Despite its name, this rather gothic looking parrot doesn’t drink blood but prefers a diet made up almost entirely of figs! With its dramatic black, grey and red plumage and its vulture-like appearance, it seems that this primitive parrot gets its name more from its colour scheme than anything else. It is one of only three parrot species with a featherless head; an adaptation to keeping its face clean of sticky fruit juices. Although relatively little is known about this species, the IUCN have listed the parrot as vulnerable, with a suspected decreasing population trend.
Evolution and Taxonomy
The Dracula parrot is a part of the Psittaculidae family made up of old-world parrot species, where it sits in a genus of its own. For parrots in general there have been very few biochemical or molecular studies to determine phylogenetic relationships, and the limited fossil record is of poor quality and is pretty controversial, meaning the nearest avian relatives of parrots are not well understood, with most relationships being determined from morphological similarities, which aren’t always the most reliable way. As with many avian species, the ancestors of the psittaculidae family developed on the super continent of Gondwana and diversified from there.
Habitat and Ecology
The Dracula Parrot is endemic to New Guinea, where it is patchily distributed across hills and lower montane areas. It has been extirpated from large parts of its historic range due to heavy deforestation, although it is generally considered to be naturally rare with small populations. Often it is recorded as being a solitary bird, although in areas where the species is more abundant it can be seen in pairs or in a larger group foraging for food. Most records from the wild report the parrots living between 500-1800 metres above sea level, which is unfortunately the area most extensively logged for crop production, most often coffee.
Very little is known about their reproduction, but we do know they have loud grating calls, which they use to keep in contact with each other, and may use in breeding season.
Dracula by name but not nature: a feathery frugivore
The Dracula parrot is a very specialised frugivore, with field studies reporting that they only feed on one type of fruit; figs, and even then only commonly eating two species! Talk about a fussy eater!
This is a case of a very extreme dietary specialisation, which had biologists scratching their heads over how these parrots get other important nutrients when all they eat is fruit? Fruits are a great source of carbohydrates but are very low in protein, an essential part of any animal’s diet. Other frugivorous species often get protein from insects found on fruit and from seeds. However, as the Dracula parrot feeds only on figs, the only insect they are ever likely to eat accidentally is a fig wasp, which is likely to constitute only a miniscule part of their protein intake. In terms of seeds, undigested seeds have been found in the faeces of the Dracula parrot, making this another unlikely source of protein. So instead, researchers found that the Dracula parrot, and other similar frugivorous birds, have specially adapted, extra wide intestines that facilitate higher rates of nutrient absorption, allowing them to glean as much of the available protein from fruits as possible. In fact, the parrots are so well adapted that in captivity, when juvenile Dracula parrots were fed the standard parrot diet they deteriorated very quickly and died. In contrast, when fed an ultra-low protein diet, they thrived.
Figs and feathers: an uncertain future for the Dracula Parrot
Currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN red list, this unique parrot faces threats from both habitat loss and demand for feathers. The only population estimate we have is derived from two studied populations, and so numbers could be even lower than conservationists suspect. The elevation they generally inhabit is the prime location for crop growing, especially for coffee and for vast monocultures of palm oil plantations. However, there is some hope for this species, as generally loggers tend to leave fig trees alone, providing a fairly stable food resource at least. But as always, loss of habitat can force more individuals into a smaller area, driving competition within the species and with others.
But perhaps the biggest threat to the Pesquet’s Parrot is the demand for their vibrant feathers, which are highly prized by indigenous peoples for use in ceremonial headdresses. In other parts of New Guinea, with the development of an airstrip and tourism in the area, the impoverished locals turned to capturing and selling parrots into the pet trade. This involves tracking the birds back to their nesting sites and cutting down the tree the birds are nesting in to get to the nest, not only destroying the nest and capturing the eggs, but also destroying a potential nest site for the future. The parrots require large, standing rotted trees, which are only vastly abundant in vast, healthy tropical forests, a shrinking resource in the face of huge scale deforestation. The limited habitat and dietary requirements of this parrot puts this species particularly at risk for further declines.
Many practical suggestions have made to improve the future for the Dracula Parrot. With the demand for feathers, one plan conservationists have developed is to dye chicken feathers red and trim them to replace the demand for the Dracula Parrot. In fact, this could even develop a cottage industry by teaching the locals to trim feathers, possibly a way to support some economic growth and development in the area. There is also a pressing need to educate tourists who visit the area, as demand for souvenir feathers has sprung up alongside the burgeoning tourist industry. In particular, as it is illegal for feathers to be taken from New Guinea, tourists need to be made aware of the environmental laws of the country and the conservation issues facing the wildlife of New Guinea. The IUCN also suggests that better monitoring needs to be developed to track the usage and trade in feathers, alongside more accurate survey data and ecology research.
Conservation tips, organizations and heroes!
- The WWF has many community led conservation initiatives in New Guinea, with local people pledging huge areas of land to be protected. This took quite some doing, as by law, the WWF had to get every single landowner in New Guinea (around 6000) to sign the pledge. This took several years of going door to door through some pretty difficult terrain at times.
- The New Guinea Bintang Research Centre is a biological research centre and not for profit organisation that support and train local people to study and protect their local biodiversity. They have a specialist ornithology department to try and address the gaps in avian research and conservation.
- Given the damage unsustainable palm oil is causing in our tropical forests, especially in New Guinea, it wouldn’t hurt for us all to be a little more mindful of where we get our products from. Use the WWFs’ Palm Oil Score Card to check out the companies you’re buying from at https://palmoilscorecard.panda.org/#/home
- Rainforest rescue have some helpful tips at https://www.rainforest-rescue.org/topics/palm-oil to help you reduce your palm oil use, petitions to sign and educational resources to help you understand the issue with palm oil and how to tackle it.
Kundu, S. Jones, C.G. Prys-Jones, R.P. and Groombridge, J.J. (2012) ‘The evolution of the Indian Ocean parrots (Psittaciformes): extinction, adaptive radiation and eustacy.’ Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 62(1), pp 296-305
Mack, A.L. and Wright, D. D. (1998) ‘The vulterine parrot, Psittrichas fulgidus, a threatened New Guinea endemic: notes on its biology and conservation.’ Bird Conservation International, 8, pp 185-194
Pryor, G.S. Levey, D.J. Dierenfeld, E.S. Bosque, C. (2001) ‘Protein requirements of a specialised frugivore, Pesquet’s Parrot (Psittrichas fulgidus) The Auk, 118(4), pp 1080-