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So Far, So Good For Released Parrots
By Iván Román
June 4, 2001
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Scientists here are giddy about the prospects for a group of endangered Puerto Rican parrots released into the wild almost three weeks ago.
Biologists working to save one of the most endangered bird species in the world hope that the 16 released in May will fare even better than those released last year.
Five of the 10 released last June are still living.
Scientists put transistors on the necks of the emerald-green parrots to track them.
The newly released ones already have been seen flying together with some of the approximately 40 raised in the wild.
"We're extremely pleased," said Miguel Garcia Bermudez, coordinator of the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources' Endangered Species Program, which runs one of the two aviaries raising parrots.
"In less than a year, we've been able to increase the parrot population by about 50 percent."
The release of parrots last month into the lush greenery of the Caribbean National Forest known here as El Yunque is the second try to see whether the birds can fend for themselves.
How they do in El Yunque, a tropical rain forest 30 miles east of San Juan, may determine whether scientists release more into the wild in the Rio Abajo forest 70 miles west of San Juan.
Scientists were grinning ear to ear over the 50 percent survival rate, although the red tail hawk, the parrots' main predator, did manage to kill a few of them.
"For this type of work, a 30 percent survival rate is a success," said Pablo Torres, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"We're very satisfied, and it encourages us to keep working and considering releasing parrots in the future to other areas, maybe in two or three years."
Declared an endangered species in 1967, the parrot, known scientifically as the Amazona vittata, kept losing its natural habitat as agriculture and construction wipedout more of the island's drier forests near the coasts.
It's believed more than 1 million of these birds with distinctive red splotches on their beaks lived in Puerto Rico when Christopher Columbus landed here in 1493.
From just 13 birds left in 1975, there are now an estimated 155 parrots with about 56 in the wild, 47 at the El Yunque aviary and 50 at the Rio Abajo aviary.
Officials are still looking for another 10 stolen April 22 from the El Yunque aviary.
This year's group received a longer, more intensive training to give them a better shot of making it.
Both years they were placed in a large cage that gave them a chance to experience the surrounding trees and an environment similar to what they would be flying into.
But unlike in 2000, when biologists had a red tail hawk fly around and then sit on top of the cage, this time they brought in a stuffed one and pretended it was attacking a Dominican parrot, similar to the Puerto Rican one.
"The idea was to imprint in their heads that if they see a hawk, they have to get out of there quick," Torres said.
More than just a scientific experiment, for the Puerto Rican biologists it's also saving part of their heritage.
But actually saving them is still a long way off, and they hope Mother Nature cooperates.
Hurricane Hugo in 1989 cut the 50-strong parrot population in half, spurring biologists to create the Rio Abajo aviary so the birds would be in one place.
"We just have to keep our fingers crossed that there isn't a hurricane this year," Garcia Bermudez said. "With such a small population, each one that dies means a lot."