Polly Wanna Shel­ter

How 230 en­dan­gered par­rots sur­vived Hur­ri­cane Irma in Puerto Rico

Newsweek International - - NEWSWEEK - BY MEGHAN BAR­TELS @meghan­bar­tels

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.

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