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What Does Endangered Mean, Anyway?

Find out what it means when a parrot is placed on the endangered list.

Marguerite Floyd

Blue-throated macaw
The blue-throated macaw is critically endangered on the IUCN listing.

At least once a day I get a Facebook post announcing that another parrot is on an endangered list. Or a critically endangered list. Or that it's vulnerable. Or rare. Or running out of time. No difference, right?

Wrong. Turns out this endangered business is a lot more complicated than a few labels. I should have remembered that nothing about parrots is simple.

First, let's be clear about what we mean when we talk about parrots. Scientists agree that a parrot is a bird with a curved beak and zygodactyl feet (two toes forward, two toes back). There are said to be three superfamilies of parrots: the Psittacoidea ("true” parrots); the Cacatuoidea (cockatoos), and the Strigopoidea (New Zealand parrots).

Then there is the issue of what "endangered" means. For example, under the US Endangered Species Act of 1973, there are the two main categories:

E: Endangered (Sec.3.6, Sec.4.a) — any species that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range other than a species of the Class Insecta determined by the Secretary to constitute a pest.

T: Threatened (Sec.3.20, Sec.4.a) — any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

Australia's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999 defines six categories:

  • Extinct — "No reasonable doubt that the last member of the species has died;”
  • "Extinct in the wild" — "Known only to survive in cultivation" and "despite exhaustive surveys" has not been seen in the wild;
  • "Critically endangered" — "Extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future,"
  • "Endangered" — "Very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future,"
  • "Vulnerable" — "High risk of extinction in the wild in medium-term future," and
  • "Conservation dependent" — "focus of a specific conservation program" without which the species would enter one of the above categories. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List lists nine specific categories, "set through criteria such as rate of decline, population size, area of geographic distribution, and degree of population and distribution fragmentation."

  • Extinct (EX) – No known individuals remaining.
  • Extinct in the Wild (EW) – Known only to survive in captivity, or as a naturalized population outside its historic range.
  • Critically Endangered (CR) – Extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. ·Endangered (EN) – High risk of extinction in the wild.
  • Vulnerable (VU) – High risk of endangerment in the wild. ·Near Threatened (NT) – Likely to become endangered in the near future.
  • Least Concern (LC) – Lowest risk. Does not qualify for a more at risk category. Widespread and abundant taxa are included in this category.
  • Data Deficient (DD) – Not enough data to make an assessment of its risk of extinction. ·Not Evaluated (NE) – Has not yet been evaluated against the criteria.

(When discussing the IUCN Red List, the official term "threatened" is a grouping of three categories: Critically Endangered, Endangered, and Vulnerable.)

Then there's CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which most people think is some kind of legal policing agency that protects endangered animals and plants. Actually, CITES is "an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival." In other words, CITES is about trade; conservation is just one of the items in its vision for 2008 to 2013. Focusing on trade is not as bad as it sounds; after all, most species end up being endangered because of illegal trade, so licensing and regulating trade can only help.

CITES lists three categories: Appendices I, II and III. "Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction. Trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival."Appendix III contains "species that are protected in at least one country, which has asked other CITES Parties for assistance in controlling the trade."

OK. So now that we have categories, it's just a simple matter of counting birds and putting them in the correct slots, right?

Of course not. We're talking about parrots, remember?

The Cape Parrot Conundrum
Consider the Cape parrot. We used to believe it was a subspecies of the Poicephalus robustus, along with the brown-necked parrot and the grey-headed parrot, until DNA came along. By 2001 the Cape was determined to be a single species (Poicephalus robustus robustus), unrelated to the grey-headed parrot (Poicephalus fuscicollis suahelicus) and brown-necked parrot (Poicephalus fuscicollis fuscicollis) we see in North America.

Grey-headed parrot
There are no Cape parrots in U.S. aviculture. There are brown-necked and grey-headed parrots.

Okay, it's all clear now. The Cape parrot is considered to be an endangered species.

Well, not exactly. There are fewer than 1,000 Cape parrots alive today, and that's the high estimate. Their numbers are dropping because their habitat is being destroyed and they have also been falling victim to an outbreak of psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD).

That sounds pretty endangered to most folks; even CITES put the Cape parrot into Appendix II.However, the IUCN lists the Cape Parrot as "least concern." They use the classification from BirdLife International that the Cape parrot is not a separate species, and state, "… this split is not accepted until better evidence is provided." This means the combined numbers of the Cape parrot along with the brown-necked parrot and grey-headed parrot are high enough not to warrant a threatened status.

So just how many endangered parrots are there?

There are over 350 species of parrot; the IUCN lists 130 as near threatened (or worse) and 16 as critically endangered. When CITES took effect in 1975, they listed 24 parrots in their Appendix I category. Since then, 32 more parrot species have been added to that category.

Why Is This Happening?
Like parrots, there is no one easy answer. Illegal trade and habitat destruction are probably the two biggest reasons.

Isn't Anybody Doing Anything About Endangered Parrots?
Yes! There are several organizations working to save and repopulate endangered parrot species. Most parrot people are familiar with the World Parrot Trust, which sponsors many specific efforts to save endangered species.

The Parrot Society UK donates funds to various specific conservation projects.Likewise, the Parrot Society of Australia contributes funds to specific parrot species. Many other organizations help conserve parrots along with other animals, such as the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, the World Land Trust (US), the Loro Parque Foundation, and dozens more. There are far too many other organizations throughout the world that provide information and education about endangered parrots to list in an article like this.

What Can You Do To Help Endangered Parrots?
The most important thing you can do is educate yourself about parrots. Our knowledge of parrots and their habitats and requirements has exploded in the past ten years and much of that knowledge is freely available on the Internet and in your local library.

Donate money to a specific species or to an organization that is working to save more than one species.

Volunteer your time and skills to conservation efforts. Join a field study in an exotic place and work with like-minded souls to study and help protect parrots.

Talk about it. Tell your friends and neighbors. Send more posts to Facebook and Twitter. Spread the word.

Remember: somewhere, a parrot is running out of time.

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Posted: October 21, 2014, 11:45 a.m. PDT

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