Polly Wanna Shelter
How 230 endangered parrots survived Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico
Barreling toward Puerto Rico, people across the island launched into storm preparations. Edwin Muñiz and Tom White were among them, but they had a somewhat different plan from most for dealing with the storm, seeing as they had to take care of themselves and ensure the safety of a bunch of brightgreen individuals covered in feathers. That’s because their jobs involve protecting 230 endangered Puerto Rican parrots.
The species, which has been protected under the Endangered Species Act for five decades, is the only parrot found on U.S. soil. And on its home island, the parrot is considered “an icon,” according to Muñiz, a field supervisor at the Caribbean Ecological Services Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Natives nicknamed the foot-tall, redforeheaded birds iguaca because of their charismatic chattiness.
By the late 1960s, however, the parrot was in trouble, mostly because of habitat loss due to agriculture and road-building, so the FWS began tending to the birds, which now make up three wild populations and two captive populations— including the parrots Muñiz and White needed to get through Hurricane Irma’s wrath at the aviary in El Yunque National Forest, in the northeast corner of the island.
Captive populations are a powerful conservation tool because they produce birds that can be released into the wild, and their breeding success rates are higher than those of wild populations.
Tending to the captive populations isn’t the only way the FWS is helping the Puerto Rican parrot. The birds don’t build nests; instead, they lay their eggs in the hollow cavities of trees. In order to encourage reproduction, conservationists mount artificial cavities in forests to give the parrots more property listings. They also take in wild chicks that are sick or orphaned and raise them.
Hurricanes have always been a threat to Puerto Rico, and the parrots are in no way immune to them. In fact, Hurricane Hugo in 1989 killed nearly half the wild population—25 of what was then just 47 birds. There isn’t much scientists can do to protect the wild parrots, but it’s a different story for the captive populations.
Not every hurricane merits a parrot-sheltering response, Muñiz says, since the process can stress the birds. His team keeps an eye on National Hurricane Center forecasts and then decides what risk each storm poses. If it looks like a storm will be a real threat, they’re ready to respond. “We always prepare. We have several protocols that we have to put in place,” Muñiz says. There’s a similar procedure at an aviary, run by Puerto
Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, which is home to 175 more of the birds.
For Hurricane Irma, it was clear the parrots would need to be protected. That meant netting all 230 of them from their normal cages and transporting them to the shelter, a process that takes at least a few hours and sometimes half a day. “Our staff has been trained—they’ve done this many times,” Muñiz says.
Then they’re brought into the so-called hurricane room, a concrete space large enough to hold all the parrots in suspended cages, and the building’s hurricane shutters are lowered.
The entire aviary, which was constructed in 2007, was built to withstand hurricane-force winds and is equipped with a backup diesel generator. But the parrots can’t stay there by themselves—even when the weather is calm, there’s always someone at the aviary to keep an eye on the birds and watch for injuries. So White, an FWS parrot biologist who has worked on the island for 18 years, and his wife, who also works for the FWS, moved into the aviary with them.
The parrots didn’t make very courteous roommates to the biologists bunked down next door. “You do not need an alarm clock when 230 parrots start squawking as soon as the sun comes up,” says White. “You will wake up. There’s no sleeping in under those circumstances.”
Morning parrot duties include changing their food and water bowls and hosing off the floor of the hurricane room to clear away bird droppings. It’s also important to keep an eye on the birds throughout the day. “Sometimes, when they’re in a confined space, some of them get stressed out. Some of them may start fighting,” says White, adding that since the birds can sense barometric pressure, “I’m sure that the parrots knew instinctively that there was a storm coming.”
The scientists arrived at the aviary on a Wednesday morning; Irma hit in the late afternoon and evening. Their colleagues couldn’t physically reach them until midday Monday because of downed trees blocking the roads. But the pair were in touch with their colleagues throughout the storm, and it was clear that the scientists and the birds did fine.
It will take a while to determine how the wild population fared in El Yunque National Forest, outside the aviary but in the same neighborhood. (A larger wild population in Río Abajo, on the west side of the island, is also being monitored after Irma.) Surveys before the storm hit found about 50 birds in the area, which is fairly mountainous, so it was well protected from the winds and received little damage. While the parrots there were initially scattered by the storm, White says, “now, those birds have started to regroup and all come back together, so we’re optimistic that the wild population will pull through this quite well.” And someday soon, the Irma-pampered parrots will be released to join them and make it through dangers on their own.
The parrots didn’t make very courteous roommates to the biologists bunked down next door.
STORMY FEATHERS Hurricanes have always been a threat to Puerto Rico’s parrots. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 killed nearly half the wild population on the island.