Belize’s yellow-headed parrot population is disappearing from our forests; it is a bird that is endangered worldwide. Illegal poaching, deforestation and other pressures have reduced this colorful bird to a little over a thousand. In some parts, the bird can no longer be found. Here in Belize, the Forest Department and its local conservation partners have gotten serious about this issue for a few years now. It is illegal to buy the chicks or to have these parrots without a license and so the Forest Department has cracked down on persons who are keeping the birds in their homes. To get these birds ready for life outside of the cages and back into the wild, they work with the Belize Bird Rescue. It is a non-profit bird sanctuary that sits on a fifty-acre property called Rock Farm. That farm houses a guest-house that helps to support the organization. But almost fifteen years later, the B.B.R. has grown to a full facility, fitted with a clinic to accommodate all kinds of birds. Reporter Andrea Polanco tells us more about the important work that the rehab and rescue centre is doing for birds in Belize.
Andrea Polanco, Reporting
These noisy yellow-headed parrots are in decline. Their colorful feathers and their ability to talk make them a target for poachers and the illegal pet trades – add to those threats the loss of their habits and nests, these birds are now endangered with over ninety-percent of the species’ numbers having disappeared from its home range in the last two decades. But in Belize, this bird, while isolated and threatened, can still be found.
“The deforestation, habitat loss, illegal logging, poaching and natural predation are the main threats that the parrots face. The things we are doing to redress that is that we are working with other organizations in conservation projects, nest monitoring and we hand raise baby birds and put them back when they may or not otherwise would have survived. The only bird that we really know for sure what’s really going on with them is the yellow-headed parrot. It is the one that everyone wants as a pet. It is the one that talks really well and it is only found in Belize. It is a unique subspecies here in Belize. In the nineteen nineties there were seventy-thousand of them; now there is twelve hundred. One thousand two hundred. That’s it.”
Back in 2004, Nikki Buxton opened this bird sanctuary called Belize Bird Rescue. She started the BBR to help yellow-headed parrot transition from captivity to the wild. It is a programme that is supported by the Forestry Department.
“We discovered that there was an issue with parrots being in captivity and it is actually against the law to have them in captivity, yet there was nothing in place for the government to use to put those parrots back into the wild which would have been a perfect situation for any captive parrot. The challenge with the parrots is that when they come in they are usually clipped. People take the scissors and clip the wings so that they don’t fly away and that takes about eighteen months to two years to regenerate. So, we have to keep them safe during that period. If they got out, they wouldn’t survive the predators. So, we work very hard to keep the yellow-head habitat safe and to put back as many yellow-heads as we can. So far we have released one hundred and two back into the population which is a pretty good chunk of twelve hundred.”
But the BBR would soon find out that there were many birds in Belize that needed urgent help. So, the BBR now works with just about every species of birds. The BBR takes in birds that have been confiscated, surrendered or injured or sick.
“The Forest Department would either bring confiscated or surrendered ex-pets or birds they removed from poachers. We have people who have pets in captivity and realize it is really a problem to have them and they actually don’t know what to do with them anymore so they bring to them us. So, surrenders, confiscations, injuries, orphaned birds and birds that have fallen from nests. We also hand raise birds that have been brought out of nesting sites by rangers when they are in trouble in the nest.”
When an injured bird is taken in at the BBR, it is assessed and housed accordingly. The BBR’s vet would work with the bird to provide medication, in some cases surgeries, and other medical procedures would need to be done. The bird remains with the BBR where it receives food and care and eventually is prepared to be released back into the wild. Sometimes, some birds are in really bad shape and they need to be rehabilitated for years before they go back to the forest; in some extreme cases, some birds can’t go back to their home and they must stay and live at the BBR where they are cared for.
“Amongst the parrots it is the issue with people removing them from the nests and having them in captivity in bad conditions. With the other species, half are injured by humans either on purpose with sling shots or by vehicles in accident. Or if they come in from a migration, they get sick, they get parasites, injuries things like that.”
While Nikki considers Belize as a haven for birds, she also sees the threats to these animals.
“I think when you look around at the rest of the region, Belize is head and shoulders above which is why I think it is even more important to look at what we have and protect it.”
“With respect to their habitats, what are seeing – threats or loss in habitat?”
“We are seeing an increase in corn crops and cane crops and the problem with those is that they are using big machinery now which means they have to clear massive areas. There are no buffers left between fields anymore. The fields are becoming hundreds and hundreds of acres and it is way too much. The birds won’t cross them; the animals won’t cross them. So, they are not just losing habitats; they are losing a food source and we are imbalancing the entire ecosystem. Also, creating monocultures is causing disease. It is not a healthy environment for humans or animals, to be quite honest.”
While caring for these birds comes naturally to Nikki and the team at BBR, they also know that there is a bigger impact to the work that they do. In recent years, Belize has been growing as a birding destination. Just last year alone, thirty-thousand tourists came to Belize to do birding. So, to have healthy birds and a variety of species in Belize adds to the birding experience.
“We are getting a huge community of birders in this country and some of them are absolutely world class. They are bringing a lot of tourists here. The tourists are coming to see the birds; they want to the iconic ones like the toucan, the parrots, the big eagles and things like that. But also our habitat for migrants here is crucial to keep that connectivity going. These birds fly thousands and thousands of miles every year. They go off to breed in the north and they will come back to winter in the south. If we don’t maintain that habitat for them, it messes up everything.”
To date, the BBR has more than one hundred and fifty birds. Every morning, the team prepares breakfast for these birds by cutting fruits and vegetables, served with seeds, in about sixty containers. They are fed and the sick birds get their daily meds. But to run this non-profit organization also takes one hundred and seventy-thousand dollars a year so the BBR depends on donation and other forms of funding to support the medical, food, transport, wages and other needs. So, you can also help to take care of these birds by donating money, your time or even food.
“We love donations of food supplies. We use eight coconuts a day and that is a lot when it adds up over the year. We use two sacks of corn a week; two sacks of sunflower seeds a week; we make cake for them; we bake eggs for them; carrots, pumpkins or any kind of fruits. If you have a farm or market stall and you have stuff left over, give us a call and we will come get it within reason if it is in the Belmopan area.”
Reporting for News Five, I’m Andrea Polanco.
If you come across a sick or injured bird, you are asked to get in contact with the Belize Bird Rescue immediately. You are also advised not to remove young chicks and birds from their nests for domestic purposes or for illegal pet trade. If you’d like more information on how you can help the B.B.R., you can call Director Nikki Buxton at 610-0400 or you can get more information at www.belizebirdrescue.com