Thick-billed parrot

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This page is about the species of parrot. For the genus of parrots, see Rhynchopsitta.
Thick-billed parrot
Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha -Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, Arizona, USA-8a.jpg
At Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, Arizona, United States
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Psittaciformes
Superfamily: Psittacoidea
Family: Psittacidae
Subfamily: Arinae
Tribe: Arini
Genus: Rhynchopsitta
Bonaparte, 1854
Species: R. pachyrhyncha
Binomial name
Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha
Swainson, 1827

Macrocercus pachyrhynchus
Sittace pachyrhynchus
Rhynchopsittacus pachyrhynchus

The thick-billed parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha) (sometimes erroneously referred to as thick-billed macaw) is an endangered medium-size bright green Neotropical parrot with a large black bill and red forecrown, shoulder and thighs native to the mountains of northwestern Mexico. They are also called "snow parrots" because they are often found only at high altitudes (i.e. above the snow line). In Mexico, they are locally called guacamaya ("macaw") or cotorra serrana ("mountain parrot"). Historically, its range has been known to extended into the southwestern United States; it was one of only two parrots native to the U.S. This bird is now on the endangered species list.

The bird was possibly seen by Spanish Friar Marcos de Niza in his exploration of Arizona and New Mexico in 1538-39. In his report Relacion de la Jornado de Cibola, he saw "flocks of raucous parrots" near what is today Flagstaff/Sedona in central Arizona.


Pachyrhyncha is currently classified as a species of the genus Rhynchopsitta of macaw-like thick-billed parrots of which there are two extant species (the other being the maroon-fronted parrot), and one extinct species. However, recent molecular DNA studies indicate that pachyrhyncha and its sister species terrisi in genus Rhynchopsitta are conspecific subspecies.[2] [Note 1] Rhynchopsitta is one of numerous genera of New World long-tailed parrots in tribe Arini, which also includes the Central and South American macaws. Tribe Arini together with the amazonian parrots and a few miscellaneous genera make up subfamily Arinae of Neotropical parrots in the family Psittacidae of the true parrots.

The bird was first described by English naturalist and illustrator William John Swainson who designated it Macrocercus pachyrhynchus in Philosophical Magazine, new ser., 1, no. 6, p. 439 (1827). Swainson evidently thought that because of its size and heavy beak, that it was a macaw (at that time, any parrot of the genus Sittace, or Macrocercus). It was later placed in its own genus Rhynchopsitta by French naturalist Prince Charles Bonaparte in 1854. The name is derived from Ancient Greek rhynchos ("beak") and psittakos ("parrot") and Greek pachy- ("thick") and rhynchos ("beak"), hence a "thick-beaked parrot".

Morphologically, Brazilian ornithologist Helmut Sick calls this bird "a highly modified macaw".[3] In a recent molecular study, genus Rhynchopsitta was placed in a large clade including all of tribe Arini and a few other genera; its closest relatives were similar in size to the parakeets in Enicognathus, Pyrrhura, Pionites, and Deroptyus genera of the clade. In a separate molecular analysis in the same study, Rhynchopsitta was placed in a clade in which it was sister to Pyrrhura but not other genera.[4]


The thick-billed parrot is a medium-sized, bright green parrot with a large black bill and red forecrown, shoulder and thighs. Adult eyes are amber, while juveniles have brown eyes. The rest of the bird is bright green. Thick-billed parrots show red shoulders and leading edge on the underwing, followed by a blackish green stripe, then a yellow stripe, followed by the remaining underwing showing dark green. It appears to show a blackish tail.[5] It is 38 cm (15 in) long and weighs 315-370 g. They live up to 33 years in captivity.[6] It is similar to the military macaw Ara militaris which is larger with a proportionally longer tail and blue flight feathers and rump, and the lilac-crowned amazon Amazona finschi[7] (note that these are not the phylogenetically closest relatives - see Taxonomy).

The bird sounds like a high pitched macaw and makes a variety of harsh, rolling calls described as like human laughter. They are nervous and difficult to breed in captivity, with very low production rates internationally. They are fair mimics when captive, and can learn a few phrases and words, as well as being quite hand tame. However, because of their piercing calls, fair mimic ability, and duller coloration, they have never been popular pet trade birds and currently there is little demand for them as illegally wild caught or captive bred.[8]

The birds have a yellow and black underside to their wings. They flick their wings during courtship and also when excited or alarmed. These flicks show off the bright colors as a communication tool between parrots.

Like other parrots, they manipulated their food by holding it with one foot, as though a hand. Highly social, they may feed each other food stored in their crop (a pouch in the throat), and spend their free time preening each other. Groups of over 1,000 birds in one place are known from historical records.

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The thick-billed parrot lives in temperate conifer, pine, mature pine-oak and fir forests from 1200 to 3600 meters. For the most part, it is restricted to the Sierra Madre Occidental in Chihuahua and Durango, Mexico.

Its former range included the United States including Arizona and New Mexico. Early accounts also place them in far west Texas (Audubon, El Paso, 1827), and possibly as far north as Utah.[9] Accounts in both Arizona and New Mexico indicate birds visiting regularly, as well as over-wintering in Arizona.[10] However, these accounts co-occurred with heavy shooting, logging, and development that extirpated the thick-billed parrot from its US range.[11] The disruption of Native American ways of life greatly decreased the northern modern range of some bird species (i.e., the boreal owl)[12] that utilized Native American irrigation and farm land, and it is possible that the thick-billed parrot also suffered from this effect of European colonization.

The last reliable reports of the birds in the southwestern United States were in 1935 and 1938 in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona (Monson and Phillips 1981 in Snyder et al. 1999).[13]

In parts of its existing range, quaking aspens dead or alive are the dominant tree selected for nesting.[14]

Behavior and diet[edit]

Juvenile (pale bill) and adult (dark bill) at Twycross Zoo, England

The thick-billed parrot likes to nest in tree cavities, especially old woodpecker holes. It mainly feeds on seeds from various pine species. Mexican white pine appears to be a preferred species but the seeds of Douglas fir, Apache pine, Chihuahua pine, and yellow pine are also taken. Their entire lives revolve around cone consumption. Flocks of these parrots roost by cliffs and they breed at the peak of pine seed production. It is nomadic, following the variations of cone abundance. They also feed to a much lesser extent upon acorns, and pine buds.[15] They are adept fliers, and historical accounts describe the birds sleeping in one mountain range, and crossing vast distances to feed in another mountain range each day. They deal with deep snow by hanging upside-down and climbing on the bare underside of a snow covered branch in order to access cones.

Conservation and threats[edit]

Principal threats are illegal pet trade, habitat loss principally due to logging, climate change (hotter temperatures that raise the snow line and increasing fire threats), and predators especially hawks. The thick-billed parrot is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and is on Appendix I of CITES, trade forbidden except for legitimate conservation, scientific, or educational purposes. It is also listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A 2004 BirdLife International survey suggests that there may be 2,000-2,800 mature individuals and only 100 active nests in the entire population, but notes that this may be an overestimate; the distribution of this species is only 600 km2. In June, 2013, the population was estimated as 2097 with the proviso that the number may be an underestimate. However, it is well-established in captive breeding programs in zoos in the United States and Europe.

For more than 10 years, Pronatura Noreste (a northeastern Mexican environmental NGO) and the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education have been monitoring 700 nests of thick-billed parrots in Chihuahua. Through conservation easements with the ejidos, the organization has created sanctuaries for the protection of the bird's habitat.

Arizona reintroduction[edit]

Adult at Edinburgh Zoo, Scotland

Birds were reintroduced in Arizona in the 1980s, but this effort turned out to be unsuccessful. The re-introduction into the mountains of southeastern Arizona (the Madrean sky islands region), was dramatically impacted by predation. Due to extensive human development, residency, agriculture, etc., high numbers of predator species exist, especially hawks, including the goshawk. The bird loss was especially high to these now well-emplaced predator species. The effort was abandoned in 1993, and the last of the introduced parrots was seen in 1995. The major components of the effort, such as keeping birds in a roughly 2 meter cube cage before release, and artificially implanting feathers onto birds who did not fly on their own, likely impacted the bird's ability to survive. The AZA thick-billed parrot breeding studbook offers a dim review of the project's failures.[16] More modern approaches in captive release do not utilize adult animals that live in cages for long periods before release, as was the case in the 1980s re-introduction project.

Relationship with Native Americans[edit]

Compilation image of an original photograph and recreation based upon that photograph from Kiva #7 at Pottery Mound.

Bones of thick-billed parrots used in religious burials, as well as painted sacred and decorative imagery, have been found in pre-historic Native American towns in the American Southwest. These sites are a large distance north of the current thick-billed parrot Mexican range. Sites include Wupatki Pueblo near Flagstaff, Arizona,[17] and Chaco Canyon somewhat near Los Alamos, New Mexico [18] A thick-billed parrot feather utilized in a medicine man fetish has been found in Colorado,[19] showing either trade in feathers or very northern excursions of this species. Considering there is no evidence of live trade of these birds, but ritual burials of parrots in the Southwest utilized live birds, the presence of thick-billed parrot burials at Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico make the possibility of northern populations or northern excursions by thick-billed parrots plausible.

The most well known of the thick-billed parrot images is from the Pottery Mound site in Southwestern New Mexico. This site has images of the three species most commonly found in religious use in the American Southwest, the scarlet macaw, military macaw, and thick-billed parrot. A map of art, artifact, and bones can be seen on the Bird Recovery International thick-billed parrot interactive map. The lack of a bare facial patch, as is seen in macaw images at the site, is widely considered diagnostic for the identity of painted bird.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2013). "Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ Urantowka AD, .; Strzała T; Grabowski KA (July 2013). "Complete mitochondrial genome of endangered Maroon-fronted Parrot (Rhynchopsitta terrisi) - conspecific relation of the species with Thick-billed Parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha).". Mitochondrial DNA. 
  3. ^ Sick, Helmut (1990). "Notes on the Taxonomy of Brazilian Parrots". Ararajuba (1): 111–112. 
  4. ^ Tavares, et.el., E. (June 2006). "Phylogenetic relationships and historical biogeography of neotropical parrots (Psittaciformes: Psittacidae: Arini) inferred from mitochondrial and nuclear DNA sequences.". Systematic Biology 55 (3): 454–70. doi:10.1080/10635150600697390. PMID 16861209. 
  5. ^ BirdLife Species Factsheet
  6. ^ Brouwer et al. (2000). "Longevity records for Psittaciformes in captivity". Intl Zoo Yearbook, (37): 299–316. 
  7. ^ "Birdlife Internatinal species factsheet". Birdlife International. Retrieved Dec 2013. 
  8. ^ [1]
  9. ^ [2]
  10. ^ [3]
  11. ^ [4]
  12. ^ [5]
  13. ^ Snyder, N. F., E. C. Enkerlin-Hoeflich, and M. A. Cruz-Nieto. (1999). Thick-billed Parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha). In A. Poole (editor), The Birds of North America Online. Ithaca, New York: Cornell Lab of Ornithology,. 
  14. ^ Tiberio, (2006). "The Wilson Journal of Ornithology" 118 (2). pp. 237–243. doi:10.1676/05-039.1. 
  15. ^
  16. ^ [6]
  17. ^ (Hargrave's paper on the topic)
  18. ^ (Rizo thesis)
  19. ^ [7]
  20. ^ Wyckoff thesis discussing identity of parrot imagery
  • Howell, Steven N. G. & Webb, Sophie (1995): A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York. ISBN 0-19-854012-4


  1. ^ Abstract Maroon-fronted Parrot (Rhynchopsitta terrisi) is an endangered parrot endemic to pine-oak forests in north-eastern Mexico. According to all present classifications, R. terrisi as well as Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha are treated as a separate species based on some morphological and behavioral discrepancies. Despite this formal separation of the two species, some taxonomists conjecture their conspecific character. However, mutual taxonomic position of both species/subspecies was never verified by molecular research. We sequenced full mitochondrial genome of R. terrisi and constructed phylogenetic tree using sequences of mitochondrial ND2 gene from R. terrisi. R. pahyrchyncha and some other representative species of the tribe Arini. Our results indicated that in contrast to formal classification, both Rhynchopsitta taxa should be treated as subspecies.

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