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

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                             Vicki M. Boatwright

May 28, 1996                                           Diana Hawkins




The Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released to the wild a young endangered Puerto Rican parrot chick that is expected to enhance the genetic variability of the species' diminished wild population. Noreen K. Clough, the Service's Southeast Regional Director, 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, Service biologists and a veterinarian carried a cage containing the 40-day-old, captive-bred, endangered Puerto Rican parrot chick 2 kilometers through the damp rainforest. The chick's journey that day had actually begun several hours before at the Department's Jose L.Vivaldi Aviary in the island's central highland forest, where the chick had been reared from a hatchling.

To prepare the chick for the two-and-a-half-hour road trip to the Caribbean National Forest, the aviary staff, including biologists and veterinary technicians, placed the bird in a darkened and well-padded shipping container to protect him from injury and stress. After reaching the forest, they turned the chick over to Service biologists, who continued the journey on foot, headed for an occupied wild parrot nest.

They timed their journey to arrive at the nest at the time of day that parent birds are usually away from their nests, foraging for food to bring back to their young. The 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 referred to as a fledgling 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.

Agustin P. Valido, the Service's National Species Coordinator for the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program commented 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 wing beat; 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 the 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.

Since the wild parrot population was reduced to approximately 26 following Hurricane Hugo, their numbers have been steadily increasing. This increase can be attributed to the employment of several breeding management practices by the Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources. Methods used by these agencies 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. Puerto Rican parrots nest in natural cavities found in palo 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. A captive flock also provides different genetic stock for trading with the wild flock, such as in the case of this most recently released chick. After the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Hugo, the captive flock has been essential to the regeneration of the species.

X X X Release #96-36

1996 News Releases

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