Today I would like to introduce you to a parrot which became so rare that, just a few decades ago, it was thought to be extinct. This is the Yellow-Eared Parrot – and unlike its extinct relatives, such as the Cuban Macaw, Carolina Parakeet, or Paradise Parrot, it has clawed back from the brink toward an uncertain path of rescue.
Just when it looked like the Yellow-Eared Parrot had been lost for eternity, a group of scientists managed to located what was believed to be the last surviving group of these parrots. In a remote valley in the Colombian Andes, they found the last 81 individuals.
And what caused this large, photogenic parrot to reach the edge of extinction? You’re probably guessing right, because the answer is pretty much universal. Habitat destruction and hunting. Yellow-Eared Parrots paid the price for being very closely tied to one genus of palm, known as the wax palm.
The Quindío wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense) is even the national tree of Colombia. However, if you expected it to grow abundantly throughout Colombia, you would be mistaken. The fate of this palm, which can grow up to 60 meters / 200 feet tall, is as unfortunate as that of the parrots.
The leaves of young Quindío wax palms were used in Catholic celebrations of Palm Sunday for many years. Most of the trees did not survive this defoliation. Add that to the razing of land for pasture, and the fate of the wax palms was suddenly in doubt. Fortunately, since 1985, these magnificent trees have been protected by law – which not only has helped the trees, but also the population of Yellow-Eared Parrots.
In fact, the Quindío palm tree provides the parrots with both their main source of food and a home. They build their nests 25 to 30 meters above the ground in the cavity of its slender trunk, and they eat the tree’s fruit as their most important source of food. The wax palm is simply their life; if the palm disappears, so do its chatty, green-and-yellow inhabitants.
I first encountered Yellow-Eared Parrots in 2015, on my second trip to Colombia. I got a tip that a small flock was roosting in a group of several palm trees in the woods near the Colombian town of Jardín. This was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss. However, it soon became apparent that photographing these rare birds would not be such a piece of cake.
The birds were practically not showing up at their roost during the day. So, there was nothing to do but wait for dusk to fall. It was only when the sun set and the sky turned a warm shade of red that the parrots began to arrive. There were about six individuals in the whole flock. Of these, three flew to one of the more distant palm trees and three were about to land on the palm tree by which I was waiting with my camera.
It all happened very quickly. The trio of screaming parrots circled the canopy once and then perched on the petiole of one of the leaves. By then it was really dark. I mounted my camera on a tripod, put a 2x teleconverter on the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 lens, and hoped desperately that the wind would not blow the leaves. The parrots stayed for a while and watched the surrounding landscape. They looked like a married couple sitting on the porch after work with a glass of wine. Not long after, they disappeared into the thick foliage and went to sleep. So did I.
In the morning, I waited for them in the same spot to photograph their departure. The sun had not yet risen when they suddenly left their nest with a scream. They didn’t give me a chance to react or take a picture. No “three, two, one, let’s go” – they just dove straight out of their hiding place, spread their wings, and vanished. Well, this didn’t go as planned.
I had to wait eight whole years for another opportunity.
Earlier this year, I went to Colombia again. Diego Espitia, a conservationist and guide who specializes in Yellow-Eared Parrots (among many other things), took me to an amazing place – a steep pasture with wax palms growing out of it. We had beautiful views of the valley, but most importantly, due to the steep slope, one actively-used nest was practically at eye level. I was a little envious of my friend with the 600mm f/4 lens. This focal length combined with a 1.4x teleconverter would have been just right.
As the sun rose, a cry was heard on the palm-covered slope, and groups of parrots scattered into the area. To my great joy and excitement, the screaming grew closer, and soon I had the opportunity to photograph the beautiful parrots going about their daily business. These intelligent birds interacted with each other, groomed each other’s feathers, and flew away from time to time – whereupon they returned to the nest again. Once, one of the pair even perched barely ten meters / thirty feet from my camera.
Being so close to such an interesting bird with such a troubled fate was an immense experience for me. Growing up, I could only know the Yellow-Eared Parrot from the Extinct Species chapter of my book. After a successful conservation effort, it now seems that the species has escaped the undertaker’s shovel. In recent years, its status has been changed from critically endangered to vulnerable. If only there were more such happy endings.