17 Jan 2018

We’re leading the way

We’re at the forefront of the conservation work needed to help save the endangered Ecuador Amazon parrot from extinction. Following years of research carried out by Chester Zoo’s Chief Executive Officer, Dr Mark Pilgrim, the bird was only officially recognised as a species in its own right in 2014.

Chester Zoo first started working with the endangered Ecuador Amazon parrot back in the 1980s when a collection of individuals were confiscated at customs and distributed to a number of zoos across Europe to be cared for.  Dr Mark Pilgrim’s interest in the species was sparked when he first started working at the zoo as a Bird Keeper. He spent time tracing the birds that came to the UK which later developed into the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) Endangered Breeding Programme for the parrot; which Chester Zoo now manages. The conservation breeding of the species in zoos is vital in ensuring there’s a physically and genetically healthy insurance population, should the species go extinct in the wild.

Tracing parrots

Technical Assistant to the CEO and Chester Zoo Conservation Scholar, Rebecca Biddle, has spent several years researching this species as part of her PhD to answer questions about this secretive bird. She has spent many hours trekking through the forests of Ecuador on the search for sightings of this green parrot to discover how many there are, how big their range is and what habitat they depend on.

One element of Rebecca’s work is to organise a staff expedition every three years to the Cerro Blanco forest as part of long term research into the Ecuador Amazon parrot population. The first expedition took place in 2014, which led to the IUCN listing the species as ‘Endangered’.

Earlier this year a team of twelve Chester Zoo staff members went back to the tropical dry forest of Ecuador on the lookout for this parrot species; continuing the ongoing, long term research that started over five years ago. The team’s main objectives were to gain sightings of the parrot, collect data on their habitat, conduct roost counts and trial the first community surveys.

Meet the team, and find out more about the expedition, here arrow

Rebecca Biddle in Ecuador

Roost counts

Every morning the team would be up and out before sunrise to count the parrots as they left their communal roost. They also counted the birds as they returned to their roost each evening. Having a team of twelve also meant more data could be captured as the group split into smaller teams to get counts from different roosts at the same time. This is important as we’re trying to determine whether the parrots change their roosts throughout the year or stay loyal to the roosts.

While doing the roost counts the team also noted whether the parrots were flying in pairs, on their own or in triplets. By capturing this information as well as the total amount of birds spotted, we can now investigate whether roost composition can provide us with an idea of the reproductive success of the population. The species can live up to 40 years, so this information is extremely important, as if we can’t see any reproduction happening, it’s possible to end up with an aging population that suddenly crashes.

Ecuador Amazon parrot survey


One of the things so unique about this parrot species is that it’s a specialist dry forest feeder. Habitat loss is the biggest threat for the survival of the species, only 1% of the dry forest’s original coverage in Ecuador remains. Therefore the team carried out habitat surveys to understand more about the environment the parrot uses and what a dry forest has to be like in order to sustain the species. The team surveyed 178 quadrats of 400m squared each collecting loads of data; including the density of forest, species of trees found there and whether there were any human disturbances, allowing us to track any trends about the areas of forest the parrot is using. The team identified 64 different trees, and which of these the parrots use for feeding, roosting and nesting. This information will help us to predict other forests across the country that the parrot might be found in and identify which areas need protecting for the species to survive into the future.

Community surveys

Speaking to the local communities is a really important part of the project as they’re a fountain of knowledge! The parrots are so loud and fly in big groups so it’s quite obvious to the local communities where these parrots can be found. And because the parrots use the same flight path each morning and evening, the local people have a good idea of how many there are, their habitat preferences and other behaviour traits that can help us in mapping the species distribution. It became apparent through the surveys that some people even keep the Ecuador Amazon parrots as pets.