Pesos for Parrots

In a ground-breaking plan on communal lands in Mexico, a controversial new conservation strategy is taking flight

  • Peter Friederici
  • Jul 01, 2001

THE SCREAMING starts at dawn, intermingled with the mundane squawks of chickens: a high-pitched and constant kla-kla-kla that begins faintly, like the trumpeting of distant cranes. Then it swells in volume, signaling to a pair of bleary-eyed ornithologists in northern Mexico that a flock of rare parrots, perhaps 20 or 30 strong, is winging directly overhead.

The birds are thick-billed parrots, and the ornithologists - Diana Venegas Holguin and Javier Cruz-Nieto of Monterrey Technological Institute - are here to help save them. Thick-billed parrots live only in Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental, and only about 1,500 breeding pairs are believed to remain. This August morning the pigeon-sized birds are headed from their nests to forested ridges above the narrow Bisaloachic Valley of Chihuahua, where they will collect pine nuts for their nestlings.

Since the mid-1990s, Venegas and Cruz-Nieto, a young husband-and-wife team, have been tracking parrot nestlings. Initially, the two came here to study the ecology of the montane parrots, which local people call guacamayas, or simply guacas. But now, much more is at stake. The forests required by these birds to survive are under assault, and the needs of the parrots have collided with highly charged issues of logging and land use in Mexico, especially on communal lands set aside for poor peasants.

As a result, the researchers' baseline research has become increasingly entwined with politics. Now the scientists and their colleagues have developed a ground-breaking but controversial conservation plan that may have broad implications throughout Mexico and elsewhere: to pay local people a fee to leave forests intact instead of harvesting them.

Spirit of the Sierra Madre

Thick-billed parrots are colorful, noisy, social birds that electrify the region's high pine and oak forests. Their plumage glows brilliant green, with crimson epaulets and foreheads, while their underwings flash bright yellow as they fly overhead. They are almost always found in pairs or small groups, and they are almost always making noise - whether cranelike flight calls or grating alarm squawks.

The birds live only in the forests of western Mexico, which cradle a wide diversity of pine species. They use their massive black bills to twist off and crack open pine nuts, the mainstay of their diet. "Earlier in the year the parrots eat dried pine seeds, acorns and Douglas-fir seeds," Cruz-Nieto says, "but they prefer the seeds of Durango pine, which ripen in late summer."

Guacas also use those strong bills to remodel the tree cavities in which they nest. Beginning with an old woodpecker nest or knothole, they excavate a deep chamber in which they lay two or three eggs. Because pine nuts ripen in late summer, guacas nest late. They lay their eggs in July and feed their new hatchlings fresh nuts beginning in August. The young typically aren't ready to fledge until early October.

In the winter, guacas leave their nesting areas and head south to central Mexico's highlands. In the early twentieth century, flocks were also observed summering in the scattered mountain ranges of southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico. It is uncertain whether guacas nested there, but ornithologist Noel Snyder of the non-profit Wildlife Trust believes they did, and that they disappeared from the United States due to hunting.

Snyder and others reintroduced thick-billed parrots into Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains in the late 1980s. Though some of the released birds bred, the project failed because the mainly captive-bred birds didn't know how to avoid predators. "They were very confused animals," Snyder says. "They didn't learn how to flock. They just became hawk bait."

Highly social, guacas typically feed near one another, and sometimes two or three pairs nest in a single tree. They need many eyes to find food sources and to detect predators. When colonies become too small, the likelihood of extirpation grows dramatically. "Once you get to only a few pairs, their predator deterrence and group foraging become more difficult," says Ernesto Enkerlin-Hoeflich, who was recently named to head Mexico's Commission on Natural Protected Areas and is the biologist at Monterrey Tech who directs Venegas' and Cruz-Nieto's field research. "Small groups are more likely to be wiped out," he explains.

People in the Forest

Guacas have shared their habitat with people for a long time, but large-scale change didn't come to the Sierra Madre until the early twentieth century. In the 1930s, the government started to grant large land tracts to previously landless peasants. Termed ejidos, these communally owned land holdings have come to cover nearly 50 percent of Mexico and a full 80 percent of the country's forests.

Ejido Tutuaca, where Venegas and Cruz-Nieto conduct the bulk of their research, is typical. It includes 40,000 acres, most of them steep and forested. There are 74 registered members of Ejido Tutuaca - ejidatarios, they are called. They live in two small villages of simple wood cabins with roofs steep-pitched to shed rain and snow. From these villages, it takes three hours to reach the nearest highways via rutted dirt roads.

There is little arable land in Ejido Tutuaca, and economic opportunities are few. Some ejido members run cattle and raise corn, but many work in faraway cities or agricultural areas for cash. Their most reliable income comes from cutting timber. Each year, working mostly through local middlemen, ejidatarios sell logging rights to outside companies, and ejido men earn extra cash by working as loggers or truck drivers for those companies.

A sawmill that formerly operated in one of the villages allowed the ejidatarios to sell finished lumber at higher profits, but it often broke down, suffered from fraudulent administration and was eventually disassembled, undermining the trust of ejido members in collaborative work. Now the milling profits go to companies elsewhere.

Though the logging is done selectively - the larger trees in an area are cut, the smaller ones left standing - each part of the ejido's forest is harvested in a 15-year cycle. Every summer, Venegas says, "they are cutting thinner trees." The result is obvious: The slopes surrounding the villages are covered with a green fuzz of young, skinny pines. Trees large enough for parrot nest cavities are absent.

The same pattern is repeated elsewhere in the Sierra Madre. Botanist Richard Felger of the Tucson-based Drylands Institute has estimated that only 2 percent of old-growth conifer forests here remain intact. As a result, thick-billed parrots have declined by an estimated 80 to 90 percent in the last century. Other forest creatures, too, are imperiled, and the endemic imperial woodpecker - once the largest in the world - has already become extinct.

Science to the Rescue?

Part of that two percent is the forest of Bisaloachic, whose 6,000 acres were off-limits to timbering for decades because of a boundary dispute with two other ejidos. Yard-thick pines, firs and rare Chihuahua spruces reach high into the sky here. At 8,000 feet, the air is cool even in August. During the summer rainy season, the forest teems with wildflowers and smells of moss and rotting leaves. Dippers and colorful trogons live along the clear streams.

In the 1970s, a few ornithologists learned that thick-billed parrots nested in the area, but no one realized the full importance of that finding until Enkerlin-Hoeflich and his graduate students began studies in 1994. Now Venegas and Cruz-Nieto find abundant nests, typically 100 of them a year. "It is the only large nesting concentration of thick-billed parrots left," says Enkerlin-Hoeflich.

Each summer the two researchers and Jesus Marquez Quintana, a young research assistant who grew up in the Bisaloachic Valley, scour the area. They watch where the parrots fly, but the adults return to the nest only a few times a day to feed their young with regurgitated pine nuts. "That makes it difficult to find the nests," says Cruz-Nieto. So the three also look for fresh-looking cavities and for piles of sawdust on the ground below that reveal where parrots have been excavating.

Once they find an active cavity, it's time to climb. A typical nest visit goes like this: Marquez clambers 50 or 60 feet into a pine and sticks his arm elbow-deep into a jagged cavity with a softball-sized entrance. He pulls out one pink, nearly naked parrot nestling, then another, then another, and places the trio in a pouch, which he lowers to the ground on a long cord. The adults squawk vociferously on a nearby snag.

Down below, Venegas and Cruz-Nieto examine the young. They measure the bills and the wings, take the birds' weights and label a leg of each with a colored marker. They also examine the skin for parasites, and, if necessary, douse the nest with a parasite-killing pesticide, harmless to the birds. They may return up to twice a week to remeasure and to take blood samples. Later still, they'll record how many chicks survive to fly off with their parents.

The researchers have learned that parasites are a significant problem for chicks, some of which die from heavy infestations. Enkerlin-Hoeflich suspects that a shortage of nest sites may require adults to reuse cavities year after year, allowing parasite populations to persist. Occasional nests are also raided by poachers in search of pet parrots.

But those problems pale in comparison to what Venegas and Cruz-Nieto heard in 1998. The ejidatarios told them that the dispute with neighboring ejidos had been resolved. Ejido Tutuaca had prevailed, and logging of Bisaloachic's valuable timber was to begin in 2002.

A Novel Solution

Fortunately, the researchers had established good relations with people in the community. "Javier and Diana had built trust and saw that some people wanted to change the cycle of cutting on the ejido," says Enkerlin-Hoeflich. "A good part of the ejidatarios were interested in conservation, because they've seen their other land become less productive."

Enkerlin-Hoeflich enlisted the support of Pronatura, a Mexican conservation group, and The Wildlands Project, based in Tucson. In a series of meetings with the ejidatarios, the conservationists began refining details of a proposal they'd devised to make things right. The gist of their idea: Spare the trees for 15 years, and you'll be compensated.

The negotiations were delicate. At one meeting an influential local leader opposed the deal, saying he didn't expect to be around in 15 years to see the forest preserved. He asked for money up front.

Women don't often speak up in ejido meetings, but Gregoria Perez Gonzalez, 81 years old, responded that she hardly expected to be alive in 15 years, but her children and grandchildren would be. "They will benefit from this," she said, "and we want it to happen."

In the end, the ejidatarios agreed. In exchange for preserving the trees, they would get a total of $240,000, roughly half of what they would have received from logging. Half of the money - raised from foundations and private individuals in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada - would be paid when the deal was signed. That occurred in December 2000. The rest of the payments would be spread over the next 15 years, split evenly among the 74 ejidatarios.

The conservation groups also have promised to help establish a sustainable forestry program on the rest of the ejido's holdings. By harvesting wood in an ecologically friendly manner, including allowing stands to grow older and leaving some large trees, the ejidatarios should be able to produce certified timber (see sidebar) that fetches higher prices.

The plan also calls for building two cabins that will shelter adventurous ecotourists who want to view the parrots - and whose expenditures will help support the community. A few tour operators have already expressed interest in guiding visitors there, and The Wildlands Project is compiling a set of tour guidelines.

Last winter the Mexican federal government reinforced the deal by declaring the forest of Bisaloachic a sanctuary. This act forbids logging, though similar declarations in the past have lacked teeth in Mexico.

But Enkerlin-Hoeflich thinks that assistance in developing a sustainable ejido economy will prove more significant than the declaration, or even the cash payments. "If people who live on the land are not involved and benefitted by its conservation, it is just not going to happen," he says. "In the long run, the forest will pay for itself in a conserved state through alternative economic development and ecological services. It'll mean more money for the local people. The deal is good for 15 years, but I think the forest will be preserved in perpetuity."

That would certainly benefit the guacas, and perhaps not just here. Translocating a few pairs of parrots from a healthy colony to small, imperiled nesting colonies may help prevent local extinctions, and Bisaloachic supports the only place left in the world large enough to serve as a source for such transfers. It's even possible that parrots from here could someday be moved into the mountains of southern Arizona.

A Model - Or Not

The deal may also have repercussions elsewhere in Mexico. Ejido land is rarely for sale, and conservationists have found it difficult to work on ejidos. That may change now.

"Part of the idea when we were making this deal was that it should be a model that could be applied in other parts of the country," says Rurik List, a Mexican biologist who was one of the representatives of The Wildlands Project in the negotiations. "A success would create a new tool for land conservation in Mexico." Indeed, The Wildlands Project is considering similar deals elsewhere in northern Mexico.

But not all observers agree that the model will work elsewhere. "You're not going to be able to come up with $240,000 for every 6,000 acres," notes Cyrus Reed of the Texas Center for Policy Studies. "For long-term viability you need to teach people about managing the forest for wildlife and water quality. You need to look for what non-wood products to produce. You need better management plans and better enforcement than exist now."

For further information about the forest industry in Chihuahua, download the following PDF documents:

The Forest Industry in the Sierra Madre of Chihuahua: Social, Economic, and Ecological Impacts
Click here for PDF Help

And success isn't assured even at Bisaloachic. Randall Gingrich of the Sierra Madre Alliance, a sustainable-development advocacy group that has consulted with Ejido Tutuaca, says, "If the environmentalists do not deliver on promises, or the alternative development projects do not meet local needs or expectations, there could be future problems."

The trees, after all, will retain value as timber in future years even after most of the money has been paid. In other Mexican preserves, such as one in the state of Michoacçn that shelters wintering monarch butterflies, illegal logging within sanctuary boundaries remains a major problem.

The details are indeed devilish. Though programs to certify wood as sustainably grown have been set up in southern Mexico, they are just beginning in the country's north. It's unclear, too, how many birders will undertake the arduous trek to Bisaloachic in order to see the parrots and drop a few dollars. And at other Sierra Madre ejidos, tourism projects have resulted in heated disputes over who controls the profits. Given these uncertainties, conservationists may well take a wait-and-see approach before they emulate this model.

But Venegas is hopeful. She knows the price of failure. Her first job in the Sierra Madre involved searching for imperial woodpeckers, and her failure to do so confirmed that species' extinction. And so she wants to transfer her hopes for the parrots to the local people so that they can help avert another extinction. "Right now it's all dreams," Venegas said, "but maybe when the ejidatarios see that visitors are coming to enjoy the forest, they will think of other uses for the place."

Her optimism is reinforced in the place it counts most - on the ejido - as the two researchers and an American visitor stop at the tiny but immaculate house of Gregoria Perez Gonzalez, the grandmother who had supported the project. A dignified and spirited woman with long, graying hair, she points out the pictures of her children and grandchildren on the walls, then says, "Conservation is good for the trees, for the animals, for the people. What would we do if they cut the trees down - eat the money?"

Freelance writer Peter Friederici traveled to Bisaloachic last summer from his home in Arizona. Environmental photographer Lynda Richardson, who lives in Virginia, followed a month later after extensive training in tree-climbing techniques - useful to reach parrots.

How To Buy "Good" Wood

Wood harvested in an environmentally sensitive manner is labeled by independent certifiers so that consumers who buy it can tell that it has been cut on well-managed forests.

The international Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), based in Mexico, is the leading certifier. The National Wildlife Federation is a charter member of this group and also has worked for several years with the FSC-accredited SmartWood program. This partnership has certified more than 1 million acres of forest in the northeast United States and is working to improve community-based forestry across Mexico. So far in Mexico, SmartWood has certified 2.5 million acres on a dozen ejidos.

Logos of FSC and SmartWood are affixed to wood products from chairs to picture frames to alert consumers that their buying decisions can help protect the environment. For information on locations of stores where FSC-certified wood products are available, go on-line to , then click on "buying and selling FSC products."

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