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Earth Notes: The Thick-Billed Parrots of Northern Arizona

Elizabeth Barrett,

Summer bird life is in full swing in the pine forests of northern Arizona. But back in the 1800s there was a colorful, noisy addition to the scene – parrots.

It’s no accident that these birds appeared in prehistoric Native American art throughout the Southwest, because the region was once home to thick-billed parrots.

With wingspans of thirty-two inches and weighing around a pound, these gregarious birds would have been hard to miss with their strident calls, emerald feathers, and scarlet patches on wings, thighs, and eyebrows.

The largest flocks were in the Chiricahua Mountains in southern Arizona. But every summer, they came as far north as Flagstaff to breed and forage on pine seeds. They streaked across the sky wingtip to wingtip, flying in complex patterns to confuse raptors, their main natural predators.

A glimpse of a parrot was considered good fortune – especially for miners who thought a 'lucky strike' was sure to follow. But the birds’ own luck ran out. Easily caught and hunted by settlers for food, their numbers dwindled until they had become infrequent visitors by the early 1900s.

Attempts to reintroduce thick-billed parrots to the state in the 1980s failed – partly because the captive-raised birds didn’t know how to live in the wild. Today, you’d need to visit the western Sierra Madre of Mexico where endangered flocks still survive.

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