U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Southeast Region News Release

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                             Vicki M. Boatwright

May 23, 1996                                           Diana Hawkins






The recent release to the wild of a young endangered Puerto Rican parrot chick, that is expected to enhance the genetic variability of the species' diminished wild population, was the result of a commendable joint effort by aviary and field operations staff of both the Puerto Rican Natural and Environmental Resources Department and their counterparts in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, commented Noreen K. Clough, the Service's Southeastern Regional Director. Clough called it, "An important milestone," for the endangered Puerto Rican parrot recovery program.

Earlier this month, as dawn's early light filtered through the trees in the Caribbean National Forest in Puerto Rico, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, carrying a cage containing a 40-day-old captive-bred, endangered, Puerto Rican parrot chick, picked their way through the damp rainforest for 2 kilometers. The chick's journey had actually begun several hours before at the Jose L. Vivaldi aviary in the island's central highland forests, where Puerto Rican biologists prepared him for a two and a half hour road trip to the Caribbean National Forest, where he was turned over to Service biologists. Now continuing the journey on foot, the biologists with their chick were headed for an occupied wild parrot nest.

It was now the time of day that parent birds are usually out foraging for food to bring back to their young. Service biologists had earlier discovered a nest containing chicks of approximately the same age and maturity as the young captive-bred chick. The plan was to release the immature parrot to the wild by placing it into a wild nest to be reared by wild birds until it was time for the fledgling to leave the nest with its adopted siblings. A bird is said to have fledged when it is fully feathered and ready to leave its nest and fly for the first time. This usually happens approximately 13 weeks from hatching.

The release was carried out successfully, said Agustin P. Valido, the Service's National Species Coordinator for the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program. He added that the release had great significance for the future of the species. This chick, he said, was

fathered by a founder bird, captured in 1972, from a population in the West Fork area of the forest that has not been occupied by parrots for approximately 7 years. If he survives to breed with the existing wild flock, Valido said, he will pass on valuable genetic variability to his offspring, that will help save these rare parrots from extinction.

The Puerto Rican Parrot -- with its brilliant green body, iridescent blue wing patches that flash with every downward wingbeat, large hooked bill and white rings around both eyes -- is one of the most critically endangered birds on our planet. In January 1995, fewer than 50 of these birds remained in the wild with another 72 being held in two Puerto Rican aviaries: The Service's Luquillo Aviary and the Jose L. Vivaldi aviary operated by Puerto Rico's Natural and Environmental Resources Department.

The rise in parrot numbers can be attributed to the employment of several breeding management practices by the Service and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources. These practices include the use of genetic fingerprinting techniques, the maintenance of bird nesting areas, and the fostering of both wild and captive bird populations. Also a factor, biologists say, is that the weather has not harmed the bird's habitat in the Caribbean National Forest since the awesome destruction caused by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, when almost half of the known wild flock was swept away by the ferocious winds.

The use of DNA fingerprinting information as the primary selection criteria has resulted in increasing the number of captive breeding pairs in both aviaries to 21. The DNA fingerprinting technique allows the Service to examine DNA strands from male and female parrot blood samples to select the most genetically distinct pairs for mating. This cuts down on inbreeding and reduces the likelihood that off-spring will contract diseases complicated by genetic factors.

Genetic variability is vital to preserving the species. Although the Puerto Rican parrot has lost genetic variability over the years, enough genetically diverse DNA remains among the birds to produce a viable breeding population.

Making structural improvements to the nesting areas is another management technique used to recover the parrot population. The Puerto Rican parrot nests in natural cavities found in colorado trees. The bird cleans out the cavity without lining it. The Service prepares natural nesting material to help keep the cavities drier, cleaner, and reusable and creates natural nests for birds in captivity.

The maintenance of a captive flock of parrots, initiated in 1968, is vital to the recovery of this species because it guarantees that a population survives in the event of a natural disaster and because -- such as in the case of this most recently released chick -- it is used to provide different genetic stock for trading with the wild flock. After the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Hugo, the captive flock was essential for the regeneration of the species.

X X X Release #96-34

1996 News Releases

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