Friday, 5 May 2017

Parrots and parakeets in the Dominican Republic

Posted by Stu

Hispaniola is an extraordinary place physically, culturally and biologically. The western third of the island is Haiti, born out of a slave rebellion at the end of the 18th Century, and seemingly being punished/punishing itself ever since. The eastern two-thirds is Dominican Republic (DR), with the Caribbean’s tallest mountain, oldest colonial city, and largest tourism business. The island is home to around 38 endemic bird species, including a ‘tropical’ crossbill and the Palmchat, which represents an endemic family on the island. It is also home to the poisonous Hispaniolan Solenodon Solenodon paradoxus, Number 7 in ZSL’s EDGE mammal chart due to its phylogenetic distinctiveness and its Endangered Red list status.

Good forest remains in the Parque Nacional Sierra de Bahoruco (Photo: Stu)

I was in Dominican Republic (DR) with my good friend and ex-PhD student Matt Geary (now University of Chester) to scope out a potential study of the Hispaniolan Amazon Amazona ventralis, Hispaniolan Parakeet Psittacara chloropterus, both Vulnerable, the Near-threatened Hispaniolan Trogon Temnotrogon roseigaster and other important birds on the island. Our hosts were Groupo Jaragua, the DR BirdLife partner.

The first two days were spent meeting Yolanda Leon (President) and Andrea Thomen (Project Manager) of Groupo Jaragua to discuss potential projects and our field visits. We were quite shocked by the volume of parrot ownership in the country’s cities and towns. We also had time to visit a couple of sites in the country’s capital Santo Domingo. The excellent botanical gardens had some of the commoner lowland endemics including the excellent Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo and good numbers of wintering American passerines including Prairie Warbler, many Cape May Warblers, and the lovely Black-throated Blue Warbler. We visited a large Hotel in a posh area of town and watched perhaps more than 500 Hispaniolan Parakeets and a couple of Hispaniolan Amazons arrive from various green spaces across the city to roost in trees in front of the hotel. 

Vulnerable Hispaniolan Parakeets Psittacara chloropterus getting ready to roost (Photo: Yolanda Leon)

Then we moved southwest to Groupo’s Oviedo field station for three days. Here we visited southwestern side of the famous Parque Nacional Sierra de Bahoruco. We recorded reasonable numbers of the parrots here, both in the mixed pine/broadleaf forests and in cloud forest patches at  higher altitude. A parrot nestbox scheme didn’t seem to be doing too well – there is a lot of pressure from parrot catchers up here, with apparently little intervention by the poorly paid park guards. Nice birds included both the endemic Hispaniolan and introduced Olive-throated, Hispaniolan Crossbill and Golden Swallow. There were also a lot of American warblers up here – especially Black-throated Blues but also the odd Blackburnian and Black-throated Green, as well as the resident Pine warblers.

Hispaniolan Amazons Amazona ventralis (VU) in Parque Nacional Jaragua (Photo: Yolanda Leon)
A long and hot hike into the Parc Nacional Jaragua with Julio, an ex-parrot trapper, was extremely interesting. Parrot nests in fat-trunked Cherry Palms and the few remaining large trees in this dry spiny forest but are hammered both by local trappers and, more worryingly, by a team of ‘professional’ trappers who apparently took around 150 chicks last year. Nest trees/palms are identified at the start of the breeding season (April) and these are monitored as chicks grow until they are harvested just before fledging. Worryingly, there seems to be so much competition among trappers that chicks are being taken from nests earlier and earlier (to ensure others don’t take them first). One consolation perhaps is that the terrain is very difficult and I (may be wrong) but can imagine that not all nests in the large area are found – the species usually produces four chicks so a few successful nests coupled with the ‘fact’ that adults are not taken might be the key to sustaining the population. The gorgeous Broad-billed Tody occurred in the area at huge densities, and perhaps some signs of Solenodon in the less rocky areas.

Above: Discussions about parrot harvesting in Parque Nacional Jaragua (Photo: Matt Geary), Below: Old parrot nest cavity in Cherry Palm (Photo: Yolanda Leon)

Our final field trip was to Reserva Ebano Verde, a private reserve owned and run for the DR government by Fundacion Progressio, a DR banking trust. The contrast between this and the state-run parks was immediately obvious – no encroachment and proper control of trapping. Here there were high densities of Hispaniolan Trogons, helped in part to nest boxes put up by Simón Guerrero, a retired ornithology lecturer and passionate conservationist. We saw parrots here also but it also became apparent that the Hispaniolan Parakeet is really not doing well across the country. The cause of its decline is not known and is puzzling, especially considering it seems to be taking over the capital city! 

Illegal farming is a problem in DR's national parks (Photo: Stu)
There is much to find out about the hole-nesters on Hispaniola. I was quite surprised how many parrots are taken as pets in the cities, how rare the parakeet was, the level of corruption in the country, and also how much forest loss there has been away from the very dry forests of the lowlands and the montane areas. Hispaniolan Oriole is perhaps a bird to watch as it may be getting very scarce. Certainly not scarce is the endemic woodpecker - I have never seen so many woodpeckers anywhere in my life – they are literally everywhere and these birds must be important in creating holes for the secondary cavity nesters. Matt, Nigel Collar and I hope to be able to find funding for a PhD for a Dominican soon.  


  1. Great survey guys! I am happy to see Amazona ventralis confirmed in Santo Domingo.

    As for Psittacara chloropterus doing better in the city then elsewhere is not so much of a surprise as all its congeners, except for strenuus and euops, do exceptionally well in cities. We should really consider introducing Psittacara euops to Havana and/or Santiago de Cuba.

    Any information on the continued presence of Amazona ventralis on St. Croix?

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  3. A nice shiny day in that beautiful place, would be a good day for them.
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