It was just past dawn when the male yellow-headed parrot landed above the nest cavity in an old palm in my neighborhood in San Benito. He usually perched in a nearby hackberry and waited for his mate to emerge with the morning light, but on this particular May sunrise he seemed anxious to coax her from incubation duties.
From an entrance hole in the hollow palm, several feet above the main cavity, he occasionally poked his head in and glanced down to see if she was stirring, but apparently detected no movement and maintained his vigil from the top story. With his supple four toes on each foot equipped with curved and sharp talons, the parrot easily clung sideways from the palm trunk. Also, assisting him in this acrobatic maneuver is the fact that parrot's have "yoked" toes, with two pointing forward and two turned backwards. This provides a secure grip for climbing and aids in picking up food.
On a normal morning, the female slowly emerged from the hollow palm, pulling herself up to the cavity entrance with the aid of her strong beak. She would then fly to her mate where they perched side by side grooming one another affectionately all the while making subdued "chuckling sounds" before taking off in a burst of raucous calling for their morning feeding.
Parrots form strong pair bonds and many mate for life, which can be a considerable number of years. The record for a bird is held by a close relative of the parrots, the cockatoo, with an officially recognized age of at least 82 years. It is not uncommon for parrots to live for more than 40 years.
After nearly ten minutes of patient waiting, the female finally emerged and peered out into the day. She seemed in no hurry to join her mate and remained at the cavities entrance for a couple of minutes before flying away with the male close behind.
This may have been the morning their young hatched as the adults routine began to change. It would be tough to examine the cavity and not wanting to call attention to the site by leaving human scent around and attracting a nosy raccoon, we will surmise there are at lest a couple of little parrots tucked into the base of the palm. Yellow-headed parrots normally lay one to three eggs and incubate for approximately a month.
They are an endangered species in their native Mexico, where they used to occur some 180 miles south of the border along the Rio Corona. A couple of decades past my brother and I watched a pair near the Corona eating ripe tunas of a prickly pear cactus. Yellow-headed parrots were once common further south along the Rio Sabinas before they were extirpated by the parrot trade.
There are scattered pairs of yellow-headed parrots nesting throughout the Valley, particularly in older neighborhoods where mature palm trees provide suitable nesting cavities. Some people claim these birds are escaped pets while others maintain the parrots migrated across the Rio Grande. Their presence in deep South Texas is probably attributable to both theories, but one thing is certain, yellow-headed parrots, red-crowned parrots and green parakeets are making their home in the Valley.
For the past several weeks both parents have been arriving several times a day to feed the young. While the female was the primary incubator, (and from observation always the one that spent the night on the eggs), both parents share feeding duties. Monitoring them occasionally in late afternoon reveals nearly every evening about 5:30 they arrive and perch in adjacent hackberry trees for several minutes, often "talking" quietly before descending to feed.
On a recent afternoon the male was first to arrive, and after a momentary look slowly made his way down into the hollow to feed the young. He had slipped out of view only briefly when the female alighted. She seemed more cautious, and prior to joining her mate she warily scanned the surroundings for several minutes before entering.
The male was first to emerge, his bill stained with remains of the meal he had just shared with the nestlings. Parrots feed their babies by regurgitation, pumping a rich milky mixture of partially digested food into the youngsters wide open beaks. Soon, he was joined by his mate, who climbed right on past him. Securing a steady grip on the edge of the cavity, she looked around for just a moment, and then they both flew off.
Almost immediately, a flash of green swooped in, and on a nearby palm not more than 10 feet from the parrot nest a green parakeet has landed. The bird effortlessly clung to the side of the palm and then squeezed thru a small opening into the hollow. Soon another flash of green materialized, and the mate quickly wriggled thru the same tiny round hole. After a couple of minutes, they both appeared at the entrance. One at a time they managed to slip out and screeched loudly as they departed.
These foot long all green parakeets range from the Rio Grande Valley south thru Mexico and Central America. They are the most common member of the family psittacidae, (which includes parrots and parakeets), in the Valley, and flocks of several dozen can be seen from Brownsville to McAllen.
Young parakeets and parrots are altricial meaning they hatch with few or no feathers except for a fine down, and they are dependent on their parents for food and protection for months. Generally, the larger the parrot the longer they take to fledge. Some species of parakeets fledge in only a month while larger species such as Black Cockatoos and Macaws can take 100 days to fledge and four years to reach sexual maturity.
The neighborhood green parakeets will likely fledge long before the large yellow-headed parrots. The parrot nestlings will require at least two months in the dark palm hollow before emerging to take their first flight. After leaving the nest, the young will still receive several more weeks of care and feeding, and will continue to fly and learn from their parents until the next clutch arrives.
Parrots have been captured for thousands of years to be kept as pets, and of the 330 surviving species nearly half are now endangered due to habitat loss and the pet trade. The yellow-headed parrot was once abundant in Mexico and Central America, but their numbers have been decimated, and less than 10 percent remain in their native lands.
As yellow-headed parrots become increasingly difficult to find south of the border, they cling to one of their last footholds here in the Rio Grande Valley. No one knows exactly how many make their home in southernmost Texas, but there are scattered flocks from Brownsville to McAllen. Tropical parrots and parakeets have adapted well to the Valley. Where old palm trees are left to stand, they are able to find cavities to nest and raise young.
While some may prefer their parrots in cages, these gregarious birds were created to be wild and fly and flock together. They are a joy to behold soaring free, and the raucous and colorful birds certainly add a tropical flair to life along the Rio Grande.
Copyright 2007 Richard Moore