Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Red-crowned Parrot

I finally got good close looks and photos of a large parrot in San Diego. The only parrot on the official California bird checklist is the Red-crowned Parrot (Amazona viridigenalis). It has been established for years with a good population. But that doesn't mean it's the only parrot you can see, nor does it mean that it's the most-likely. There's an Australian Cockatiel that has escaped near my home and sometimes hangs out with the tame ducks at a retention basin here. This species generally doesn't survive long in the wild. And we're near Tijuana where there's a constant supply of escaped Mexican cage birds of every variety (especially, but not exclusively, colorful singing birds), so that with any unusual bird seen here that has a native range in Mexico one always has to wonder if it is an escapee from captivity.

Most parrots are found right in downtown. There are large night-time roosts at Point Loma and El Cajon. At dusk birds return after being dispersed throughout the area all day. But I live in the North County about 35 miles north of downtown. Parrots are far less common here.

Back in February 2014 I saw my first large Amazon parrot (parrots in the genus Amazona). I got some photos and determined they were likely Lilac-crowned Parrots (Amazona finschi). I know a bit more about their identification now, and still think I identified them correctly.

Both the Red-crowned and Lilac-crowned Parrots are endangered. A primary reason for their decline is deforestation in Mexico. And, although importation of parrots from Mexico into the US is illegal, these birds are still caught for the pet trade inside Mexico. Thus, after 40 years or more of escapes and breeding in the wild, the Red-crowned Parrot is more numerous in southern California and Texas than they are in NE Mexico where they are native and endangered. See this article from the Christian Science Monitor.

Red-crowned Parrot
Red-crowned Parrot (left) and hybrid(?) (right). San Diego, California. May 21, 2016. Greg Gillson.
While meeting at the marina for a pelagic trip I heard the loud, harsh screeching of the parrots and located them in a tree over the parking lot. They allowed me to approach quite near. It still wasn't easy to figure out an identification, though.

Of the two birds, neither showed the full bright crown of Red-crowned, but neither did they match Lilac-crowned. The bird on the left (above) has a darker eye. That indicates a young bird, so the restricted red on the crown is expected. The right bird has a definite white eyering, so that is the strongest indication of Red-crowned, as the eyering on Lilac-crowned is blue. And at least one of the birds clearly gave descending whistles among their other grating and screeching calls. That matches Red-crowned and not the rising whistle of Lilac-crowned.

Red-crowned Parrot
Red-crowned Parrot or hybrid with Lilac-crowned Parrot?
The only thing worse to a birder than an introduced bird is a hybrid!
Of course, there is the very real possibility of hybridization. The restricted darker maroon forehead on the above bird certainly fits Lilac-crowned, as does the green feathering along the upper mandible. But the white eyering and pale cere (fleshy area around the nostrils) only belong to Red-crowned.

On the other hand, the outer vanes of the base of the outer tail feathers show blue on Lilac-crowned. And the tail is longer. Neither of those is a match on the above bird. But that restricted dark red forehead. I could be talked into this bird being a hybrid.

Red-crowned Parrot
Red-crowned Parrot
The photo above shows the darker eye of a young bird. There are orange feathers coming in the crown above the eye that point to Red-crowned, even though the cere is a bit dark and the eyering color is ambiguous. And the red comes down all the way to the base of the upper mandible clear down to the gape. There's no problem with this bird being a Red-crowned Parrot, and no reason to invoke the hybrid hypothesis.

Now that I know to listen for the upslurred or downslurred whistles, I'll feel better about identifying birds as they fly over, or are perched high in a palm against overcast coastal morning skies.

Interestingly, many birders do not pay much attention to introduced or escaped birds. After all, only wild, free-flying birds are "countable" by the major birding organizations. Escaped cage birds are not countable, and populations that escape and breed are only considered "established" if they have been present for many years (10-20 years) and their population is not dependent upon continued releases in order to maintain itself. On the other hand, birders can't keep ignoring the growing populations of feral birds in California, Texas, and Florida--they are "real" birds eating food and competing for resources whether or not they are "countable" on a birder's list.

Still, there's more information on identification of parrots on the local parrot cage bird website than in the birding field guides. That doesn't seem right, either.