What projects are you working on now that you’d like our readers to know about/support?
- J G: At any given time, we’re working on a number of field projects aiming to save endangered parrots, right now Blue-throated Macaws in Bolivia and Thick-billed Parrots in Mexico are two very active projects which need support. We’re also working on trade in many parts of the world, focusing on African Grey Parrots in Cameroon, and cockatoos and lorikeets in Indonesia for example.
The easiest way for readers to learn about our work and to support parrot conservation is to visit us at Parrots.org, subscribe to our free e-newsletter FlockTalk, join us and become a World Parrot Trust member, and maybe purchase a copy of PollyVision.
All of these are easy and fun ways to get up to speed on the plight of parrots and to help save them at the same time.
Which presumably is why our readers should join your organisation…?
- J G: At the Trust, we’re light on staff, and quick to take action wherever it’s needed. So members have a very direct and substantial role in our work saving parrots, and they know that their support is being efficiently and effectively directed. They also get a fantastic advert-free magazine and full access to the most comprehensive parrot site on the web. Online they can research and learn about parrots with our online encyclopedia, reference library and extensive image gallery. They can also participate in discussions via forums, bloggers and online experts and download a large collection of resources.
My sense is that people are inspired to join and support organizations which are getting meaningful work done, to feel that they’re part of something bigger, and to feel that their actions are making a difference in the world.
Our members have enjoyed these benefits for 20 years now, and we look forward to carrying on this tradition for the next 20, and beyond.
Staff at the WPT obviously work very hard. Would you recommend a life as a full-time conservationist?
- J G: Naturally, it’s all dependent on the individual, and I’m not sure there is a whole lot of choice involved, as I would guess most people either lean this way or not, regardless of whether they get paid for it. Achieving measurable success in conservation is always hard and there is a lot of interest for very few real jobs.
Does your role require you to be more of a diplomat or politician than you expected or were you under no illusions from the outset? Do any examples where you’ve really had to use either of those skills stand out in your memory?
- J G: I suppose I had envisioned myself mostly doing field biology and conservation rather than running an organization, and in that sense, yes of course it’s important to be diplomatic. At the Trust, I’ve been lucky enough to work for an organization which knows exactly where it stands on all the crucial issues, so we can be very clear and honest about our principles and our language.
It’s funny, when we got deeply involved in the EU trade campaign, I fully expected that the big diplomatic challenges would arise when dealing with the importers in Europe. They were actually quite straightforward and in fact fun to negotiate with, presumably because we were all coming from clear and honest positions. Amazingly enough, the moments which really tested our patience and diplomatic skills were our dealings with other conservation NGOs which had more ‘complicated’ views on the bird trade and whether it should be ended.
I’d love to delve deeper into that last statement Jamie – but I suspect the diplomat in you would rather I didn’t! Instead I’ll just ask if you personally could only see one more parrot species in the wild which would it be and why?
- J G: As I’m most fascinated mostly by behavior and physiology, nearly any parrot will do, even captive birds, they just have to be doing something interesting.
Pyrrura preening in Guyana from parrotsdotorg (World Parrot Trust) on Vimeo.
Earlier this year, I saw some Pyrrhura in Guyana chewing on and rubbing themselves on lichen after a rain shower – it was ritualized and clearly there was something mysterious going on there (see video clip above). For sheer wonder, I’d love to one day see any of the minuscule “pygmy parrots” from the south Pacific or to see Palm Cockatoos in courtship.
Finally, is there a question you’ve never been asked that you wished you had been, or is there a question you wish I’d asked but didn’t?
- J G: Yes, but it’s usually presented as a rhetorical question without an expected answer; usually something like, “…is there really any point, what with human population growth, global warming, rapid deforestation, why bother trying to save anything?” Naturally, we can’t ignore these very important issues, but there is so much we can do now which will make a difference both now and in the future. We easily lose sight of how fast things change, both in a bad way and a good way. One of my grandfathers built massive dams and the other ran rubber plantations in Indonesia – they lived in a world with seemingly limitless resources. Today, we’re having conversations and taking actions that they never would have dreamed of – in some cases tearing down those same dams to save threatened salmon and replanting plantations with native forests.
When I started graduate school in the late 80’s, the USA was still importing hundreds of thousands of wild parrots annually, and now we have banned that practice as has the EU. Things do change for the positive, and they do so because people who care work hard to change them. This stuff is all well worth doing, I’m proud to have the opportunity to be pushing in the right direction, and we can use all the help we can get.
Thankyou so much for your time and the care you’ve evidently taken with this interview – it’s much appreciated!
- J G: I really appreciate your interest and your great questions, so thank you!
The objectives of the World Parrot Trust are to promote the survival of all parrot species in the wild and to advocate for the welfare of individual birds in our homes.
We pursue these goals though efforts in conservation, research, and education and believe that by improving our understanding of wild and captive parrots, we are better prepared to develop and implement solutions for their well-being and survival.
With thousands of members in over 50 countries, the World Parrot Trust works to aid the preservation of wild parrots and enhance the well-being of pet parrots everywhere.
For more information please go to http://www.parrots.org/