Stephen Durand, Assistant Forest Officer
Forestry, Wildlife & Parks Division
The endemic Sisserou Parrot (Amazona imperialis), Dominica's National Bird and the largest of the Amazon parrots, inhabits the interior, montane forest and rainforest in and around the Morne Diablotin and Morne Trois Pitons National Parks. Our other parrot, the Jaco (A. arausiaca), is also endemic but more widespread, occupying mature rainforest and secondary rainforest throughout Dominica. Since Hurricane David in 1979 - one of the most devastating hurricanes recorded in Dominica's history - conservationists locally and internationally feared for the Sisserou's extinction, as the species' population was reduced to less than 100 birds on the foothills of Morne Diablotin. On the other hand, while the Jaco was also severely impacted by "David" (between 80 and 150 birds), its population has since rebounded impressively throughout its former range over the past 29 years, largely due to Dominica's progressive policies for public awareness programs, land conservation, wildlife legislation, and protected areas management.
Over the past 28 years the Sisserou has been the focus of intensive field research by a very dedicated parrot research "team" of Dominica's Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division, collecting very important information about the birds' breeding biology, nest tree use, nest cavity height and orientation, fledgling rates, foraging, vocalization, and post-fledging parent/juvenile behavior. The parrot conservation and research program commenced in 1980 with field monitoring of wild populations and nesting sites, with staff equipped with little more than binoculars, pad, pen and long hours. New technology and methods have evolved over the past two decades, but ecological data collection remains challenging, as the Sisserou is so sparsely distributed, extremely shy and elusive, and exhibits a low reproductive rate. And although the Sisserou continues to exhibit a slow, steady recovery and appears to have attained its pre-hurricane David distribution, climate change, intensive hurricanes, and threats of poaching for the international pet trade, seem frightening and serve as a reminder that the species' future is far from secure.
In 1997, the Government of Dominica partnered with the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, through a signed initiative and agreement with Dr. Paul Reillo, to research and conserve Dominica's endangered parrots. This initiative is broad-based, and has so far produced tremendous results including, most significantly, the declaration of the Morne Diablotin National Park on 21 January 2000, following a 2-year, US $1.086 million fund-raising campaign to facilitate the acquisition of part of the approximately 3,443 hectare park containing primary rainforest and principal habitat and nesting area for the Sisserou and Jaco.
The Sisserou, although well-known for more than 500 years, has often eluded researchers mainly because of Dominica's rough, mountainous terrain and the bird's secretive nesting habits in well-camouflaged cavities high above ground, in remote, old growth rainforest trees. During the past 27 years of monitoring by the Parrot Team, no Sisserou nest was ever observed to produce two fledglings. On 13th March, 2008, in the Syndicate area/Morne Diablotin National Park, monitoring of a live Gommier tree (Dacryodes excelsa) with a cavity revealed an active Sisserou nest. An adult male Sisserou flew to the nest tree, perched on a branch at the front of the cavity, then vocalized. The nesting female came out of the cavity, walked towards the male, positioned herself, begged to be fed, then the male regurgitated and fed her five times. Following the feeding the female reassured the male with short preening to his head and quickly re-entered the cavity, where she had been incubating egg(s) since the first week of March 2008. The Parrot Team, consisting of Matthew Maximea, Roy Paul, Randolph Winston, Bertrand Jno. Baptist and Stephen Durand, continued monitoring the nest site once per week through the incubation, hatching, chick, and rearing periods. As is typical for this parrot species, both the male and female were very attentive to the nest and its tiny occupant(s).
On 26th June 2008, as the Parrot Team conducted one of its scheduled monitoring visits, a historical discovery unfolded. For first time, we observed a Sisserou youngster fledging from (leaving) the nest. When the Team arrived at the nest site at 8:00 a.m., a chick was observed at the cavity's lip. At 8:54 a.m. it moved down inside the cavity but emerged again at 10:40 a.m. At 12:49 p.m. the parents came to the nest tree. Three minutes later the female perched at the cavity lip, and fed the chick for approximately one minute, then went down inside the nest cavity. The adult male was sitting on a branch near the front of the nest cavity. The female came back out some five minutes later and joined the male on the branch. The chick then emerged at the nest cavity lip for the third time for the day at 12:56 p.m. and immediately began to behave in a manner that indicated that it wanted to take flight into a new world.
It did not take long, as only two minutes had elapsed before all eyes were focused on the action, when both adults appeared alert in anticipation of the long-awaited flight. The chick fluttered off from the nest cavity lip, took a very nervous short flight and landed on a top branch of a young Mang Blan tree about 20 meters east of the nest tree. The adult female, vocalizing very loudly, immediately flew towards the fledgling, and continued to vocalize noisily as it remained focused on her "newly fledged". With obvious effort and determination, the fledgling climbed onto the branch where it landed, and the mother ensured that it was secure, then fed and preened it. Success!
The excitement wasn't over. To the Parrot Team's amazement, the father Sisserou returned to the cavity - something Sisserou parrots never do when their one-and-only baby leaves the nest. Just then, we weren't sure, but we thought we heard faint begging calls coming from the nest. Suddenly, the team fell silent and all ears and eyes were glued in the direction of the nest cavity, when, sure enough, we heard it - clear, soft begging calls. A second chick! For the parrot team, the moment turned to smiles and chants of "Yes-that's history!"
Due to the clumsy and uncoordinated behavior of the first fledgling, the Parrot Team visited the nest site the following day to ensure that the young bird was safe. Upon arrival at the nest site, the fledgling was seen sitting on the top of the same tree, one branch above where it had perched during its fledging ordeal. The male was observed perched on the nest tree. At 8:51 a.m. he entered the cavity and came out 5 minutes later, a strong indication that there was indeed a second chick inside the cavity. Five minutes later he came out of the cavity and flew off from the nest tree. Twenty minutes later, the female perched on the nest tree, then moved to the Mang Blan and perched above the fledgling. Panic and worry then struck the Team as the fledgling, in attempting to climb to get to its mother, slipped off the branch and fell to the forest floor. The Team quickly used a long pole and assisted the fledgling in climbing higher into a Bwa Kot tree where the adult female came to ensure that it was safe, then fed it.
For the next three weeks the Team continued its schedule of monitoring of the nest site, documenting the development of the fledging, bi-parental care for the chick in the nest cavity, foraging activities, and phoenological data in terms of fruiting and flowering of rainforest trees.
On 17th July 2008 (twenty-two days later), it was about 2:57 p.m. when the Parrot Team realized that the two adult Sisserous, accompanied by the first fledgling, were flying in and out of the nest site. A search for the second chick was conducted west of the nest tree (particularly where the adults were seen flying during the monitoring period), and revealed that the second chick had recently fledged. The bird was discovered perched low down on a Karapit root about 1m above the ground near the forest edge, and approximately 70m west of the nest tree. As with the first juvenile, the Team helped the second fledgling (which was somewhat smaller than its sibling) secure a safe perch on a Bwa Kot tree where the adult female assured its safety before feeding it.
Of note, that nest tree was used in 2000 by a pair of adult Sisserous which fledged one female Sisserou youngster; the parrot team believes that this is the same pair of breeding birds in 2008. Unfortunately, that fledgling was accidentally expelled from the nest prematurely by a parent but, luckily, was rescued and subsequently taken to the Parrot Conservation and Research Center at the Botanic Gardens. She was successfully reared and weaned by the parrot team, and paired with a lone adult male Sisserou. To date, she is the only Sisserou to have laid eggs in captivity (thus far infertile), and today she and her mate form an integral part of the Sisserou captive-breeding and recovery program.
Field research on the Sisserou parrot over the past 28 years has provided invaluable information about the species' habitat requirements, diet, behavior, distribution, nest-site fidelity and parental care. Prior to 2008, field data suggested that Sisserou pairs fledged only a single youngster, typically every other year. Now we know otherwise!
Despite these exciting revelations, the famous elusive Sisserou largely remains a mystery. With each nesting season, we learn a little bit more about Dominica's National Bird, a renowned ambassador for our rainforest heritage. Herein lies the inspiration for wildlife conservation: ensuring a future for imperiled species and habitats, so that we can all rejoice as nature perpetually reveals her secrets.
For more information, contact:
Former L. Rose Building
Windsor Park Road
Commonwealth of Dominica
Telephone: (767) 266 5856