Sci­en­tists tak­ing Puerto Ri­can par­rots un­der their wing

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - PEOPLE & ARTS - By Dan­ica Coto

EL YUNQUE, Puerto Rico — Bi­ol­o­gists are try­ing to save the last of the en­dan­gered Puerto Ri­can par­rots af­ter more than half the pop­u­la­tion of the bright green birds with turquoise-tipped wings dis­ap­peared when Hur­ri­cane Maria hit Puerto Rico and de­stroyed their habi­tat and food sources.

In the trop­i­cal for­est of El Yunque, only two of the 56 wild birds that once lived there sur­vived the Cat­e­gory 4 storm that pum­meled the U.S. ter­ri­tory in Septem­ber 2017. Mean­while, only 4 of 31 wild birds in a for­est in the western town of Mar­i­cao sur­vived, along with 75 out of 134 wild par­rots liv­ing in the Rio Abajo for­est in the cen­tral moun­tains of Puerto Rico, sci­en­tists said.

And while sev­eral dozen new par­rots have been born in cap­tiv­ity and in the wild since Maria, the species is still in dan­ger, ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists.

“We have a lot of work to do,” said Gus­tavo Olivieri, par­rot re­cov­ery pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor for Puerto Rico’s Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources.

Fed­eral and lo­cal sci­en­tists will meet next month to de­bate how best to re­vive a species that num­bered more than 1 mil­lion in the 1800s but dwin­dled to 13 birds dur­ing the 1970s af­ter decades of for­est clear­ing.

The U.S. and Puerto Ri­can gov­ern­ments launched a pro­gram in 1972 that even­tu­ally led to the cre­ation of three breed­ing cen­ters. Just weeks be­fore Maria hit, sci­en­tists re­ported 56 wild birds at El Yunque, the high­est since the pro­gram was launched.

But the pop­u­la­tion de­cline is now es­pe­cially wor­ri­some be­cause the par­rots that van­ished from El Yunque were some of the last re­main­ing wild ones, said Marisel Lopez, who over­sees the par­rot re­cov­ery pro­gram at El Yunque for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Ser­vice.

“It was dev­as­tat­ing. Af­ter so many years of hav­ing worked on this pro­ject,” she said.

The Puerto Ri­can Ama­zon is Puerto Rico’s only re­main­ing na­tive par­rot and is one of roughly 30 species of Ama­zon par­rots found in the Amer­i­cas. The red-fore­headed birds grow to nearly a foot in length, are known for their se­crecy and usu­ally mate for life, re­pro­duc­ing once a year.

More than 460 birds re­main cap­tive at the breed­ing cen­ters in El Yunque and Rio Abajo forests, but sci­en­tists have not re­leased any of them since Hur­ri­cane Maria. A third breed­ing cen­ter in a for­est in the western ru­ral town of Mar­i­cao has not op­er­ated since the storm. Sci­en­tists are now try­ing to de­ter­mine the best way to pre­pare the par­rots for re­lease since there are such few birds in the wild they can in­ter­act with, and whether Puerto Rico’s dam­aged forests can sus­tain them.

One pro­posal sci­en­tists will con­sider is whether to cap­ture some of the re­main­ing wild par­rots in the Rio Abajo for­est and place them in the same cage as birds that will be re­leased to the wild, so they can learn to em­u­late their so­cial be­hav­ior to en­sure their sur­vival, said Jafet Velez, a wildlife bi­ol­o­gist with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Ser­vice.

Sci­en­tists are ten­ta­tively plan­ning to re­lease 20 birds next year in Rio Abajo.

An­other pro­posal is to re­lease more par­rots in Mar­i­cao, which was not as heav­ily dam­aged by Maria.

“Our pri­or­ity now is not re­pro­duc­tion, it’s to start re­leas­ing them,” Lopez said, adding that breed­ing cen­ters can hold only so many par­rots.

But first, sci­en­tists need to make sure the forests can of­fer food and safe shel­ter.

Jessica Ilse, a for­est bi­ol­o­gist at el Yunque for the U.S. For­est Ser­vice, said sci­en­tists are col­lect­ing data about the amount of fruit fall­ing from trees and the num­ber of leaves shed. She said the canopy still has not grown back since Maria and warned that in­va­sive species have taken root since more sun­light now shines through. Ilse said that many of the large trees where par­rots used to nest are now gone and noted that it took 14 months for El Yunque’s canopy to close af­ter Hur­ri­cane Hugo hit Puerto Rico in 1989 as a Cat­e­gory 3 storm.

. With­out a canopy and proper cam­ou­flage, wild par­rots have be­come an easy tar­get.

Ilse said lo­cal and fed­eral sci­en­tists plan to help the for­est re­cover through plant­ing.

“Peo­ple keep ask­ing us, ‘How long is it go­ing to take?’ ” Ilse said.

But sci­en­tists know, she added.

“The dam­age is more ex­ten­sive than (hur­ri­canes) Hugo and Ge­orges. It’s been a com­plete change to the ecosys­tem.” don’t

CAR­LOS GIUSTI/AP

Puerto Ri­can par­rots hud­dle in one of the flight cages at the Iguaca Aviary in El Yunque.

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