Pecking at the parrot problem

Biologists, conservationists, ornithologists and other experts put their collective brainpower to work at a recent Caribbean-wide meeting to address how to deal with parrots that are considered agricultural pests. 

Representatives from the National Trust for the Cayman Islands and the Cayman Islands Department of Environment attended the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds’ 19th regional meeting in Grenada between 27 July and 31 July, which centred on the theme “Bird Conservation in a Changing Climate”. 

Terrestrial Resources Unit Research Officer with the DOE, Jessica Harvey, and Environmental Programmes Manager with the National Trust, Paul Watler, arrived early to take part in a three-day Parrot-Agriculture Conflict workshop. 

The workshop was designed to allow researchers and policy makers from across the Caribbean to discuss the problems associated with parrot-human interactions and their possible solutions. 

“I think at the first and most basic level, the idea of this workshop was to bring countries and islands together to let them know that they’re not alone,” said Leo Douglas, workshop facilitator and the bird conservation society’s vice president. “A lot of these people had never interacted with any other biologists who are facing the same problems.”  

In addition to the Cayman Islands, 16 other countries from across South and North America, and the Caribbean took part in the workshop. 

This is the first time the organisation has held a workshop focused on discussing parrots as agricultural pests. Mr. Douglas said that the need for such a workshop indicates shifting viewpoints in Caribbean societies. 

“Even when conservationists started looking at this issue, it was restricted to this idea of parrot versus agriculture,” he said. “Now we realise it’s much more than that, it is stakeholder-wildlife-stakeholder conflict because within the society we now have very varied views.” 

Mr. Watler said that the workshop encouraged participants to identify both the underlying causes of the human-wildlife conflict, as well as the various players involved in the dispute. 

“Conflicts like this are usually like the classic iceberg,” he said. “You can see the dispute at the top, but at the bottom, there’s this problem with identity that is really hard to access. That’s where changes need to come from.” 

Facilitators for the workshop also included experts such as Francine Madden, executive director and founder of the Human-Wildlife Conflict Collaboration. 

“Francine showed us that it’s not just the players in the dispute [you have to involve], you really have to involve everybody,” Mr. Watler said. 

“Everybody’s a stakeholder in this. Farmers, of course, because they are the ones who are suffering from crop damage, but so is the average man on the street,” he said. “The parrot belongs to the people, as a species. So anybody with an interest should speak up and should have an opportunity to be heard.” 

Ms Harvey said that community involvement was one of the most consistent elements in success stories shared during the workshop. 

“Successes have come when people have incorporated the community into how they develop a strategy to control the problem,” she said. “At the end of the day, it is their community, our community, and we all need to work together toward a solution.” 

Ms Harvey was particularly impressed by an example of successful negotiations with farmers in Brazil that resulted in the local macaw population being saved from near extinction. “It’s outcomes like that, that make me hope that we can do the same,” she said. “It’s about living symbiotically with each other.”  

Such an outcome may seem illusive considering the negative view many farmers have about parrots. 

“There’s this very common perception that parrots are wasteful eaters, that they’re just mean, that they’re out there to get the farmers,” Mr. Douglas said, explaining that many farmers are frustrated by the fact that parrots take bites out of multiple fruits rather than just eating one down to the seed. 

Although annoying to farmers, Mr. Douglas’ research in Dominica revealed that this behaviour is greatly beneficial to other species of birds and bats. “I found a very interesting thing which we describe in biology as commensalism,” he said. “It’s where there’s a relationship between organisms where one neither benefits nor hurts, but the other really benefits.” 

The parrots’s powerful beaks allow them to break through the tough skin of certain fruits, opening the fruit for other species to take advantage of. Mr. Douglas’ research revealed that bananaquits in Dominica were more abundant and bigger in areas where parrots were present. 

“The interesting thing we found was that by taking parrots out of the system, we’re also negatively affecting several other birds, which are very important for what we call ecosystem services,” he said. These ecosystem services, such as pollination and seed dispersal, help maintain the viability of Cayman’s natural environment. 

“Even though it’s not an obvious role, they have a very important role that they are playing,” Mr. Douglas said. 

The workshop was one of several symposiums and group working sessions held throughout the conference. Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds President Howard Nelson explained that the regional meeting offers professionals from around the Caribbean the opportunity to share conservation strategies and research. 

“This is to prevent us working in silos,” he said. “There are lots of things we can learn from each other in terms of how we manage exotic species, how we do species recovery, how we do public education, how we integrate bird conservation with sustainable livelihoods of people in the region, how we go about setting priorities, and how we discuss risk to birding cultures and individual species.” 

More than 160 delegates from countries and environmental organisations around the world participated in the conference. This year’s conference was one of the largest on record both in terms of participation and abstract submissions. 

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