Species Profile: Austral parakeet
(photo by Jonny Miller)
By Tyler Freitas (College of the Atlantic ’15)
The Austral parakeet (Enicognathus ferrugineus) is within the Pstittacidae or true parrot family. All parrots have a few distinguishable features including a distinct curved beak, with the upper mandible having limited mobility within its attachment to the skull. They are also characterized by their erect stance and their 4 digits on each foot. Within the Pstittacidae family, the subfamily Arinae denotes the conures or large parakeets and small parrots of the western hemisphere. These are lightly built parrots with long tails and small but strong beaks. All of the extant species of Arinae are found in Central and South America. North America’s only member, the Carolina Parakeet, went extinct in the early 20th century. While the term conures is fairly antiquated, it is still sometimes used to denote 9 genre, two of which, Aratinga and Pyrrhura being the dominant genre with the remaining seven containing only one or two species each. Enicognathus is a genus endemic to Patagonia and southern Chile. It contains two species; Enicognathus leptorhynchus, the slender-billed parakeet and Enicognathus ferrugineus, the Austral Parakeet.
The Austral parakeet was first described by Fr. Juan Ignacio Molina, a Chilean Jesuit priest, naturalist, historian, botanist, ornithologist and geographer. However, his descriptions of E. ferrugineus were so inaccurate that they have been discarded and the species given its present name. The Austral parakeet is a fairly large parakeet, growing to around 13 or 14 inches. They are characterized by their brilliant olive green plumage which has a rather scaly look due to the edges of their feathers being a few shades darker. They also have distinct red tails, foreheads, lores and a red patch on their stomach. Their lifespan can reach up to 30+ years. Within Enicognathus ferrugineus there are two sub-species, E.f. ferrugineus which is more southern, found in Tierra del Fuego and the Beagle islands and E.f. minor whose range spans from the straits of Magellan to Bio Bio.
Both subspecies of Austral parakeet are typically found in Notofagus and Araucaria forests and forest edges. They can also be found feeding in agriculture fields. While in the southern part of its range the species is found near sea level, in the northern part of its range it can be found up to 2000 m above sea level. At our base camp at West Winds campground in the park, we’ve seen these parakeets several times flying among the N. pumilio trees.
These gregarious and curious birds fly in small flocks of two to twenty birds, though they have been known to form flocks of up to a hundred individuals. They generally fly fast and low with fairly rapid wing beats. While we have heard them be quite loud and vocal while flying in their small flocks while in their nests or perched in tree tops they are typically silent.
While we still have not seen an Austral Parakeet nest, they are known to nest in tree cavities, primarily in old growth N. pumilio and A. araucaria mixed forests. Studies have shown that the Austral parakeet usually favors N. pumilio trees as they have a higher cavity density (4-7) rather than A. araucaria which has fewer (1-2). These cavity nests are usually old Magellanic woodpecker (Campephilus magellanicus) nests, though some are in natural cavities.
While not currently threatened, the Austral parakeet’s habitat preference could pose a future threat to the species if fragmentation and loss of old-growth forests continue. E. ferrugineus nests in December, the females laying clutches of 4-8 small, opaque and white eggs. These eggs are incubated for 21-27 days. The young will stay in the nest for 6-8 weeks before leaving. At about two years they reach maturity and may begin breeding.
The Austral parakeets are primarily seed eaters, notably of the southern beeches, N. pumilio and N. antartica, as well as the seeds of grasses. In some areas of Patagonia they are considered pests by famers as they cause damage to crops. However, their diet is broader and includes nuts, berries and leaf buds. Recently it has also been discovered that they eat insects, specifically, the larvae of Aditrochus fagicolus, a wasp, found in the N. pumilio trees. Their favorite food however, appears to be the seeds and leaf buds of A. araucaria.
The Austral parakeet is one of the most beautiful and colorful birds we have seen in the future Patagonia National Park. Its vibrantly green and red plumage make this parakeet quite distinct. The only other bird species in Patagonia which it would be possible to confuse the austral parakeet with is the E. leptorhynchus, or the slender-billed parakeet. However, the two can be easily distinguished by the larger size of the slender-billed parakeet; its less distinct red plumage and its characteristic elongated and overhanging upper bill. This later feature is by far the most obvious characteristic distinguishing these parakeets. While the austral parakeet is the most common parakeet in Chile, it is none-the-less an extraordinarily beautiful and charismatic bird which is a treat to see while in the park.