DOINews: USFWS: Climbing Trees in Belize to Help the Yellow-Headed Parrot

Last edited 09/05/2019

This article appeared in the May/June edition of Refuge Update.

Could nest cavity boxes that help the red-cockaded woodpecker in the United States also help the yellow-headed parrot in the small Central American nation of Belize? Two years ago, Michael Keys had no idea. Now he knows the answer: Yes.

micheal keys
On his own time, Michael Keys, a biologist at Florida's St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, is experimenting with installing nest cavity boxes in pine trees in Belize for the benefit of yellow-headed parrots. More photos are at (© Larkin Keys Photography)

Keys is a wildlife biologist at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. One of his tasks there is to install artificial nest boxes in tree cavities to promote nesting by endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. Thanks in part to the boxes, there are now more than 14,000 red-cockaded woodpeckers in the Southeast. Steve Morrison, a forester with The Nature Conservancy, suggested Keys also try installing nest boxes in Belize, where the yellow-headed parrot has similar habitat and nesting requirements. The parrots, which can be taught to talk, are in decline, largely because of the pet trade.

Keys first took his skills and supplies to southern Belize in 2012, installing 10 nest boxes in pine trees across thousands of acres. The work was rugged.

“Getting to the tree is more work than putting in the box,” he says. He selects tall pines, climbing like a utility worker and using a chainsaw to cut a hole in he tree. With each climb, he battles tropical sun, sawdust and mosquitoes. “You have to be conscientious every time. I've climbed thousands of trees and not injured myself.”

Each box is about two feet tall, nine inches deep and 10 inches wide. For parrots, cavities are nesting habitat only. Red-cockaded woodpeckers live year-round in cavities, explains Keys, so they choose their nests carefully. “No self-respecting RCW will go into a rotten cavity.” Parrots are less picky, taking to the artificial nest boxes quickly. Chicks fledge in May from boxes installed in January.

Keys returned to Belize this year and, building on previous success, selected trees in the more open areas that parrots seem to prefer. Keys' 19-year-old son, Larkin, a photographer, went along.

“We saw parrots actually using the nest box 24 hours after it was installed,” says Larkin. “They adapted instantly. Obviously we were doing the right thing.”

Keys has trained Belizeans to replace and install boxes. The parrots have not been banded or counted, but cameras will be placed in some boxes to watch nesting and predation remotely. Productivity is only about .5 chicks per nest.

Belize is “at a stage with parrots where we were with RCWs 30 years ago,” said Keys, but he believes there is enough success to publish preliminary results. He is seeking research grants to determine if this technique can become standard in recovering more species.

Keys goes to Belize on his own time, funded by conservation organizations and private donations. He returns to St. Marks Refuge with renewed appreciation.

“We have tight budgets, but it's nothing compared to people working on conservation in developing countries,” he says. “Their equipment for a 37,000-acre park was two mountain bikes and a 19-foot boat – and we're worrying about gas for a big truck.”

Hoping to continue his work in Belize, Keys told the Tampa Tribune that the yellow-headed parrot “is a species that could go extinct, and I have this one specialized skill that can help. I'm not a heart surgeon or anything. So this is my contribution to helping the habitat.”

By: Karen Leggett, USFWS

May 21, 2014

Karen Leggett is a writer-editor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications.

Was this page helpful?

Please provide a comment