Project Parrot: From Duck Calls to Concern for Curu

Christine Dahlin, PhD

posted June 15, 2016


Dr. Dahlin photographs a Costa Rican sunset.

Pitt-Johnstown assistant professor Christine Dahlin, PhD, is travelling this summer through Central America, specifically Costa Rica and Nicaragua, to study communication in yellow-naped amazon parrots.

Project parrot is going amazingly in that we are hitting our recording targets at almost all of our sites, and it sounds like the dialects are changing at some of the sites. 

parrotWe have recorded a new call type which we are referring to as the “duck call” given its quacky sound. Interestingly, some birds seem to be giving the old type of call as well as the new version. 

We made time to make our way to the site of Ara Project, a parrot conservation organization who has provided funding and field assistants for this trip. We drove down to the Pacific coast, through pouring rain, down steep mountainsides, and occasionally through roads that had turned into chocolate colored rivers. It was worth the drive! Sam and his wife Sarah have done an amazing job with Ara, whose goals are to breed macaws for release back to the wild.

The sight of the released macaws was inspiring. We arrived just in time for the birth of the first chick born at the site. Sam and Sarah threw a potluck in out honor, and we spent the evening drinking Cervezas (local beer), eating Thai food, and talking parrots.  I’m excited about the possibility of collaborating on new conservation projects for the yellow-naped amazons with Ara Project and the World Parrot Trust.

Our next site was Curu, which involved a long trip to the Southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. This site has historically had a sizeable breeding population of amazons that roost on an island of the coast.

Curu itself is a protected site, and driving to this protected beach-front forest feels like stepping back into time. Coconut trees abound, and constant shuffling noises accompany your every step as a sea of red and purple crabs run for cover. Howler monkeys sat in the trees casually eating bites of mangoes and dropping the remains to the floor, where coatis (long-tailed, raccoon-esque mammals) and pacas (resembling spotted tiny pigs) foraged for the remains. Bizarrely, white-tail deer casually ate mangoes as well, identical to our Northern deer except for their smaller stature. From every appearance this was paradise, except that when it came time to record the birds we heard virtually no amazons.

The 50-plus birds we observed over 10 years ago appear to have dwindled to a few scattered pairs, and we were lucky to record six birds.  We are not sure what has happened at this site. Were the amazons chicks poached to the point of no return? Are environmental factors at play? Regardless, the once thriving population of amazons in Curu is gone.

I am anxious to see how the amazons are doing at our subsequent sites. 

Note: Dr. Dahlin's study and trip are funded by a grant from the Central Research Development Fund (CRDF),through the University of Pittsburgh.