Parrot Blog: Daily Adventures and Rewards

Christine Dahlin, PhD

posted June 23, 2016

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.

The Costa Rica experience is certainly never boring. Although it is now more routine to jump up at 4:00 a.m., down some coffee and rush into the dark in the hopes of finding parrots, every day still seems to have some minor adventure.

YNA team

At the Liberia Hotel with the Yellow Naped Amazon team, from left: Tim Wright, Sophie Nazeri, Tom Lewis, Sam Williams, Chris Dahlin, Molly Dupin and Alyssa Trimeloni.

A trip to Pelon Bajura, a massive a commercial farm that has built its own town, resulted in us getting a tour of all of the best parrot recording areas, and the next morning we had great data success. Misadventure awaited us on the way out when we spotted a fire tower, which we decided we had to climb in case it proved useful for a future roost count. A short drive up the road quickly indicated that it was not particularly drivable, so we hiked up, indeed climbed the tower, and were treated with a spectacular view with vultures soaring parallel to us (alas too far for a roost count!). I almost got the car back to the main road when the front wheel slipped into a sinking pile of oozing, festering mud slop.

All of our efforts with rocks, digging with our hands, pushing and such only got us smothered with mud and sweat. Tim finally hiked back to town and arrived two hours later, riding gallantly bestride a tractor wheel to rescue our beloved SUV from the mud pit.

Those hours on the roadside forced us to appreciate the small details, such as an emerald dragonfly who decided we were a fine source of breakfast mosquitos. He settled in front of us, eyes twitching, and every time a mosquito threatened us he would dart forth and elegantly grab it from the air. I have never appreciated breakfast and a shower so much as when we finally made it back to the hotel.

We finally visited my long-time research site, Ahogados, where I spent three years of my PhD life studying every aspect of my parrot’s lives. On the way, flashing lights from oncoming traffic alerted me to something, but in the dark I had no idea what. Out of the mist it was revealed; a horse, standing bone-still in the middle of the Interamericana Highway, evidently trying to win a Darwin Award. Driving is probably my least favorite activity in Costa Rica. Ticos assume that traffic lights are more of a suggestion than a rule, since it is common practice to stop for a red light and then drive on through if the road seems clear. 

Ahogados in the past has been a cattle ranching site, and has thus been comprised of rolling grassy fields interspersed with large trees, which made for great parrot habitat. In the eight years since I have been here, this site, like many in Costa Rica, have been converted to sugar cane, and I arrived to see that most of the parrot’s historic nest trees were cut down for the massive monoculture. As the sun arose a few parrot calls did begin, but the numbers were far fewer than in the past. Overall a very depressing morning.

That moment contrasts with some of the highlights of the trip. We were unable to record in 2005 at a site called Palenque, but when we visited this time we found a large roost of more than 250 birds.  If we had not counted them flying in over the course of the evening, we would never have known of the number of birds present given the manner in which their stocky green bodies blend in with the leaves. The cacophony of their calls was deafening around 6 pm, however, and all we could do was stand and take it in.

The conservation partnership with the World Parrot Trust is continuing to unfold. Tim and I have had a long-time friendship with scientists and staff at the Area de Conservacíon Guanacaste (ACG), and in 2006 we developed a parrot conservation program that we brought to local schools. We were delighted to find out that not only are the programs still on-going, but ACG staff are excited to expand the collaboration with a focus on yellow-naped amazons. 

One boost for the amazons, and indeed all wildlife in Costa Rica is that it is now illegal to own native wildlife as a pet. One major problem is where to house wildlife that have been pets and cannot be released immediately, if ever. Hopefully this partnership between multiple organizations will help solve this, as well as many other issues. 

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