Wild Thing: Wild Parrots
The Valley’s red-crowned parrots may be a wild and rare breed, not just escaped pets..
By Karl Berg
Parrots are colorful, talkative and cherished family members in many Texan homes. However, they less often adorn our natural parks and wild areas, being more commonly found in the tropical forests of Mexico and Central and South America.
One exception is the red-crowned parrot, populations of which thrive in the subtropical landscapes of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
About the size of an American crow, the birds gather by the hundreds at local parks at sundown to socialize, gossip and sleep — to the delight of the many bird watchers traveling to the Valley to observe the wild array of birds. At dawn, the red-crowned parrots explode unannounced across the sky in a noisy spatter of flapping wings as they fission into smaller groups that venture largely unnoticed throughout neighborhoods to feed on nuts and berries. Every spring, mated pairs perform loud duets at tree cavities, especially large palms, where they will soon raise their chicks.
While many metropolitan areas in the U.S. boast feral parrot populations that began as escapees from homes or zoos, scientists and wildlife managers are increasingly convinced that the Rio Grande Valley red-crowned parrots are in fact a wild population. This is an important distinction because the species has long been considered globally endangered due to its small original range in northeast Mexico, the high rate of habitat destruction and illegal capture for the pet trade.
Though studies are lacking, free-ranging populations in Texas likely measure into the thousands and could rival the remaining populations in Mexico. U.S. populations could provide an important source of genetic diversity for conservation of the species, a candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. While the birds were not seen much in the Rio Grande Valley before the 1980s, ornithologists and bird watchers began to notice large flocks shortly thereafter and think the parrots could be wild birds expanding their range northward.
Ornithologists have documented numerous other tropical bird species that have undergone northward range expansions from Mexico into Texas during the last century. Unlike many of those cases, red-crowned parrots seem to prosper in the lush urban environments in the Valley.
The close proximity of red-crowned parrots to human populations provides numerous opportunities for public engagement.
Unfortunately, it also provides opportunities for pet traffickers to raid the roosts where the birds sleep and to fell trees to capture nestlings (which grab a higher price than wild adults because they are more easily domesticated). As a result, several municipalities in the Valley have ordinances protecting them, and in the city of Brownsville, a favorite hot spot, the red-crowned parrot is the official city bird.
As a native species, this parrot also enjoys federal and state protections that we hope will keep them flying the friendly skies of South Texas forever.
See more wildlife articles on TP&W magazine's Texas wildlife page