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Protecting Thick-Billed Parrots in Cebadillas

Mexico’s northern Sierra Madre Occidental mountains are critical habitat for a number of imperiled species, including the thick-billed parrot—a beautiful, macaw-like bird listed as Endangered on IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. In Mexico, the thick-billed parrot is called cotorra serrana occidental, or “western mountain parrot.”

Two red and green parrots nuzzle each other with their beaks while sitting on a branch against a bright blue sky
A pair of preening thick-billed parrots, Cebadillas. Photo: Miguel Angel Cruz

Once ranging north into the Sky Islands of Arizona and New Mexico, thick-billed parrots are today limited to Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental, where ~2,000–2,800 mature birds remain in the wild. Scientists suspect that breeding pairs may produce fewer than 100 active nests each year.

Thick-billed parrots eat primarily pine nuts, and nest in the cavities of old-growth trees. In Mexico as throughout the world, old-growth forests are rapidly disappearing, with logging having eliminated more than 99% of the old-growth habitat in the Sierra Madre Occidental. Because of habitat loss, thick-billed parrots currently breed in only 2 areas.

Community Conservation

In 2000, a landmark conservation initiative spearheaded by Wildlands Network, Naturalia, and Pronatura protected almost 6,000 acres of mature spruce-pine forest in Chihuahua from future logging. This area is the largest nesting ground for thick-billed parrots in the world.

Map showing location of ejido Tutuaca, where Las Cebadillas parcel has been protected for thick-billed parrots.

Owners of Las Cebadillas parcel within the communal land, ejido Tutuaca, agreed to halt logging for at least 15 years. Conservation groups reciprocally committed to compensating members of the ejido for lost revenue while helping to foster sustainable community development. The ejidatarios (members of the commune) are now convinced of the merits and benefits of conservation management and are willing to devote their parcel to conservation in perpetuity. A new agreement will be finalized in 2017.

Aerial photo of 6 researchers filling out data forms and handling a parrot
Monitoring thick-billed parrots at Cebadillas. Photo: Miguel Angel Cruz

Cebadillas hosts ancient pines reaching 60 meters in height, and fir trees that have stood for as much as a millennium. This parcel also comprises one of Mexico’s most important watersheds, where multiple springs and waterfalls feed the rivers Tutuaca, Papigochic, Sehuayo, and Aros Rivers—eventually forming the majestic Yaqui River in Sonora.

Making Connections for the Birds

Conservation is good for the trees, for the animals, for the people. What would we do if they cut the trees down—eat the money? Gregoria Perez Gonzalez, elderly resident of ejidos Cebadillas

Four years after Wildlands Network helped to establish the thick-billed parrot sanctuary in ejido Tutuaca, Pronatura signed a 15-year contract to protect an additional 4,918 acres of old-growth forest north of and adjacent to Tutuaca—in ejido Conoachi.

The ejidos Tutuaca and Conoachi both lie within the limits of a federal Natural Protected Area (Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna Tutuaca), which was, until recently, a so-called paper park. In 2001–2002, however, Mexico’s federal park agency re-categorized the joint Tutuaca-Conoachi thick-billed parrot sanctuary as part of the reserve’s core area, and awarded the sanctuary its highest protections.

Eventually, we will help to reconnect this network of conservation lands with the Sky Islands in the U.S.—restoring an unbroken system of cores and linkages to protect one of North America’s most scenic and biologically diverse places.