PIÑAS, Ecuador – Nearly a score of red-masked parakeets returned Tuesday to their natural habitat after being rescued and rehabilitated in southern Ecuador, where wildlife smuggling and forest loss now threaten their survival.
As a result of this project involving a government ministry and other entities, the sound of the wing flapping of these small, brightly colored, medium-sized parrots once again is filling the air in the Buenaventura reserve, located some 600 kilometers (370 miles) south of Quito in the southern province of El Oro, which borders Peru.
Measuring at most 38 centimeters (15 inches) in length and with a strong, ivory-colored beak, bright green plumage, black eyes and yellow eye ring, the red-masked parakeet (psittacara erythrogenys) owes its name to the red feathers of its crown, forehead and face.
But the striking colors of these birds, which inhabit humid and semi-humid areas at altitudes of less than 1,100 meters (3,600 feet), can be a curse because they make them a coveted target of the pet trade.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists this parakeet’s conservation status as “near threatened,” while on Ecuador’s Red List it is classified as “vulnerable.” Though not in danger of extinction, experts are concerned about the birds’ decreasing numbers.
Martin Schaefer, executive director of Ecuador’s Jocotoco Foundation, told EFE that in Ecuador there are now between 10,000 and 15,000 red-masked parakeets, whose population is just 10 percent of what it was a century ago.
According to Jose Leon, research coordinator of that same foundation, the wildlife smuggling is often very small-scale: a young boy tells his grandmother he wants one of these birds; she knows someone who captures them and gets one for him.
But others smuggle these parakeets to markets outside Ecuador and sell them for around $5-10 each. The retail price of one of these birds in third markets is typically a minimum of $100.
These parakeets play a key role in dispersing seeds and assist with forest regeneration, and therefore their disappearance from a natural area can adversely affect the ecosystem and threaten the survival of other species.
The 19 parakeets freed on Tuesday join 20 others that were returned to their habitat last year as part of a joint program carried out by Jocotoco Foundation and the Spanish foundation Loro Parque, which has invested $60,000 in this process.
Rescued by the Environment Ministry from wildlife traffickers or people who were keeping the parakeets as pets, the birds undergo a rehabilitation process before they take to air once again.
The parakeets freed in El Oro province are part of a large-scale Jocotoco Foundation project in the 2,700-hectare (10.4-sq.-mile) Buenaventura reserve, where thousands of trees and plants cover what was pastureland just two decades ago.
After the birds are rescued, the Environment Ministry takes the rescued parakeets to the Arenillas zoo, where they are quarantined.
Tests are carried out there to ensure that the parakeets are free of parasites and they are given a varied diet: dog biscuits, peanuts, cooked corn, “things that help them gain weight again,” Leon told EFE.
“Most of the parakeets arrive with their wings clipped so they can’t fly, which makes them easier to keep as pets,” he said, adding that the time it takes for clipped feathers to come back in depends on how severe the cut was, while some never regrow.
Following their stay at Arenillas, the birds are carefully reintroduced into the wild at the Buenaventura reserve.
“After they’re released, we leave food in the same cages” in case they do not initially know how to find sustenance in the wild, Leon said, noting that once in Buenaventura the birds’ diet is gradually changed until they are only given forest fruits.
Amid the nervous flapping of wings of the parakeets inside a giant cage in the woods, experts on Tuesday fitted rings on the feet of the 19 birds, which already had a chip with their medical history embedded under their skin.
The ringing process took about 40 minutes amid the deafening squawking of the red-masked parakeets inside their cage, while others flapped their wings outside.
This behavior may be part of their effort to find a mating partner among the birds being reinserted into the wild, according to the experts, who are hopeful of a possible increase in this species’ population.
At around midday, the parakeets started pecking with annoyance at their rings before calmly flying toward the verdant landscape, where the droning of locusts could be heard coming and going in waves, competing with the singing and flapping of hummingbirds, toucans and other birds who lord over this lush paradise in the south of Ecuador.