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Open Spaces

A Talk on the Wild Side.

‘eHarmony for Birds’: A Science – and an Art – to Saving Parrots

On Tuesday we learned that two Puerto Rican parrots were born in the wild in a natural nest cavity and later fledged –the first time this has happened outside El Yunque National Forest in more than 100 years. Puerto Rican parrots have always been found in El Yunque, but a second population was started in Río Abajo State Forest in the 1990s. And the nesting cavity was just outside Rio Abajo. With Puerto Rico and other partners, we have been working toward a self-sufficient parrot population in the wild for more than 40 years.

In celebration, Open Spaces reprints a story from last summer’s Fish & Wildlife News.


Puerto Rican parrots
The population of parrots was once estimated at a million but fell to less than 30. Credit: Tom MacKenzie/USFWS


At the Service’s Iguaca Aviary in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest, the science that is saving the rare Puerto Rican parrot from extinction is everywhere on display: in the wall of TV monitors that relay images from cameras hidden in each breeding pair’s nest cavity; in the sleek emergency care center, where sick birds can be quickly isolated and undergo surgery if needed; in the meticulous record-keeping on each bird’s history, behavior and genetics.

The aviary is normally closed to the public because human noise and activity can stress the bright green birds and disturb breeding. But lucky visitors  see more than science. A devotion and an art to captive breeding are also apparent. 

In the spotless kitchen, aviary staff fill dozens of steel food trays with fresh fruits and berries; the mix, customized for each bird pair, changes regularly to spur the birds’ exploratory instincts. Tending the birds is a 365-day-a-year responsibility, even during hurricanes, when staff bunk down on site to be sure the birds are fed.

In the aviary’s nerve center, coordinator Jafet Velez-Valentin pores over computerized databases, calculating which bird pairings will best further species survival. The higher the percentage of DNA known per bird, the better. The lower the inbreeding coefficient (a measure of how closely a bird is related to any potential mate; 0.1113 is the highest value acceptable), the better. Then he repeats computations by hand to focus his thinking. 

But, just as with humans, promising unions can fail; some would-be lovebirds must be separated before they kill each other.  What gratifies Velez-Valentin: making a science-based match that also produces healthy chicks. “I love it,” he says of his job. “It’s like eHarmony for birds.” 

Once in a while, a pair beats Velez-Valentin to the punch –  separating themselves from other birds, preening and feeding each other – all signs of mating behavior.   “We love it when that happens,” he says. Using numbers from the birds’ leg bands, staff check records to see if the birds would make a good match. “If so,” says Velez-Valentin, “we pair them and let them get on with it.”

Susan Morse, National Wildlife Refuge System, Headquarters


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