Puerto Rican parrot

Iguaca – the endangered Puerto Rican parrot

Puerto Rican parrot | Credit: Matt Winter

​Just months after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, the world’s few remaining Puerto Rican parrots delivered some good news to the scientists and conservationists determined to save the endangered species from extinction.

During the early months of 2018, the small population of captive parrots produced 70 chicks, all hatched in specially designed artificial nesting cavities at two aviaries in El Yunque National Forest and the Rio Abajo State Forest.​​​

​“We’ve had an excellent year in productivity, as good a year as we’ve ever had,” said Dr. Tom White, a parrot biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We are extremely, extremely lucky that the captive productivity did not diminish after the storm.”

Hurricane Maria took a heavy toll on these populations -- there were nearly 600 captive and released birds before the storm struck. Afterward, only about 470 remained.

“But, thanks in part to this very good nesting season, we have the critical biological resources with which to re-establish the captive release program,” White said. “We just need to give the forest time to recover from the storm.”

Puerto Rico’s parrot

Standing in one of the flight pens at the Iguaca Aviary in El Yunque National Forest offers a tantalizing peek into Puerto Rico’s ecological past – and possible future. The bright green, boisterous birds generate an amazing amount of sound; it’s not hard to imagine the mountain forests of the past echoing with squawks and calls from massive flocks of parrots. Scientists estimate Puerto Rico once held at least 100,000 of the birds, possibly many more.

Those forests of the past must have dazzled observers with enormous flocks of parrots shifting in the canopy, each bird flashing brilliant blue flight feathers as it moved through the treetops.

Such a sight has not been seen on the island in many generations. Throughout the past two centuries, as Puerto Rico’s natural landscapes gave way to agricultural use, development and industry, the parrots gradually vanished. Survivors clustered in small pockets of diminishing habitat. By the 1970s, the population had dwindled to an all-time low of 13 birds.

The bird was listed as endangered in 1967, under the precursor of the Endangered Species Act, and efforts were launched to bring the species back. A captive breeding program and careful release of some parrots into the wild rebuilt the total wild population to nearly 200 birds by the middle of 2017.

Then, in the fall of 2017, Puerto Rico suffered a one-two punch from hurricanes. Hurricane Irma struck a glancing blow on Sept. 7, then Maria delivered a direct hit on Sept. 19, wreaking havoc on the island’s communities, industries, natural habitats and wildlife.

Weathering the storm

White and Arelis Jhonson Camacho, his wife and a fellow parrot expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, rode out Hurricane Maria’s fury at the El Yunque aviary. As the storm bore down, they and their co-workers relocated all of the captive birds inside the aviary’s storm bunker. Once the birds were secured, White and Camacho then remained at the aviary to care for the birds once the storm passed.

“We did not lose any captive birds during the storm – the storm bunker did its job,” White said. “The birds were eerily silent throughout the storm. They just perched in their cages and huddled close.”

After the storm passed, White surveyed the damage to the aviary and the forest. Just days before, the aviary had been surrounded by a wall of shady green canopy. After the storm, White could see through the shredded forest and topped trees, all the way to the sea.

White and Camacho spent the week following the hurricane alone at the aviary, tending to the stressed birds, before any of their colleagues could make it in to provide reinforcements. It took 18 days for the team to reach the more remote parrot release site in the nearby forest. It was devastated, with little sign of the more than 50 parrots that had been released into the forest. Only two of those birds are known to have survived – and that pair showed up at the aviary and has been sustained with daily feedings since their arrival.

As White and his colleagues began to repair the cages, fences, buildings and other infrastructure at the aviary, they had to contend with tough conditions for the birds. Constant sunlight now baked the flight pens, overheating the already stressed birds. Food for the parrots began to run low.

In the harsh aftermath of the storm, eight captive birds died at the El Yunque aviary.

In October 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation teamed up to deliver emergency supplies to the aviary, including generators and desperately needed food for the parrots.

“Had we not received those additional resources, we probably would have lost more birds than we did,” White said.

The birds housed at the José L. Vivaldi Memorial Aviary in Rio Abajo State Forest fared much better, being relatively sheltered from the worst of Maria’s winds. That aviary had released 140 parrots into the wild before the storm; scientists have found close to 100 of those parrots alive in the wild since Maria struck.

Next steps for the parrot

By the summer of 2018, much of the storm damage to the aviaries’ infrastructure had been repaired, with some work still needed on smashed cages and downed fences. Aviary workers continued to provide top-notch care for captive birds, and were focusing on bringing this year’s relatively large generation of chicks into adulthood. An estimated 540 Puerto Rican parrots remained as of August 2018: 463 captive birds in two aviaries (including the new chicks) and 77 parrots that had been previously released into the island’s mountainous rainforests.

White and his colleagues also continued to closely manage and support released parrots living in the wild, especially the larger group of storm survivors in Rio Abajo.

Their biggest concern, White said, remains the health of the forest.

“Puerto Rican parrots use the whole canopy, from 12 feet off the ground to the highest branches. Everything is greening up right now, especially with the amount of sunlight now getting through, so it looks like the forest is recovering. But the entire canopy structure has changed. The vertical profile of the forest, the multilayered canopies, will take years to recover.”

In the meantime, maintaining and possibly expanding the parrot aviary system can help make sure a future storm doesn’t wipe the whole population out. Eventually, the forests will recover to the point where more parrots born and raised in captivity can be released into the wild.

White hopes that some parrots could be released as early as January of 2019 at the Rio Abajo site. The more heavily damaged El Yunque forest will most likely need at least another year before it would be suitable for release of captive-born parrots.

“If recovery efforts can rebound from the hurricane and expand, then those parrot populations eventually will spread out and connect, establishing a self-sustaining population and returning the iconic species to landscapes across the island,” White said. “All the ingredients are there to bring this species back.”

One key ingredient, White noted, is public support.

“Though some cases of endangered species can generate controversy, the people of Puerto Rico are really pulling for these birds. They see it as their parrot, and they identify with its plight, especially now in the wake of the hurricane. I would say 99.9 percent, if not 100 percent, of the people want to see the parrot come back.

“It really is a symbol of hope and recovery. It’s a source of pride.”

Contact: Matt Winter 202-857-0166