After years of conflict could this Colombian forest be hiding a lost parakeet species?

Scientists are searching for the Sinú Parakeet, which hasn’t been documented since 1949

This week in northwestern Colombia, a team of researchers is searching for the Sinú Parakeet (Pyrrhura subandina), a species that has not been officially documented in more than 70 years. After decades of violent civil conflict, one benefit of peace in Colombia has been the chance to discover if after all these years, this endemic species remains hidden in the country’s threatened yet under-explored forests.

Lowland forest in Colombia

Lowland forest in Colombia where an expedition team will be looking for the Sinú Parakeet that hasn’t been seen since 1949. (Photo courtesy of Hugo Herrera Gomez)

Located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, most of the department of Córdoba is made up of lowlands under 100 meters in elevation. Named for the river that bisects the department, the Sinú Parakeet was last documented in 1949, in the dry forests of the country’s foothills. Since then, cattle ranching, farming and illegal logging have all taken a toll on this forest; “90% of the dry forest has disappeared” according to Hugo Herrera Gomez, the president of Sociedad Ornitológica de Córdoba.

Once believed to be a subspecies of the Painted Parakeet (Pyrrhura picta), the Sinú Parakeet was only recently recognized as a separate species, many decades after the last individual was seen alive. As a result, very little is known about its reproduction, nutritional requirements, ecology or behavior. Moreover, Colombia’s civil conflict (which officially ended with a 2016 peace deal between the government and FARC) disrupted research in the country’s forests for decades, making it impossible to find out if the parakeet still inhabits them. Some local farmers have described seeing a bird with similar characteristics in recent years, but as of yet there is no hard evidence proving it.

Sinú Parakeet specimen in a museum.

Sinú Parakeet specimen in the Cauca Museum. There are no known photos of a Sinú Parakeet in the wild. (Photo by Fernado Ayerbe)

This expedition seeks to remedy that. “It’s a species that is unique to the department, unique to the country, and unique to the world,” says Herrera Gomez. “Something has to be done to protect the species if they are still out there.”

The expedition

In late February, a team of 14 biologists and local residents (including those who may have spotted the parakeet) will embark on a 10-day expedition to search for the bird, which is one of Global Wildlife Conservation’s 25 “most wanted” lost species. The search, which Herrera Gomez calls “a dream come true,” is a collaboration between Sociedad Ornitológica de Córdoba, Asociación Calidris, and Colombia’s national park authority, with support from Global Wildlife Conservation and American Bird Conservancy. Herrera Gomez also stresses that without the enthusiasm and support of the nearby communities, this expedition would not be possible. The local organizations supporting the expedition include Urra SA ESP, Vortex Colombia, Colombia Birding, Café Cordoba and Urabá Nature Tours.

The team will search the relatively well-preserved highland forest around Alto Sinú, where the last parakeet sightings were reported in 1949. While this area is known to be important habitat for other endemic and endangered birds, including the Blue-billed Currasow and the Chestnut-winged Chachalaca, this area has never had a complete ornithological study, though there were expeditions mounted to find the Sinú Parakeet between 2004 and 2005 by Fundacion ProAves. In Alto Sinú at elevations above 400 meters there is basically no recorded data. The researchers will split up into small groups and walk transects through the forest, noting the species they observe and listening for vocalizations. They will then upload the lists of avian species they spot to eBird, a popular tool for scientists and birdwatchers that is managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

What will they find?

Herrera Gomez is optimistic that the team will find the Sinú Parakeet, citing other rare and “lost” parakeet species. In 1999, a group of researchers sponsored by American Bird Conservancy and Loro Parque Fundación found the rare Yellow-eared Parrot. Before its reemergence, ornithologists were wondering if the species had been lost. And since researchers found 81 of the parrots in the high in the Colombian Andes, a second population was found in foothill forests 10 years later. The Perijá Parakeet and Indigo-winged Parrot were also both once lost to science. The Indigo-winged Parrot was rediscovered as recently as 2002 after decades of civil conflict prevented scientific surveys from being conducted. His bigger concern is that if the species still exists, its population is likely quite small, which will make it harder to find.

Artistic watercolor painting of a Sinú Parakeet

Sinú Parakeet watercolor painting by Alexis Rockman.

No matter what the expedition finds, it will undoubtedly be a step forward for science. “Because this area has not been well studied before, even if they don’t find the parakeet, [they] will have lots of new info they can bring back from the field,” Herrera Gomez says. “Anything new will be interesting.”

(Top photo: Mountains in Córdoba, the region of Colombia where an expedition has set out to find the Sinú Parakeet. Photo courtesy of Hugo Herrera Gomez)

The post After years of conflict could this Colombian forest be hiding a lost parakeet species? appeared first on Global Wildlife Conservation.