BROWNSVILLE — When it comes to putting up parrot nesting tubes, a bucket truck is preferable to a ladder.
So says Karl Berg, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley assistant professor of ornithology and ecology, who’s had more than enough experience with the latter. He was grateful, therefore, when Brownsville Public Utilities Board agreed to lend a hand — and a truck and personnel to operate it.
Thursday morning at Lincoln Park off University Boulevard, a BPUB crew installed two nesting tubes for endangered red-crowned parrots at Lincoln Park off University Boulevard, one on a utility pole near the border fence and another on a light pole in a corner of the baseball diamond.
Also on hand were Zachary Edelstein, a Troop 6 Boy Scout whose Eagle Scout Service Project is helping Berg with parrot duties, and Edelstein’s dad, Morris, an assistant scoutmaster for the troop.
Berg, who’s been studying parrots in Venezuela for three decades, erected about 10 of the nesting tubes around the UTRGV campus in 2016. It was late in the nesting season and the red-crowns had already staked out other nests, so they weren’t interested, though the black-bellied whistling ducks and woodpeckers moved right in, he said.
“The parrots seem to be pretty cautious and analytical and thoughtful about these things,” Berg said. “They sort of let others make mistakes for them.”
In 2017, the parrots still didn’t move in, though halfway through the breeding season started defending the tubes. Success came the following year, he said.
“Sure enough, in January or February 2018 they were vigorously defending our tubes, and went on to nest successfully,” he said. “We’ve got nice images and video of that.”
The natural range of the red-crowned parrot is very small — essentially the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, with only 650 or 700 living in the Rio Grande Valley, Berg said.
“They’re in pretty bad shape and have been for a while,” he said. “The total population size we suspect is pretty low, what conservation biologists consider to be a dangerous level.”
Erecting nesting tubes not only gives the birds a safe place to breed in order to increase their numbers, but also gives Berg and his graduate students a chance to study them.
“If we can coerce them to breed inside our PVC pipes, then we can rig audio-video technology inside there, and manipulate the birds, and weigh them and measure them,” he said.
Berg and his graduate students also put up four or five tubes at Valley International Country Club, and a few more on individual properties around town. More were scheduled to go up on Thursday, at the Gladys Porter Zoo and along the hike-and-bike trail near H-E-B on Ruben Torres Boulevard, pending the resolution of technical and logistical issues.
The tubes on campus were all installed with a university bucket truck and the one off campus others with a ladder, which doesn’t go as high. Berg said he’s not positive but thinks the parrots would rather nest higher off the ground.
“We’re not sure,” he said. “The birds will nest pretty close to the ground, but we do think they prefer and are more successful higher up. … The only ones that have been successful so far are the ones that have been put up with the bucket trucks, as far as we know.”
Thursday’s nest hanging would have been “dangerous and not nearly as good,” Berg said.
BPUB spokesman Ryan Greenfeld said the city-owned utility likes to contribute any way it can.
“In this case it kind of matched some of the things that we try to prioritize,” he said. “We try to be a good steward for the community. We try to help out whenever we can. We also try to keep in mind not just the people but the wildlife here.”
Berg’s graduate student Caleb Arellano has done dusk and dawn counts of red crowns once a month at Oliveira Park, where a large number of them congregate, for the last three years. While the Brownsville population appears to have grown over the past 30 years, it appears to be leveling off, he said.
“That’s part of the reason we’re setting up these nest structures,” Arellano said. “Especially in Brownsville, there seem to be a lot of factors that are limiting the number of potential breeding sites and nesting locations. By putting these up we’re hoping to buttress that and supplement that.”
The pet trade and deforestation are two major factors in the species’ overall decline, Berg said, noting that numbers have dwindled to the point that the species is vulnerable to extinction from a catastrophic event such as a disease epidemic or hurricane.
BPUB apprentice line worker Ricardo Alarcon, the guy actually hanging the nesting tubes Thursday, said the work was much easier than what he normally does in the bucket, and that he was happy to help out the parrots.
Zachary Edelstein spotted his first nest tube in his uncle Eddie Hernandez’s backyard during a family barbecue, and his uncle put him in touch with Berg. Edelstein said he was intrigued by the parrot project and asked if he could help. Berg put Edelstein to work making nesting tubes to the 20 Arellano had already made.
“I gathered a whole bunch of my scout friends from Boy Scouts and I put together an Eagle project,” Edelstein said. “First we just kind of collected a whole bunch of old PVC that was donated to us. After that we built all of the nesting boxes with my friends.”
The camouflaged tubes are made from heavy-duty PVC culvert pipe, surplus donated by the Nature Conservancy. They’re closed on each end, with hardware cloth lining the interior so the birds can get around, and feature a small access hole with a perch, Edelstein said, adding that he’s learned a lot about red crowns since going down this road.
“It was really just kind of like a fun, cool project,” he said.