TUCSON (CN) - The thick-billed parrot, a pine seed-loving, social bird with a call like human laughter, has been on the federal Endangered Species List for 36 years, but the government has never developed a recovery plan for the bird, environmentalists say in Federal Court. It is one of two parrot species indigenous to the United States in historic times. The other, the Carolina parakeet, was hunted to extinction to get feathers for hats.
WildEarth Guardians sued Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to force the government to implement a recovery plan for the last surviving parrot species in the United States.
Scientists estimate that only 2,000 to 2,800 adult thick-billed parrots (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha) remain in the wild, all of them in Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental. "Naturally occurring flocks" of the birds were last seen in Arizona in 1938 at the Chiricahua National Monument east of Tucson, and in 1964 in the Animas Mountains of southwest New Mexico, the complaint states.
The green parrots with red head and shoulders nest in mature trees in old-growth forests and feed on pine seeds, grasping pine cones as humans do corn on the cob, and rotating the cone as they peel off the seeds.
The parrot prefers the highland pine-oak forests of the Southwest's "Sky Islands," where many subtropical species find the northern edge of their range. The parrot once ranged as far north as Central Arizona's pine belt, but disappeared from the United States because of hunting and logging of old-growth forests.
While "flocks of thousands of parrots" were regularly seen in Arizona and New Mexico in the early 1900s, the species is now only a sporadic visitor north of the border, the environmentalists say.
The bird has been listed as endangered since the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973. Under the Act, the government is required to develop and implement a recovery plan for the parrot, but it never has done so, WildEarth Guardians say.
This could be the result of "a long running clerical error," the group says. While the ESA lists the bird as both a foreign and a domestic species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service includes the parrot only on its list of endangered foreign species.
But that agency, working with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and birding groups, tried to reintroduce the parrot to Arizona in the 1980s and '90s, with mixed results. The groups released 88 parrots - most of them bred in zoos and by pet traders - to the Chiricahua Mountains.
"Some released birds established flocks and began to migrate seasonally between the Chiricahua Mountains and the Mogollon Rim in Central Arizona," WildEarth Guardians say. "Others, particularly captive-bred birds, did not migrate" and were preyed on by raptors. The experiment ended in 1993.
WildEarth Guardians seek an injunction requiring the government to develop a recovery plan for the parrot.
They are represented by James Tutchton with the group's Denver office.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.