One word describes this endangered parrot: spectacular! Nearly half a metre (a foot-and-a-half) tall, an Imperial Amazon is an explosion of colour. Its head, nape and back are maroon-purple, as are its breast feathers, which have dark tips that give them a scale-like appearance. Its thighs, wings, and undertail (vent) and uppertail areas are green. The wings sport black primary feathers, a dark maroon speculum (wing patch), and red on the leading edge. The green-tipped tail is also reddish.
To our eye, males and females are identical, but young birds have a green neck and nape. Youngsters also have green cheeks; in adults these are reddish-brown.
Tragically, the Imperial Amazon's beauty is one reason for its rarity, for these birds became popular in the pet trade. They were trapped, and they were also shot for food, especially in the rainy season when they were fatter.
Imperial Amazons are extremely sensitive to habitat change. They live in high-altitude mountain forests (elevation: 600 to 1300 m; 1,968 to 4,264 ft.), only descending to lower elevations to forage during food shortages. Much of their habitat has been logged or converted to banana plantations. Some has been destroyed by hurricanes, especially Hurricane David in 1979.
Imperial Amazons are found only in Dominica in the Lesser Antilles, where they are known as the Sisserou. They are endemic, which means they were never found anywhere else in the world.
By 1990, as few as 80 birds were left, but by 2004, protection and the establishment of parks had helped their population rise to an estimated two to three hundred.
Most live on Dominica's tallest mountain, Morne Diablotin, but a small population has become re-established on Morne Trois Pitons. These national parks also protect habitat for Red-necked Amazons (Amazona arausiaca), another Dominican endemic.
Relatively little is known about Imperial Amazons because they live in the canopy of mature rainforests and nest in tree cavities that are largely hidden by vines and other plants. Two eggs are laid, but usually only one young survives. Mating occurs early in the year during the dry season, because this is when their food—a variety of nuts, fruit, blossoms and shoots—is most plentiful. Because they sometimes breed only every second year, Imperial Amazon populations grow very slowly.
Imperial Amazons are beautiful birds, but singers they are not. Their sounds include piercing whistles, harsh shrieks, and flight calls that have been described as a cross between a yodel and a trumpet blast!