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The Rebounding Echo
(submitted by Tom Marshall)

Until 1662 the tiny island of Mauritius, lying in the vastness of the Indian Ocean about 450 miles east of Madagascar was the home of the worldıs most famous dead bird, the Dodo. The Dodo, which has become for many the symbol for extinction, is gone forever, but Mauritius is still home to the desperately rare Echo Parakeet (Psittacula echo).Portuguese sailors first reached the island of Mauritius in 1507, during the era when Portuguese sailors were going everywhere. To the north the island of Reunion and Rodriguez to the south of Mauritius complete the archipelago known as the Mascarenes, named for the Portuguese navigator, Pedro Mascarenhas, who in 1512, dropped anchor to leave his name and apparently little else. With the arrival of other Europeans the Mascarene Islands have lost at least fourteen bird species within the past three centuries --- as many as the combined losses throughout the Asian, African and North American mainland's in the same span of time.

Of the fourteen species of birds lost from the Mascarenes, a total of seven parrot species are known to have once inhabited the three islands, but only the Echo Parakeet of Mauritius has survived to the present day. Psittacula fanciers would be particularly interested to know of the Reunion Island Ringneck (Psittacula eques), a close ally of the Echo Parakeet, which permanently dropped out of sight around the year 1734. Also of interest is Newtonıs Parakeet (Psittacula excul) formerly on the island of Rodriguez, which presumably existed in a green morph form and a blue morph form until it disappeared in 1875. Deep-water volcanic archipelagos, such as the Mascarenes tend to offer the right physical spacing for archipelago speciation. Though clustered, they stand separate, providing a balance between isolation and colonization that allows populations to segregate and diverge. The Echo Parakeet emerged as a distinct member of the Psittacula genus. Joseph Forshaw, the eminent ornithologist and a leading authority on parrots, stated in the third edition of PARROTS OF THE WORLD that, "tragically, the Echo Parakeet a.k.a. the Mauritius Parakeet, is the most endangered of all parrots, and imminent extinction seems inevitable. Efforts to save the species through captive breeding have been unsuccessful, and in 1984 the total population was estimated to be less than ten, and probably no more than five birds".

Since that book was written, however, progress has been made on Mauritius on behalf of its endemic parrot and 1996 was a banner year for breeding this chunky cousin of the Indian Ringneck Parakeet. (P. krameri ). The overall total for 1996 was 24 surviving chicks, bringing the total wild/captive population to an estimated 85 to 90 birds. Conservationist with an avicultural bent on Mauritius are supporting the practice of captive and wild populations that are managed as one, with regular flow of partly wild and partly captive Echo parakeets helping to support the genetic integrity of the world population. In addition, fostering a tried and true avicultural technique has also been employed by utilizing captive Ringnecks as egg incubators and/or surrogate parents.

This Herculean effort by the World Parrot Trust, the Mauritian Government and the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust Society under the guidance of Carl Jones an unabashed interventionist when it comes to protecting the wildlife of Mauritius, has managed to halt the Echoıs decline with successes in captive breeding. It is difficult to describe the difference between the Echo Parakeet and its close relative, the Ringneck Parakeet . The Echo has been isolated on its island home for a sufficient period of time, which has allowed it to evolve its distinct form and feathering; its unique social interaction and breeding behaviors and the particular manner in which it relates to its environment.

The Mauritius bird, according to Rosemary Low in her landmark book, ENDANGERED PARROTS, is much larger in body size --- about 25% larger and heavier. The plumage also differs significantly. On the Echo the shade of green throughout is much darker than the apple green of the Ringneck. Male Echos have pronounced blue margins to the feathers of the crown, extending to the nape and to a lesser degree to the mantle. In addition, the male sports a definite yellow line beneath the black throat. The bill coloration differs, in that females have the beak entirely black. In males the upper mandible is red like that of the Ringneck. Whereas, the Echo is a bigger bird, its tail is not as long as that of the better proportioned Ringneck. Another characteristic which sets the Echo apart from the Ringneck is its louder voice, which differs in pitch, cadence and stridence. It is also less vocal than the Ringneck. The Echoıs habitat is different as well. It stays solely in the forest and upland scrub, rather than open country frequented by Ringnecks. Therefore, the two allied species, one native, the other introduced, do not seem to be in direct competition with each other. Refreshingly, the Echo Parakeet, unlike the flighty Ringneck, shows little fear of man and can be approached to within 10-16 feet before it takes flight.

 

Veterinarian Andrew Greenwood reports in the World Parrot Trustıs publication PsittaScene, that the genetic representation in the overall Echo population on Mauritius seems quite good and that disease problems have been very slight. Their monitoring suggests that psittacine beak and feather disease is absent but ployomavirus and psittacine herpes virus are endemic in the wild population and in the captive Ringnecks, but with no indication as yet that either virus is causing overt disease. Treatment of substrates (nest material) with 5% carbaryl dust has been totally effective in preventing nestling deaths by the blood-feeding larvae of the tropical nest fly and in preventing fungal infections. With infestations and infections appreciably down, the researchers are concentrating on pest control by monitoring nest sites and trapping crab-eating macaques(monkeys) and the ubiquitous black ship rat. Supplemental feeding areas and artificial nest boxes that have been provided for the Echos will hopefully be experiencing better use with the release of habituated birds from the 1996 progeny. Frankly, many would label this conservation project as a long shot. Scores of birds and mammals have recently become extinct, particularly on oceanic islands (like Mauritius), during the last 100 years. Small populations of island forms (like Echos) are particularly vulnerable. We know that ecological isolation correlates strongly with the risk of extinction. We know that predation and competition can often extinguish a population, especially if the predator or the competitor is an exotic (like the monkeys and rats). We know that habitat destruction (which is a factor on Mauritius) is the paramount cause in the annihilation of species. Finally, we understand that mathematically speaking, a small population simply runs a greater risk of falling victim to bad luck. Small populations on a small island run an unusually high risk of natural catastrophes which occur in their natural habitat. The risk of natural catastrophe on Mauritius prompts me to suggest to Carl Jones and associates that they move some of the Echo pairs and young off the island. Moving some of the Echos outside of Mauritius in separate breeding programs as a safeguard against environmental fluctuations such as hurricanes, would in effect ³spread the risk², a concept verified by the economic success of insurance companies and wise investors the world over.

I am sure that scientists who know of even more potential for bad luck ( from environmental fluctuations to disease outbreaks, from continued loss of habitat to inbreeding ) that could befall the Echo Parakeets might certainly despair of the entire effort. Avicultural practices, exemplified by and associated with captive breeding, however, have seemingly offered hope for the Echo Parakeets, and hope is far more exciting than despair. Individual aviculturists, bird clubs and avian organizations have an opportunity to get involved in what just might be the worldıs most successful parrot conservation project.

 The World Parrot Trust (WPT) has been given the opportunity to offer 5 adult wild pairs for adoption. Each pair is already named, and all are closely monitored throughout the breeding season. The cost of each adoption will be $1500. You will receive a special certificate and WPT will undertake to keep you informed about the progress of your birds. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are helping this magnificent conservation achievement by Carl Jones and his dedicated team of conservationist and aviculturists in Mauritius. If interested, please contact:

World Parrot Trust, USA
c/o Cynthia Webb
P.O. Box 341141
Memphis, TN 381844.

References

Budiansky, Stephen. Natureıs Keepers: The New Science of Nature Management.
New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Forshaw, Joseph. Parrots of the World (3rd ed) New South Wales:
Lansdowne Editions, 1989.

Greenwood, Andrew. ³Echo Parakeet Season 1996---Progress². WPT
PsittaScene, 1997 IX (no. 1), 10.

Hume, Julian. "The Parrots of the Mascarenes". WPT PsittaScene, 1996
VIII (no.1), 10-11.

Low, Rosemary. Endangered Parrots. London: Blanford, 1994.

Quammen, David. The Song of the Dodo. New York: Scribner, 1996.

 

The author, Tom Marshall, is a past President of the American

Federation of Aviculture (1987-89)