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This prized parrot is in peril from pet poachers

A researcher in South Texas is trying to understand what male and female red-crowned parrots communicate to each other. The species is beloved in the Rio Grande Valley, but endangered.
Charles Alexander
A researcher in South Texas is trying to understand what male and female red-crowned parrots communicate to each other. The species is beloved in the Rio Grande Valley, but endangered.

It is dusk at Oliveira Park, in Brownsville — the southern most city in Texas. A large, noisy flock of birds with brilliant green plumages and red splotches on their heads is fluttering in from the west as the sun sets. The Red-Crowned Parrot — beloved by locals, and threatened by habitat loss and pet poachers --has arrived to roost in the eucalyptus trees.

"Did you hear that enh-enh-enh-enh-enh by any chance?" asks a pony-tailed, sandals-wearing scientist named Karl Berg. "They're coming!"

He is holding a big directional microphone and has an audio recorder and a pair of binoculars hanging around his neck. Berg is assistant professor of biology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville campus, and one of the world's experts on Amazona viridigenalis.

But Amazona is only the genus. The native range of this charismatic bird is a sliver of northern Tamaulipas State in Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. This avian immigrant flies back and forth across the Rio Grande to feed and nest. This makes it a Tex-Mex native, unlike its red-crowned cousins that are now commonplace in Florida and Southern California.

"We have a whole lot of breeding parrots in the United States now, and almost all of them are exotic species that escaped from zoos or from families or were freed," Berg says.

Parrots are "sort of the primates of the bird world"

The lower Rio Grande Valley is a paradise for birdwatchers. They come here to check off the green jay, the Inca dove, and the chachalaca on their life list. But the large, multi-colored population of parrots is a special attraction. In addition to the red-crowned, an alert birder can spot white-fronted, yellow-headed and red-lored parrots, along with chattering flocks of Green Parakeets — the second parrot native to the United States. The other three types of parrots are not considered native to the region.

"The parrots are so fascinating to watch because they're such a social bird," says Linda Rockwell, a former American Birding Association board member. She was parrot-watching in the park on this early November evening as part of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. "They flock together. They communicate with each other. Watching the way birds interact with each other is one of the best parts of birding."

The ability of parrots to mimic human speech is one reason they're so coveted as caged birds. Parrots are considered among the most intelligent birds in the avian world. In other words, they don't just parrot what humans say. Alex, the African grey parrot who was the subject of a 30-year experiment with animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, had a vocabulary of 150 words. He could form concepts and identify colors and shapes. When Alex died in 2007, he got obits in The New York Times and The Economist.

"Parrots and corvids [the crow family] are sort of the primates of the bird world in a cognitive sense," Berg says.

"Polly wants a cracker is actually kind of a complicated thing," he continues. "The same bird in a different environment could say that in Mandarin or Italian or German or Spanish. That's no small feat."

Karl Berg is one of the world's experts on <em>Amazona viridigenalis, </em>the Red-Crowned Parrot.
John Burnett / NPR
Karl Berg is one of the world's experts on Amazona viridigenalis, the Red-Crowned Parrot.

In his cluttered lab at the UTRGV campus across town, Berg is taking a different approach than measuring the intelligence of parrots who have learned to talk to humans. The researcher wants to understand what parrots say when they communicate with each other.

He clicks on an audio file on his desktop computer and plays a recording of a male and female red-crowned couple "dueting." At half-speed the strange bird calls sound like space aliens in love.

"It seems pretty obvious it has to do with reproductive behavior," he says. "One hypothesis is that the pair is communicating to the other pairs that this is our nest and we're serious about it, and there might be a fight if you wanna try and take it from us."

The red-crowned is so adored in Brownsville that it was named the official city bird. They're spotted all over the lower Rio Grande Valley in the trees feeding on pecans, acorns and palm nuts.

The beloved red-crowned faces threats from habitat loss and poachers

Charles Alexander, a wildlife photographer, artist and naturalist, has come to a shopping center in Brownsville every morning for more than three years to document the life cycles of red-crowneds. In this busy commercial area, they've chosen to nest in cavities hollowed out of ornamental columns on a bank building.

"Everything you see here in the parking lot is food," Alexander says. "The live oaks have acorns. The palms have fruit. The crepe myrtles have seeds."

He looks around the strip center that includes an attorney's office, a pharmacy and a medical clinic, and notes how the birds have adapted to their urban jungle.

"To them, this building is a fake forest. The wires over the street are vines. The traffic below is a rushing river. They have everything they need," he says.

Parrots, along with ravens, are considered the most intelligent birds in the avian world. The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is a favorite spot for parrot-watchers.
/ Charles Alexander
Charles Alexander
Parrots, along with ravens, are considered the most intelligent birds in the avian world. The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is a favorite spot for parrot-watchers.

And yet this South Texas parrot is in peril. One of the most serious threats is people stealing nestlings to sell into the pet trade. Poachers recently used a chainsaw to cut a hole in a nest box located high on a pole, on the UTRGV campus, to snatch baby birds.

"The population in Mexico is very small and there hasn't been a population survey to see how quickly it's declining," says Abigail Pozulp, a graduate student working with Berg on the biology of duetting among red-crowneds. "And there is a long tradition of collecting parrots for the commercial bird trade."

She says captured baby parrots can be found for sale at flea markets and pet stores in the Valley.

Another grad student studying the species, Jazmin Barrientos, says she grew up with parrots feeding in her grandmother's garden in Brownsville.

"I would see neighbors trying to catch them," Barrientos says. "They'd hose them down and then with a towel run and grab them. It's heart-breaking."

Formerly, the most famous native parrot in the United States was the famed Carolina parakeet, illustrated by John James Audubon, but it became extinct nearly a century ago. In his avian ecology lab, Karl Berg and his grad students believe the more they learn about the Red-Crowned Parrot the easier it will be to protect this bird for all time.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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