First, Chris Biro lost his pirate ship and more than 120 exotic parrots in a divorce. Then, he had to send away two of the birds he prized most: thick-billed parrots, members of an endangered species that disappeared from the U.S. Southwest more than 60 years ago.
The faux pirate ship and other parrots were part of an educational act that Biro, a professional bird trainer and parrot enthusiast who lives in Rodeo, N.M., performed for a living in state and county fairs until recently.
His thick-billed parrots were lost to a different legal battle when the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish in September denied him an importation permit to possess and breed the birds in the state. Biro appealed, and State District Judge Raymond Ortiz of Santa Fe has granted a review of the decision.
In the meantime, Biro has sent his two female birds – called Skinny and Feisty – to Florida, which doesn’t require a permit.
“It’s inappropriate for the state to be shutting down the breeding of these birds,” he said. “We don’t have enough of them left to prevent breeding. I didn’t do anything illegal, so there is no reason to stop me from moving forward.”
At the heart of Biro’s fight is the idea that so few of these birds exist, and diversity in the gene pool is so important, that private ownership and breeding should be encouraged – especially in the states where they were once native, New Mexico and Arizona. Biro’s nonprofit organization, Bird Recovery International, has won an endorsement from Rep. Ron Barber of Arizona in its pursuit of a permit to conduct research on the thick-billed parrot in Arizona.
But in a document denying Biro the permit, the Department of Game and Fish stated that Biro did not meet the state’s “qualified expert” standards and did not establish whether he acquired the birds lawfully, rules that are part of a 1978 state law controlling the importation of endangered and exotic animals.
Biro counters that his nearly 25-year-old show, in which he educates the audience about parrots while the birds he trains flit about the stage and he wears a pirate costume, demonstrates his knowledge.
Biro says his birds, which he says were a gift to him in 2011, are not registered. He lacks the documented ownership history required for registration and the state importation permit.
“Many people today are terrified of letting anybody know they have (thick-billed parrots),” Biro said. “If they come forward and try to get permits, then the government is going to come and do what they did to me.”
It’s an issue throughout the United States and the world, said Letitia Mee, a special use permits manager with Game and Fish who reviewed Biro’s application.
“These animals were taken from the wild at some point, and there needs to be a paper trail so we’re not jeopardizing the population,” she said. “It’s important that they were legally obtained.”
Thick-billed parrots, with their lime green wings, black bills and red crown, are large, almost as big as macaws, and long-living. Fewer than 100 exist in zoos or sanctuaries while an unknown number remains in private hands, according to advocates. Many of these are believed to have been alive in the 1980s, when the birds were listed as an endangered species, bringing tightened requirements to prevent their capture and trafficking.
The parrots once colonized the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona and possibly southwestern New Mexico, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, until shooting likely eradicated the population.
“They have this call that sounds like people laughing,” said Eva Sargent, director of Southwest programs for the Tucson-based Defenders of Wildlife. “Imagine standing in southern New Mexico and seeing these flocks of giant green birds flying over that sound like people laughing.”
Fish and Wildlife says fewer than 1,800 thick-billed parrots now exist in northern Mexico, where they inhabit pine forests that are also shrinking due to logging and development. The parrots migrate in the winter to an unknown destination farther south; research efforts have been hampered by Mexico’s violent drug war.
Some advocates say they would like to see the thick-billed parrot reintroduced in the U.S. The Fish and Wildlife Service adopted a plan in 2012 that doesn’t seek to reintroduce the bird in the U.S. but lends modest support to Mexico’s recovery plan.
Sargent criticizes that approach, saying “to just adopt the Mexican plan, that’s not sufficient,” and argues for a plan that would focus on the bird’s recovery in the U.S.
Biro argues that his method of flight training parrots could be used one day to ease thick-billed parrots back into the wild in the Southwest. Previous recovery efforts have so far not registered long-term success in re-establishing the thick-billed parrot in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the thick-billed parrot population in Mexico is so small that a natural disaster such as fire, illegal logging or a slow-moving threat like climate change could threaten its survival, according to Tim Wright, a biologist with New Mexico State University who has done research on the thick-billed parrot in Mexico.
“I think it would be very wise to create a new population farther north,” he said.
Wright added that “there is certainly a role for captive breeding” but noted that birds registered with the Zoological Association of America, which manages breeding, are more likely to contribute to genetic diversity in the species.
Biro says he isn’t giving up. While he fights to return his thick-billed parrots to New Mexico, he says he has bought a new “pirate” ship to get his pirate and parrot show off the ground again.