By Dessi Sieburth

Two Red-crowned Parrots fly to roost at sunset. Photo taken in Pasadena, Los Angeles County

Two Red-crowned Parrots fly to roost at sunset. Photo taken in Pasadena, Los Angeles County

If you step outside at sunset in the San Gabriel Valley, you have a good chance of seeing and hearing Red-crowned Parrots, the most common Parrots in Los Angeles County. The Red-crowned Parrot is an introduced species from northeastern Mexico. We do not know exactly how the species came to Los Angeles. A common theory is that some parrots escaped from a pet store, but it is most likely that many parrots were brought into Los Angeles by legal and illegal pet trade. Red-crowned Parrots can be identified by their deep red crown, blue nape, and distinct red wing patches in flight. They are distinguished from other similar parrots like the Lilac-crowned Parrot by their large red crown patch and larger size. One of the reasons they have thrived in Los Angeles is that their primary food includes fruits, nuts and seeds, and they can feast on the bounty of non-native fruit trees planted here. They nest in cavities, often in dead palm trees, made by woodpeckers, and lay two to five eggs a year.

In Los Angeles, the Red-crowned Parrot is common throughout the San Gabriel Valley. For example, in Pasadena, they can be often found roosting in the hundreds in the evenings. They can also be found west to San Fernando and Zuma Canyon, and east to San Dimas. The first known sighting of a Red-crowned Parrot in Los Angeles was in 1963, and they were still considered rare into the 1970s. There is evidence of breeding in Temple City, as well as probable evidence of breeding in Zuma Canyon. There is also a large population in San Diego. In total, the estimated population of Red-crowned Parrots in California is over 3000. Elsewhere in the United States, small numbers can be found near Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, Florida (less than 300) and near Brownsville and Harlingen, southern Texas (nearly 1000). The Red-crowned Parrots in California and Florida certainly represent introduced birds. However, the distance between the parrot’s range in Texas and the parrot’s native range in Mexico is just about 300 km, so it is possible that the Texas birds could be wild. More research is needed to answer this question.

Although the Red-crowned Parrots seem to be thriving in our urban environment, they are listed as endangered in Northeast Mexico. There, their range extends from Tamaulipas to San Luis Potosi. The estimated population is between 3000 and 6500 birds, down from over 100,000 birds in the 1950s. The population density decreased from 25 birds per square kilometer in the 1970’s to 5.7 birds per square kilometer in 1994. Red-crowned Parrot’s decline in Mexico has been so steep that they went from being listed as threatened in 1988 to endangered in 1994.

One of the largest threats to the Red-crowned Parrot in Mexico is the pet trade. Nestlings are taken out of their nests and smuggled across the border to places like San Diego, California, and El Paso, Texas. People often smuggle them across the border in vehicles, or they swim across the Rio Grande River and hide the parrots inside tire tubes. Only one in five parrots survive the journey, as they are hidden in small spaces for long periods of time. Therefore, smugglers will often take extra parrots to ensure that they have enough to sell. In 1982, Mexico passed a law that made the smuggling of wild animals illegal. However, there is little enforcement of the law. When smugglers are caught, the parrots are often placed in zoos and rehabilitation centers. Many of them cannot be released back into the wild due to injury or because they have not learned how to survive on their own.

Another major threat to the Red-crowned Parrot in Mexico is habitat loss. The Red-crowned Parrot’s primary habitats include tropical deciduous forests, gallery forests, floodplain forests, and semi-open areas. Deforestation and agriculture, as well as housing development, have had a severe impact on the Parrots. The destruction of habitat causes a lack of nesting, roosting, and feeding sites. Because new roads have been created for logging, smugglers have more access to parrot nests.

The Red-crowned Parrot is distinctive with its red and blue crown. Photo taken in Montrose, Los Angeles County

The Red-crowned Parrot is distinctive with its red and blue crown. Photo taken in Montrose, Los Angeles County

There have been several conservation efforts to help the Red-crowned Parrots in their native range. For example, in 2016, Congress passed the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt (END) Wildlife Trafficking Act. This Act seeks to end illegal smuggling of wildlife across international borders. However, the Act does not apply to borders within states. States such as New Mexico and Arizona are beginning to impose criminal punishments for people caught smuggling wildlife. The Mexican Government has made efforts to protect Red-crowned Parrot habitat, but the protection is not sufficient and habitat loss continues. The best way to help these parrots is to educate people about the illegal wildlife smuggling and to not buy parrots without proper documentation from pet shops. Young birds bred in the US might still be the offspring of parrots that were smuggled. If there is no demand for parrots that come from the illegal pet trade, the illegal smuggling will stop and the parrot population can increase. Customers can make the biggest difference. Instead of buying a parrot, you can adopt one from a bird rescue organization. Parrots are beautiful and intelligent, but they are wild animals.

A pair of Red-crowned Parrots in a fruit tree. Photo taken in Montrose, Los Angeles County

A pair of Red-crowned Parrots in a fruit tree. Photo taken in Montrose, Los Angeles County

The primary food source for Red-crowned Parrots is fruits and nuts. Photo taken in Montrose, Los Angeles County

The primary food source for Red-crowned Parrots is fruits and nuts. Photo taken in Montrose, Los Angeles County

Can Los Angeles support such a large population of Red-crowned Parrots? Not many studies have been done on how the Red-crowned Parrot affects native species. Some people are concerned that introduced parrots might compete with native birds for cavities to nest in. Our parrots in Los Angeles do not have the protection that our native birds have. However, our Red-crowned Parrots need to be protected because they may help to repopulate their native range if the wild population in Mexico becomes extinct.

To listen to a Red-crowned Parrot recording, go to: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35962761

Photos were taken by Dessi Sieburth (http://protectingourbirds.my-free.website/), except last photo was taken by Beatrix Schwarz. Population numbers were from “National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America”, “BirdLife International” and the “Associated Press Article: Parrot species in US cities may rival that in native Mexico”, by Julie Watson.

TPL_LAAS_ADDITIONAL_INFORMATION