Grey-breasted parakeets were once widespread throughout the Atlantic Forest areas of north-eastern Brazil. Ten years ago, however, this flamboyantly feathered bird was facing a bleak future. Deforestation, illegal hunting and poaching by wildlife traffickers had caused severe population declines and local extinctions in at least 15 areas where it had historically been found.

In a quest to uncover the true range of the species, the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP), a partnership between Fauna & Flora International, BirdLife International and WCS, funded a project involving surveys covering 4,000 kilometres of forest roads and trails and about 100 interviews with local residents in Ceará State. With the exception of the discovery of one small remnant population, the team, led by Fábio Nunes, found no evidence of grey-breasted parakeets.

Their results confirmed that the species was restricted to only two adjacent areas in the Baturité Mountains, with 80% of the birds found in just one of these sites. “These parakeets were facing a number of threats, including a highly restricted range, very little remaining habitat, few available nesting sites, and pressure from poachers seeking to snatch the chicks for the pet trade,” explains Fábio.

The alarming discovery ignited renewed efforts to save grey-breasted parakeets from extinction. The results underpinned a government-led Conservation Action Plan for the species, and an international partnership between three NGOs (AQUASIS in Brazil, Loro Parque Fundación in Spain and ZGAP in Germany) went on to support Fábio’s next goal: to create the safe home that these birds so desperately needed.

Home sweet home

Crucial in helping the parakeets recover was the provision of artificial nest boxes where they could breed in peace while being protected from poachers. The team designed the boxes to mimic the parakeets’ natural nests, paying close attention to aspects such as depth, opening size and position.

The team also formed partnerships with local residents who agreed to help them monitor the artificial nests on their properties and provide a round-the-clock watch against poachers. They also created Private Protected Areas and the Grey-Breasted Parakeet Wildlife Refuge to provide enhanced protection not just for grey-breasted parakeets but also for other endangered birds in the region.

This strategy has resulted in an extraordinary turnaround for the species. Just three fledglings were recorded in 2010 when the first 30 nest boxes were installed, but since then, the number of successful fledglings has been steadily increasing each year. The team placed 70 more nest boxes to keep up with the growing demand.

The nest boxes are proving to be popular with the grey-breasted parakeets. Credit: Fábio Nunes

The nest boxes are proving to be popular with the grey-breasted parakeets. Credit: Fábio Nunes

Based on the increasing population trend, the IUCN Red List reclassified grey-breasted parakeets from Critically Endangered to Endangered in 2017. Less than a decade since the first nest boxes were installed, the cumulative total number of fledglings reached 1,165 in 2019 – an average increase of about 130 fledglings each year.

The team’s field research, which they plan to publish in the near future, has also helped obtain a better understanding about aspects of the parakeets’ natural history and reproductive behaviour, such as breeding success, nest helper presence, and parental care.

Forests for future fledglings

The new scientific insights that have resulted from this project, alongside the development of management plans and legislation, will be critical in the future conservation of this exuberant parrot. However, according to Fábio, one key challenge in securing the safety of the species is to protect its forest habitat.

“Our dream is to bring the species back to the areas where it should never have disappeared and diversify the gene pool of wild populations,” says Fábio.

Grey-breasted parakeet fledgling. Credit: Fábio Nunes

Grey-breasted parakeet fledgling. Credit: Fábio Nunes

His plan, developed with his team, is to create more protected habitats, restore degraded forests, and ensure the parakeets can eventually survive without nest boxes – and ultimately use what he has learned from this incredible success story to help other endangered species in Brazil.

Fábio wishes to thank a number of other CLP alumni who contributed significantly to the project’s accomplishments: Weber Girão, Alberto Campos, Bruno Lindsey and Ileyne Lopes.

This article has been adapted from an original version on the Conservation Leadership Programme’s website, which can be found here.