Counting wild parrots is a tedious process that involves time, tenacity and patience — a process that needs to be done over and over again, experts say. While the exact population numbers of wild parrot species might never be known, population estimates are essential to understanding breeding habits and conserving endangered parrot species. Whether wild parrot flock numbers are flying high or dwindling low, counting is routine for every species to determine if populations are at healthy numbers.
There are different methods of counting wild parrots.
James Gilardi, director of The World Parrot Trust, said a number of methods exist for counting wild parrots. The line-transect method comprises moving along a predetermined path by plane, car, foot or other movement while simultaneously counting every parrot of a species that is perched or flying in the area. Alternatively, a point count entails counting all the parrots of a species that are spotted or heard while standing at one specific point. Choosing one method over the other depends on the physical movements of the particular parrot species being counted, Gilardi said.
"The problem with counting parrots is that it's much harder than other birds," he said. "With the point-count method, parrots occur at a low density and are not generally territorial. You could do 15 five-minute counts and never encounter a parrot; they tend to be very quiet when flying or foraging."
Furthermore, the counting of parrots gets more complicated when factoring in wild parrots' regional movements, Gilardi said. Unlike migratory birds that move in and out of regions seasonally, parrots move within a designated region based on food availability, making it easy to make incorrect counts.
Dr. Ian Tizard, BDMS, Ph.D, ACVM, a professor at Texas A&M University, said that wild parrot species with small populations that are confined to small regions are the easiest to count. But the problem with parrots that fly in heavily forested regions is that views of parrots are restricted by the dense trees, he said. These two factors make counting macaws, which dwell in Amazon forests and cover large distances daily during their flights, especially difficult.
Parrot Conservationists must also factor in changes in seasonal counts, depending on the season.
"Clearly, you get incredibly different populations in wet seasons than in dry season," Dr. Tizard said. "You have to time sampling to hopefully get the most representative figures."
The key, he said, is to average the population counts over time to get the best and most accurate estimations. Likewise, Gilardi pointed out that sampling a wild bird species consistently for several years at the same point every year is the best way to gather an idea about wild parrot numbers and trends. Things like flock size, activity patterns and habitat selection are also learned, adding to a wealth of information needed to fully understand a particular parrot species.
Essentially, the point of counting wild parrots isn't to find exact population numbers, but rather to recognize long-term trends in populations over time, according to Tizard.
In Nicaragua, population samples taken over a number of years showed an 80-percent decline in the most sought-after and smuggled parrot species, the yellow-headed Amazon. This indicated to parrot conservationists that the parrot was threatened heavily by illegal trade to Europe.
"[Those numbers] blew everybody away," Tizard said. "They were very useful to get Europe to stop trading birds; it's hard to ignore after looking at those numbers."
Conversely, a series of counts conducted over previous years showed that the Lear's macaw is better protected during the last decade, with steadily increasing population numbers a clear trend, Gilardi said.
While a count might not reveal exact population numbers, it can reveal population trends.
"What you can do is stick to your methods," Gilardi said. "Do your counts repeatedly using the same methods over time. It will generate very useful trend data over the years for birds in that site."