CURWOOD: The Puerto Rican parrot is one of the most endangered birds in the world. Thanks to habitat loss and poaching, its numbers have dwindled from about a million at the time of Columbus to just a few dozen in the wild today. Puerto Rico's Caribbean National Forest, just 45 minutes from San Juan, is home to those last remaining birds, and a few months ago, they got some company. That's when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released some captive-born Puerto Rican parrots into the wild, hoping to replenish the population. Reporter Hector Douglas was there and has this story.
DOUGLAS: Deep in the rainforest, ten Puerto Rican parrots sleep soundly as biologists creep up and cut an escape hole in their chicken wire cage.
DOUGLAS: A month ago, these parrots were carried from their aviary to this acclimation site. Now it is time for them to go. In the darkness, we cannot see the parrots' brilliant green plumage, but in the daylight they are dazzling.
DOUGLAS: At dawn, the parrots begin to scale the cage, lured by feeders hung just outside the escape hole. These birds are about to venture out into what is officially known as the Caribbean National Forest. Puerto Ricans call it El Yunque, for the ancient volcanic mountain that towers over northeastern Puerto Rico. It is a spiritual Mecca for some, but this morning it is a Mecca for journalists who stumbled through mud at 3 AM to bring back the story for the evening news. The parrots clamber over the top of the cage and cock their red foreheads from side to side as they survey the surrounding forest. A thin line of white feathers rings each eye, giving the birds a spectacled appearance. One by one, the parrots open their wings, leap into the air and flutter up into the canopy. As they go, the birds display rows of powdery blue flight feathers that make their wings and long tails look phosphorescent in the early morning light. And their loud squawks make them seem larger than their eleven-inch, ten-ounce frames.
DOUGLAS: Now, perched in the thick green canopy of the rainforest with their wings closed, the parrots are completely camouflaged. It is just a short flight from the cage to the forest canopy, but in reality, this has been a much longer journey. One that can be measured not in distance, but in years. To Dr. Francisco Vilella, it has been a dream come true.
VILELLA: It was so satisfying to finally see, in flesh and blood, something that I had relived in my mind's eye so many times. There was a mixture of satisfaction, excitement, and just pure pleasure.
DOUGLAS: Three years ago Dr. Vilella and his colleagues began working out the methods for today's release in the forests of the Dominican Republic. There, they used a surrogate species, the Hispaniolan parrot, to develop a training program that prepares captive parrots for survival in the wild. That program includes a daily exercise regimen that begins four months before the birds are released.
MAN: Hey, hey, hey. Hey, hey, hey.
DOUGLAS: A technician bangs on their cage with a long-handled net, moving the parrots from one side to the other.
MAN: Hey, hey, hey.
DOUGLAS: The birds are also given wild foods to eat and even introduced to wild parrots.
MAN: Hey, hey, hey.
VILELLA: They start interacting with local wild birds that are in the area because they make a racket, they make a noise, and that attracts wild birds. They end up coming near the vicinity of the release cages to investigate, because they're curious.
DOUGLAS: After a final physical exam, each parrot is fitted with a radio collar. Finally, the birds are given a lesson in predator avoidance from the biggest bird in the forest, the red-tailed hawk.
VILELLA: We brought a red-tailed hawk to the release site, a red-tailed hawk that was trained by a falconer to basically fly at the cage, fly at the parrots. The parrots responded tremendously with an alarm call. And all the birds basically hush and stay together in a group.
DOUGLAS: The birds released today were part of a group of 70 Puerto Rican parrots reared in an aviary high on the slopes of El Yunque. Meal time here is run like a school lunch plan, with food prepared in large quantities and then measured into trays. Wildlife technician Hernan Abreu explains that variety is the key to feeding the fussy birds.
ABREU On some days they have carrots and popcorn. You know, this is good, popcorn is good. It's crunchy. They like to play with it. Some birds like some things better than others; they are very particular with their food.
DOUGLAS: Dr. Vilella views the reintroduction of the Parrots not only with the eyes of a scientist but with those of a native Puerto Rican, as well. The 44-year-old says his earliest and fondest memories are of the times he spent observing nature near his home in San Juan. In 1989, Dr. Vilella took over management of wild and captive populations of the Puerto Rican parrot for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In September of that year, Hurricane Hugo blasted El Yunque with winds of 150 miles per hour. In just a matter of hours, the wild parrot population was cut in half. Only 23 birds survived.
VILELLA: We didn't see the first birds until about five days after the storm. So, it was a feeling of one time of dread, but at the same time of a challenge that was coming. And we as biologists and especially as Puerto Rican biologists, we were darn ready to meet it.
DOUGLAS: Like a giant pair of pruning shears, Hurricane Hugo sliced the tops off many of the Palo Colorado trees used by the parrots, who nest in cavities in their trunks. So, the biologists began a program of home improvements. They installed drain pipes in some of the cavities to keep the nests from getting soggy. Others received new floors, and some cavities were completely renovated.
ABREU: You make a hole first, you know, and stick in kind of a chainsaw in the middle, make kind of a crust. So we'll pop, you know, a little bit, and then with a chisel we go and cut it off piece by piece, you know...
DOUGLAS: Hernan chisels a donut-shaped nest entrance from a slab of wood. This natural facade lures the parrot into a PVC pipe that leads down into the nest.
DOUGLAS: Early the next morning, we visit a parrot nest. First, we monitor the cavity from afar with a tiny microphone that's been placed inside. This allows the biologists to detect and remove parasitic flies or killer bees that can kill parrot chicks.
DOUGLAS: Next we climb the tree on a ladder of telephone spikes and open a small manmade door in the trunk to check on the parrot chicks.
DOUGLAS: Inside are two fully-grown chicks ready to leave the nest. More chicks survive to this stage now than in the past, thanks to the innovations of Vilella's team. Even so, by the beginning of this year, there were only 47 parrots in the wild. In three decades of management efforts, the wild parrot population has never exceeded that number.
DOUGLAS: This morning we descent down the Rio Espiritu Santos, the River of Sacred Spirits. We trudge through an obstacle course of slippery boulders and fallen trees.
(Calls of "Ow!" amidst running water)
DOUGLAS: It's been three days since the parrots were released, and parrot number ten has flown far from the release site. The team is trying to pick up the signal from her radio collar.
(Static; conversations in Spanish)
DOUGLAS: Is this the one you've been trying to locate?
WOMAN: Mm hm. Still very weak signal.
DOUGLAS: El Yunque has more red-tailed hawks per square mile than just about anywhere else on Earth. Biologists have long suspected that the hawks hunt the parrots, and biologist Britta Muznieks wonders if foul play has brought parrot number ten to an untimely end.
MUZNIEKS: If there's a hawk in the area that likes to prey on unwary parrots, then he's got a feast for him.
DOUGLAS: We didn't find the parrot that day. A construction crew did, when the parrot flew out of the forest. That evening, parrot number ten led the Fish and Wildlife Service on a long chase before it flew back to El Yunque on its own. But in a stark example of just what this reintroduction effort is up against, two days later, parrot number ten was found dead. Researchers believe the bird was killed by a mongoose, an animal not native to Puerto Rico but one that has wreaked havoc on the wildlife here. In fact, mongooses have killed most of the wild parrot chicks this year. Like parrot number ten, they made the mistake of going down to the forest floor. Follow the river down from the slopes of El Yunque and you come upon the town of Rio Grande.
(Salsa music plays in the background)
DOUGLAS: Like many towns in Puerto Rico, Rio Grande has a patron symbol that reigns over the annual carnival. Here, at the foot of El Yunque, the patron is a parrot, and so human-sized cardboard parrots are being hung from utility poles in preparation for the festivities.
DOUGLAS: But it's safe to say that few people in this town, or anywhere else on the island, have ever seen the real thing, at least not in recent times. But this week, in conjunction with the release, a breeding pair of Puerto Rican parrots are on display at the El Yunque visitor's center. Today, 500 visitors flock to this exhibit. Many take photos of the birds. Some actually cry upon seeing them. Dan, a transportation worker from San Juan, took the afternoon off to come here. Until now, these birds for him were only the stuff of stories.
DAN: They're great mythological parrot. This is something that you've heard about and you've read about, but when it comes down to it, you can actually see it here for the first time. At least, for me at least, I'm Puerto Rican and I've never seen a Puerto Rican parrot, and it's pretty sad.
(A women sings to organ music)
DOUGLAS: During a special ceremony held to celebrate the parrot release, the Puerto Rican government announced plans for a new parrot reserve in the island's central highlands. Dr. Vilella says the 70,000-acre tract will protect many other endangered species who also call the forest home. But Vilella emphasizes that Puerto Ricans have to take the conservation ethic a step further.
VILELLA: Like we say in Spanish, en carne propia, you know, in flesh and blood, that conservation is everybody's job. And we don't do really conservation for nature or for the parrots. We do it for ourselves so we will have an island with natural resources that not only sustain wildlife but can sustain human populations, as well.
DOUGLAS: For Living on Earth, I'm Hector Douglas in the El Yunque rainforest of Puerto Rico.
(Squawking up and under)
CURWOOD: In the months following the release of these Puerto Rican parrots, researchers report five of the ten birds were killed, mostly by red-tailed hawks. But the restoration effort will continue with the planned release of 16 more birds into the forest of El Yunque in May.
(Music up and under: Thievery Corporation, "Samba Tranquille")
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