Thick-billed parrots are equipped with a formidable beak, capable of cracking open pinecones, piñon nuts and acorns, which make up its primary diet. They have also been known to feast on juniper berries and agave nectar.
VERDE VALLEY - After weeks spent crossing the most barren and windswept country the Southwest has to offer, the Spanish conquistador Antonio Espejo, his chronicler Diego Perez de Luxon and five soldiers, entered the Verde Valley in May 1583.
They had come in search of gold and instead found copper, in a temperate land with abundant streams, verdant vegetation and an indigenous people who tied small crosses in their hair.
But they also saw something they weren’t expecting. Flitting and screeching in the trees above, they discovered parrots.
They were a gregarious, bright green bird with a red forehead, red epaulettes, a heavy black beak and a loud and distinct screech that could be heard from miles away.
What Espejo and his men saw in the spring of 1583 along the banks of the Verde River and its tributaries, were thick-billed parrots, a bird that has since disappeared from the Arizona sky.
Luxon’s account has led modern day biologists to surmise that the Verde Valley, or perhaps the Mogollon Rim, constituted the northern extent of their historic range.
Bones of thick-billed parrots have been unearthed at archaeological sites as far north and east as Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.
When the parrots stopped coming to the Verde Valley is difficult to judge. As late as 1703, Father Eusebio Kino reported seeing parrots, albeit in cages, among the Pima on a visit to their villages along the Gila River.
All subsequent and reliable sightings of the thick-billed parrot were reported in the Galiuro, the Pinaleno, Chiricahua and other “sky island” mountain ranges farther south.
The last confirmed sighting of a wild thick-billed parrot in Arizona was in 1938 at Chiricahua National Monument.
Most biologists believe the thick-billed parrot was never a full-time resident to the United States, at least during historical times.
Instead the birds are thought to have come here from their main breeding grounds in the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico.
Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence to show they were a common sight in the state. Published records show regular sightings between 1898 and 1938.
They are believed to have shown up at times of regional drought or when their food supply in the mountains of Mexico ran low.
Such was believed to have been the case between July 1917 and March 1918 when thousands moved into southern Arizona.
Why thick-billed parrots altogether stopped coming to Arizona is a matter of debate. The commonly held belief is that the indigenous population, assuming there was one, was hunted to extirpation.
Thick-billed parrots are not stealthy creatures. They are brightly colored, both the males and females, they hang out in sizable flocks and can be heard coming from two to three miles away.
In other words, they make conspicuous targets. Almost every early account mentions shooting the birds. Photographs on file at Chiricahua National Monument show soldiers holding hands full of thick-billed parrots taken during a hunting trip.
One old time resident of the Chiricahuas, a former employee of Arizona Game and Fish, admitted he shot dozens of the parrots as a kid and that hunting them was widespread in the early decades of the 20th century.
From 1986 to 1993 and effort was made to reintroduce the birds to Arizona, using thick-billed parrots that had been confiscated from smugglers.
Biologist working for federal and state agencies, along with private organizations released a total of 88 birds, some captured in the wild and some raised in captivity, in the Chiricahua Mountains.
Of the first 29 birds released, seven were killed by goshawks and red-tailed hawks. Eight flew back to Mexico.
But by spring 1987 the remaining flock had established a summer home on the Mogollon Rim near Payson, returning to the Chiricahuas for the winter. In November 1988, the flock returned to the Chiricahuas with two juvenile thick-billed parrots in tow.
As it turned out, the two birds born and bred in the wild were the program’s greatest success. By 1990, drought, the Dude Fire and predators had killed or chased off the first flock.
The body of one was found on the Mogollon Rim above Oak Creek Canyon. A feather from another was discovered in the White Mountains.
Subsequent releases made in 1991 and 1992 didn’t fair as well. By 1993 the program was terminated.
The parrot’s future
In spite of the ultimate failure of the reintroduction program, director Noel Snyder says much was learned.
“We learned that the prospects for re-establishing the bird in Arizona are not all that bad if you have the freedom to do it in the right way,” says Snyder. “As much as anybody. I’d like to see the birds established back in Arizona.”
The problem, Snyder and others note, is that Mexico has declared the birds endangered. One estimate put the wild population in 2004 at 2,800. So Mexico is not allowing any to be captured and taken elsewhere.
Today, U.S agencies are partnering with the Mexican government to help stabilize the Mexican population, believing it must be protected before any further efforts are made to bring the parrots back to the United States.
Thick-billed parrots still breed within 50 miles of the Mexican border. The Chiricahuas are visible from their northern-most breeding site. But trips north are rare.
The 2004 arrival of a lone thick-billed parrot on one of Ted Turner’s ranches, east of Truth or Consequences, N.M., caused a minor sensation and a major migration of bird watchers to the area.
Edwin Juarez, a wildlife bird biologist with Arizona Game and Fish, who is working with the Mexican Government, says that he, like everyone familiar with the birds, would love to see them grace the Arizona skies once again.
“One of the things that could happen, because of climate change, could be less available food in their mountain ranges of Mexico,” says Juarez. “If that happened they would likely make a more aggressive push to search other areas.
“They are nomadic by nature so it’s possible they may naturally expand into the U.S. It would be very amazing to have them back. They are beautiful. They are noisy. And they are one of a kind.”