Land & Conservation

Saving the Puerto Rican Parrot

Communities join forces to help a native bird flourish

photo: PETER FRANK EDWARDS

A Puerto Rican parrot, born in captivity in El Yunque rainforest.

At 3:00 a.m. during the roar of Hurricane Maria in 2017, Marisel López-Flores, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) project leader for the Puerto Rican parrot recovery program, received a text from an employee: “Tell my kids I love them.” The staffer was one of two who had stayed—as someone always does during storms—with the captive parrots in El Yunque National Forest, part of a decades-spanning effort that, despite innumerable setbacks, is ensuring the species’ survival.

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The Puerto Rican parrot, also called the iguaca, inspires that kind of devotion. Its brilliant green feathers unfold into teal blue during flight; a burst of red splashes above the beak; white-rimmed eyes punctuate the face. It’s the only parrot native to Puerto Rico—a descendant of South American parrots that arrived in the Caribbean by luck or fate and made the island’s coasts and mountains their own.

Years of deforestation starting in the 1800s, however, left the parrot only one suitable habitat: El Yunque rainforest, protected because it provided the island with water. The birds retreated there, but their numbers—once a million strong—by 1972 fell to thirteen. FWS started a captive breeding program that year, pulling from parrots in far-flung zoos and the pet trade, pumping genetic diversity into the tiny flock.

That effort—a precarious matchmaking dance impeded further by the birds’ slow reproductive rates—took nearly thirty years to yield a release of parrots in El Yunque in 2000. By 2017, more than two hundred birds flew in the wild between El Yunque and Río Abajo, another site in the north-central part of the island with an aviary. A third release site, in Maricao State Forest, was also underway.

Then came Maria. López-Flores advised her employees to go into the hurricane room—built to withstand a Category Five—with the captive parrots. A week passed before she could reach El Yunque in the storm’s aftermath; the staffers had survived and so had the parrots, but their cages sweltered. To stave off heatstroke, the team desperately sprayed the birds with water, and López-Flores herself scaled the twenty-five-foot-high enclosures, draping cooling cloths over them until the parrots could return outdoors.

Then FWS staff discovered a still grimmer truth: The storm had stripped El Yunque bare, “like a bomb had gone off,” López-Flores says. Of the fifty-six wild parrots there, only five had survived, and four of those died soon after. “We were all devastated,” she recalls. “So many years of work, and we had a single parrot.”

The blow made Iván C. Llerandi-Román’s job even more important. As FWS’s habitat restoration programs coordinator for the Caribbean region, he focuses on the land surrounding the three release sites; he and his team have recruited five hundred private landowners to manage their properties in parrot-friendly ways, particularly by adding native trees—evolved to withstand pummeling storms—on livestock ranches and coffee farms, so that eventually the sites will interconnect and the parrots can move between them.

Since Maria, El Yunque has rebounded, with twenty-seven wild birds and four active nests. And though Maria wiped out 40 percent of its parrots, Río Abajo now boasts more than 190, with twenty-three breeding pairs every year. The newest site, Maricao, has some seventy birds, with nearly thirty more scheduled to be released there this January. A fourth site, Guajataca State Forest, is already on the docket.

More hurricanes will come, the biologists know. But the parrots’ allies—including the U.S. Forest Service, the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, and nonprofits such as the World Parrot Trust—are committed to the species. “We are recovering this bird as a country,” Llerandi-Román says. López-Flores agrees. “We Puerto Ricans have worked so hard to bring their numbers back up. Just seeing them flying, that’s seeing resiliency. It’s a bird for the people.”


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