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Birding 

Last Updated: 6/9/04

Thick-billed Parrot at EngleTHICK- BILLED PARROT BRINGS BIRDERS TO ENGLE

 

ENGLE, N.M. -- Wildlife watchers continue to flock to the Armendaris Ranch headquarters to view a mysterious bird temporarily living in a sparse patch of pine trees shading the sun-baked Chihuahuan desert east of Truth or Consequences.

 

A thick-billed parrot, Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha, residing on one of Ted Turner's New Mexico ranches has brought in viewers from both North American coasts and Canada. In all, the parrot watchers hailed from 24 states and four countries. This species, you see, is considered endangered in Mexico and has not been seen in the wild in Arizona since 1938. It was previously reported in the Animas Mountains of New Mexico in 1917 and 1919.

"Nobody knows how this bird got here," said Tom Waddell, property manager at the Armendaris. He first observed the parrot in a windbreak of Mondell pines in his yard on May 7. Theories explaining the bird's occurrence range from its being blown off course by the tornado-spawning storms that raged through Texas and Oklahoma the weekend of May 3-4, to it being an escapee from the illegal parrot trade.

 

Waddell believes it's a wild bird. "There's no evidence of it having been in a cage or anything," he said. "All its daily behaviors, when it eats and rests, when it goes to water, are exactly like a wild bird. And it doesn't touch commercial parrot foods, either."

 

Rare species are nothing new to the Armendaris, the ranch manager said. The ranch has endangered Rio Grande silvery minnows, Southwest willow flycatchers, yellow-billed cuckoos and desert bighorn sheep. "And we're working on getting aplomado falcons," he said. The parrot has created quite a stir in Engle, a town with only five houses. "I am receiving 100 to 200 phone calls every day," said DeAnne Wayne, office manager for the Armendaris. "And Tom has had a lot of activity at his house. He wakes up with birders in his yard and he goes to bed with birders in his yard."

Waddell isn't complaining. It's not bad. I've never seen a better class of people in my life," he said. "Birders are a great bunch." All birders are expected to sign a waiver before venturing onto the Armendaris, Wayne said. A total of 435 of them had visited as of June 3, but the ranch crew is still counting.

 

The non-native pine trees could be key to the parrot staying at the Armendaris so long, Waddell said. "The Mondell pines have cones at a time when our native New Mexico pines don't," he said. The parrot is regularly observed chewing up the cones on the trees at Waddell's yard. In the wilds of Mexico, thick-billed parrots live in pine forests in the northwest corner of the Sierra Madres where cones are available through much of the year. Some parrot observers doubt the bird arrived at the Armendaris without human assistance of some sort. They note that it would have had to cross hundreds of miles of unsuitable habitat to find the island of pines and that it would have been hard to miss a flock of such colorful, noisy birds in mountains closer to Engle than the Sierra Madres. The illegal trade of wild-caught birds along the U.S.-Mexico border is a likely candidate in their opinion. A bird record committee of the New Mexico Ornithological Society will evaluate the parrot sighting in an attempt to determine if this is a naturally occurring wild parrot or if it can be accounted for by some form of human release.

 

If not the illegal parrot trade, another type of human release could explain this bird's appearance at the Armendaris. Helen and Noel Snyder are wildlife biologists from Portal, Ariz. Between 1986 and 1993 the Snyders conducted an experimental release of thick-billed parrots in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona.

"After their radios went dead," Helen explained, "we had sporadic reports of a flock of parrots between the Mogollon Rim north of Clifton and the San Luis Mountains of northern Mexico, which are south of the Animas Mountains of New Mexico. The reports were common enough that it was likely that the birds were going back and forth."

Helen often flew airplane surveys looking for the released parrots because her husband doesn't like to fly. She says the parrots are strong fliers capable of traveling the 250 miles between the Chiricahua Mountains and the Mogollon Rim. They also are long-lived birds. Among the individuals they released in Arizona was a parrot that was held in captivity at the San Diego Zoo in the 1950s. "He bred in captivity for 30 years," Helen said, "and he was on the cover of ZooNooz, a publication of the San Diego Zoo, in 1958."

 

Helen offers three explanations for the mysterious Armendaris parrot:

 

1. It is a wild bird from Mexico that was simply on the move searching for pine-bearing cones. Helen said the Portal, Ariz., country is seeing some unusual species this year - Clark's nutcrackers and pinon jays - which could indicate a cone crop failure in the species' normal wintering area.

 

2. This bird is the offspring of one of the parrots she and Noel released in Arizona that for some reason split off from the flock and found the Armendaris pines to its liking.

 

3. It is a recently trapped escapee from parrot smugglers, although she said the excellent condition of its wings makes it unlikely it had been held in a cage for too long. Also, parrot smugglers usually disable the birds by removing flight feathers in one manner or another. "My gut feeling is this is probably a wild bird," Helen Snyder said. "There isn't any clear evidence either way, but there definitely isn't any feather damage."

 

Ironically, the Snyder's parrot release program in the Chiricahuas began because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was confiscating quite a few thick-billed parrots from smugglers, Helen said. Smuggling, however, has decreased, she said.

 

All three options will be considered carefully by the bird record committee, said Chuck Hayes, an assistant chief of Conservation Services for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. Although the parrot's true origins may never be determined, he said, as long as it remains in Engle the thick-billed parrot will continue to draw a crowd to an otherwise quiet desert town.

 

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