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Endangered Parrots Face A Critical Test

by Iván Román

June 26, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - With their first flight out of a cage into the lush greenery of El Yunque rainforest this week, 10 endangered Puerto Rican parrots will signal whether man`s struggle to save them is working. (Cuando esta semana concreten su primer vuelo fuera de una jaula en la exhuberante vegetación de la selva tropical de El Yunque, 10 loros portorriqueños en peligro de extinción indicarán si la lucha del hombre por tratar de salvarlos está o no funcionando.)

Experts who raised the emerald-green parrots, one of the 10 most endangered bird species in the world, will open a large cage in the predawn hours Tuesday to free the birds, which were raised in captivity. Because the numbers in aviaries are rising, experts say now is the time to see whether the birds can fend for themselves, taking the parrot-recovery program into a promising, new phase.

The parrots will get their chance in the 28,000-acre Caribbean National Forest, known here as El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. national forest system, where the parrot was making its last stand when declared an endangered species in 1967.

"This is crucial right now, transcendental, for the parrot-recovery program," 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. "If this doesn`t work after all this effort and all this money spent, we have to rethink everything we`ve been doing for so long."

From just 13 birds left in 1975, there are now an estimated 143 - with 40 in the wild, 50 in the aviary in El Yunque, 30 miles east of San Juan, and 53 in the Rio Abajo forest aviary in Utuado, 70 miles west of San Juan. The parrots in captivity have produced a record 26 chicks this year, with more on the way.

Biologists moved the soon-to-be-freed parrots to a large cage a month ago so the birds could get accustomed to the rain, plants and other elements in their natural habitat.

The parrots are close to reproductive age, the first and second generation of parrots more directly handled by humans. But while in captivity, they fed on more natural foods and were raised to be wary of human touch.

Their upbringing and attitude make them the most likely to survive and bolster the population in the wild, said Pablo Torres, the lead biologist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service`s parrot-recovery program. Transmitters on the birds will allow experts to track them for the next 10 months.

"We need to walk the forest and track them every day, because if one dies we need to find it right away to determine why that happened," Torres said.

Why there are so few parrots left is less of a mystery. Scientists think about 1 million parrots, the Amazon Vittata species, flew around Puerto Rico when Christopher Columbus landed in 1493. As agriculture, homes and businesses wiped out forests, the number of birds plummeted to fewer than 20 in the 1970s.

Federal authorities started the parrot-recovery program in 1968 and opened the El Yunque aviary in 1972.

Red-tailed hawks still attack parrots, but biologists have built artificial, camouflaged nesting sites that keep out pearly eyed thrashers accustomed to invading parrot nests. After 1989`s Hurricane Hugo cut the 50-strong parrot population in half, local authorities established the aviary in Rio Abajo state forest in the west, so they would not be putting all their eggs in one basket, so to speak.

This week`s experiment may not only help biologists release more parrots into the wild in El Yunque but could also may pave the way to establishing a colony in Rio Abajo to the west. The parrot will be considered saved once 500 healthy adult parrots producing chicks are in both protected habitats.

"For us, this is a source of pride because we`re trying to save our heritage, which is almost extinct through no fault of its own," Torres said.

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