Burrowing parakeet (Cyanoliseus patagonus)
|Also known as:||Burrowing parrot|
|Size||Length: 45 cm (2)|
Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).
The burrowing parakeet is remarkable for the fact that it forms the largest breeding colonies known amongst the Psittacidae (parrot family) (4). Like most parrots, this species has colourful plumage, which is mostly olive-brown on the head, upperparts and breast, and yellow on the lower back, tail and lower underparts. There are four recognised subspecies of burrowing parakeet, which occupy separate locations and have slightly different plumage colouration. Subspecies Cyanoliseus patagonus patagonus has an orange-red patch in the centre of the belly as well as orange-red thighs, a grey-brown upper breast and throat, and white marks at the bend of the wing. Cyanoliseus patagonus conlara is similar, but has a darker breast, while Cyanoliseus patagonus andinus has generally duller plumage, with little yellow on the lower underparts and faint white markings on the breast. Cyanoliseus patagonus bloxami is larger than the other subspecies, has the brightest colouration, and possesses a broad, white band across the breast (2).
The burrowing parakeet is found in central and southern South America. Subspecies Cyanoliseus patagonus patagonus occupies central and south-east Argentina (occasionally ranging into Uruguay in the winter); Cyanoliseus patagonus conlara occurs in the provinces of San Luis and Córdoba in western-central Argentina; Cyanoliseus patagonus andinus is found in north-west Argentina; and Cyanoliseus patagonus bloxami inhabits central Chile (5).
The burrowing parakeet is found in a variety of habitats including arid lowland; montane, grassy shrubland; open, dry woodland savanna; grassy plains along watercourses; and thorny scrub. This species does, however, have a requirement for cliffs made of sandstone, limestone or earth in which to excavate nesting burrows (4). It occurs from sea-level to elevations of up to 2000 metres (5)
A highly gregarious species, the burrowing parakeet forms large, conspicuous colonies, which are easily located by the cacophony of noisy shrieks that they produce (2) (4). The birds form strictly monogamous, lifelong breeding pairs, which excavate nesting burrows in cliff faces, peppering them with holes (4). The largest colony, found at El Condor, Argentina, extends over nine kilometres of ocean-facing, sandstone cliff and features 35,000 active nest burrows (2) (4). A migratory species, the burrowing parakeet arrives at the breeding grounds between November and April in the northern part of its range, and in October to February further south (2). The colonies are occupied by the breeding adults for around one to two months before egg-laying commences. Established pairs generally re-use the same burrow each year, but continually enlarge it, whereas newly formed pairs must excavate an entirely new burrow. The burrow comprises a tunnel of between 80 and 250 cm long, which often runs in a zigzag, interconnecting with the tunnels of neighbouring pairs, before opening into a nest chamber in which the chicks are raised (4). A clutch of two to five eggs is laid directly onto the sandy floor of the nest chamber, where they are incubated by the female for around 24 days while the male provides food (2) (4). Fledging takes place after around 60 days, after which time the young can leave the nest, but are believed to be fed by the parent birds for a further four months (2).
Outside the breeding season, the burrowing parakeet forms large flocks of over 1,000 birds, which roost communally in trees, wires and the nesting burrows used during the breeding season (2). These flocks can travel large distances, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away from the breeding grounds (4). The diet of this species is mainly seeds and fruit, but may also include grain crops (2).
Although the burrowing parakeet is not considered to be globally threatened, it faces a number of serious threats, and there is good evidence that its population is in decline (4) (5). Heavy hunting for the cage bird trade has had a significant impact on this species, and while legislation is in place to limit international trade, over 120,000 individuals have been traded legally since 1981, along with numerous others on the black market (2) (4). It is also persecuted as a crop pest by farmers who have converted this species’ grassland habitat to crops, and now blame its foraging activity for crop failures or poor yields. However, it has been argued by conservationists that this species causes only minor damage to crops, and that the attempt to convert the relatively infertile, unsuitable land is the real problem (6) (7). As a result of the dual threat of habitat loss, which is claiming as much as 3.7 percent of the native vegetation that supports this species, and lethal methods of control used by farmers, the burrowing parakeet population in Argentina—where it was formerly common—has become fragmented and some local populations have even been driven to extinction (4).
A further threat to this species comes from tourism, which claims habitat and causes disturbance to the nesting grounds, such as the use of four-wheeled vehicles on beaches by the colony at El Condor, which is killing many of the flightless chicks (4) (6). It has been suggested that while the current population of the burrowing parakeet seems relatively high, this species may have a critical global population threshold below which it will undergo a rapid decline towards extinction (7).
The burrowing parakeet is listed on the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species, which means that all international trade is controlled by annual quotas. These quotas were, encouragingly, reduced in 2007 from 7,500 to 3,000 individuals per year (3).
Currently only the Chilean subspecies, Cyanoliseus patagonus bloxami, receives formal protection, although Cyanoliseus patagonus patagonus is located in two very small nature reserves. Increased protection is of paramount importance, especially for the largest colony at El Condor. Fortunately, several researchers and NGOs are working diligently to ensure that this protection is provided by raising awareness of the bird’s plight, providing educational materials to mitigate persecution, working towards limiting tourist disturbance and carrying out research into the burrowing parakeet’s biology and ecology. An act has also been submitted to the provincial parliament of Río Negro to designate El Condor as a Nature Reserve. If it is successful it will represent a huge step towards ensuring the future of this remarkable bird (4).
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- Monogamous: having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
IUCN Red List (May, 2009)
World Parrot Trust (June, 2009)
CITES (May, 2009)
Burrowing Parrots (June, 2009)
BirdLife International (June, 2009)
World Land Trust (June, 2009)
World Land Trust (June, 2009)