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Three is a Charm! Captive-reared Puerto Rican Parrots Released in El Yunque


May 14, 2002

Kenneth Foote,USFWS, 787/851-7297, ext 29, Cell phone 787/505-4399
Blanca Ruiz, Forest Service 787/888-5611
Astrid Green, P.R. DNER 787/724-8774 ext.4078

News Release in Español

For the third time in history, captive-reared Puerto Rican parrots were released into the wild. Nine (9) parrots raised in the Luquillo Aviary, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, were released in the early morning hours of May 14, 2002. The young birds will join the last 25 parrots existing in the wild.

The release into the Caribbean National Forest of Puerto Rico, known also as "El Yunque", is the result of a 34 year combined effort of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, and Puerto Rico's Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, to help bring this species back from the brink of extinction.

"This is another great step forward for recovery" said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "While recovery of this highly sensitive species is slow and happens over a period of time, this proves that if people work together, we can help save an endangered species, and in particular, the magnificent Puerto Rican parrot. In Puerto Rico there is a saying "poco a poco" meaning little by little. We must be patient and take many small steps forward in order to accomplish our long range goal of saving the Puerto Rican parrot from extinction. The Service is committed to continuing cooperative management of the Puerto Rican parrot recovery program, and supports the protection of a conservation zone in the karst area of north-central Puerto Rico, which could serve as a site for establishment of a second wild population of parrots."

"Today's release marks an exciting and historical milestone in the recovery of the Puerto Rican parrot" said Robert Jacobs, Regional Forester (Southern Region) of the USDA Forest Service. "It is a testament to the outstanding cooperation between the Puerto Rico Commonwealth, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and Puerto Rico's Department of Natural and Environmental Resources. We are excited to witness the return of this native species to its home in El Yunque. This is a major step in our effort to fully recover this endangered bird. It is one of the boldest conservation efforts under way in the Western hemisphere. We are fortunate to be partners in this effort."

When Europeans arrived in the Caribbean 500 years ago, more than one million Puerto Rican parrots flew wild in Puerto Rico. Now it is considered to be one of the most endangered birds in the world. When Taino Indians of Puerto Rico called the Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata) Higuaca, a name that resembles the sounds of their flying squawks, the bird was abundant and wide-spread throughout Puerto Rico and Culebra. They were so common the Indians used them as pets and for food. Largely emerald green with a red forehead, white rims around the eyes and blue feathers along the edges of the wings, the Puerto Rican parrot is less than a foot tall, being one of the smallest of its genus. They mate for life, reproducing once a year, between January and July and are secondary cavity nesters. Thus, they require mature cavity forming trees, predominantly Palo Colorado (Cyrilla racemiflora) for nesting. The availability of suitable nesting cavities may be one of the main factors limiting the species recovery.

By the 1930's the Puerto Rican parrot population was estimated at 2,000 individuals and between 1953 and 1956, when Don Antonio Rodríguez Vidal conducted the first scientific study of this endemic bird, the population had dropped to 200 birds. Habitat loss from deforestation, as well as hurricanes, hunting, nest robbing, and natural enemies such as the red-tailed hawk and the pearly eyed thrasher, caused the drastic decline of the species.

In 1967, it was listed as an endangered species when only 24 individuals remained in the wild. The population of parrots reached an all-time alarming low in 1975 when only thirteen (13) birds were left in the Luquillo Mountains of Puerto Rico.

Without the intensive work carried out for the past 34 years by the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program the parrot would, in all probability, be extinct today. There are 144 captive birds in two aviaries that provide a sustainable source of parrots for release into the wild to bolster the current wild population, as well as for the eventual reestablishment of a second population elsewhere in Puerto Rico. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages one aviary in the Caribbean National Forest (El Yunque). Puerto Rico's Department of Natural and Environmental Resources manages the other, the José L. Vivaldi aviary, at the Río Abajo State Forest.

The captive parrot population has for some time contributed individuals for release into the wild. The primary method of doing this has been to foster captive-born chicks into wild nests, where they have been reared by wild parents to the fledgling stage. This technique should result in maximal survival as the captive chicks undergo the best pre-release training, but there are practical limitations. One is that the number of nesting pairs in a given year (for example, six in 1998) limits the number of captive born chicks that can be introduced to the wild. Chick availability for fostering also is limited by the number of captive breeding pairs whose dates of laying and hatching coincide with the wild pairs. Currently, only one to three captive-produced chicks can be introduced annually into the wild population. This results in a steady accumulation of parrots in captivity that would otherwise be ready for release. Impacts of recent hurricanes such as Hugo (1989) and Georges (1998) on the wild population clearly indicate the importance of augmenting this population as soon as possible.

A pilot release study using captive-reared Hispaniolan Parrots (Amazona ventralis), a species closely related to the Puerto Rican Parrot, was conducted during 1996-98 in Parque del Este, Dominican Republic. The pilot release study demonstrated that captive reared parrots could be successfully introduced into occupied habitat. The birds used in the pilot study were reared in the same aviaries and under similar conditions as the Puerto Rican Parrot. For the past few years the Recovery Program has had the knowledge, expertise, and a suitable number of captive-reared parrots to conduct a release.

Nine (9) parrots were selected from the Luquillo Aviary and found to be suitable for release this year. The birds were selected based on age (1 to 4 years old) in order to prevent adverse effects of prolonged captivity, and on genetic and biological characteristics, behavior and physical condition. The wild parrots start flocking after the breeding season (usually the end of May). Scientists believe that it is easier for the released birds to integrate into the wild flock following the breeding season. Rapid integration into the wild flock may increase chances of survival for the released birds. Parrots were not released from the José L. Vivaldi Aviary at the Río Abajo State Forest this year because of a potential problem. Scientists and managers made the decision not to use parrots from the aviary until the problems are completely addressed.

In 2000, ten (10) captive-reared parrots were released into the Caribbean National Forest (CNF). Sixteen (16) additional birds were released in the summer of 2001. The survival of these released parrots can only be documented for 9-12 months after their release due to the life expectancy of the batteries in the radio telemetry transmitters each released bird is wearing. Five of the ten parrots released in 2000 were still alive after 9 months. In 2001, transmitters signals for nine (9) of the sixteen (16) parrots were lost within five (5) months after their release. Since that time, USFWS personnel has been unable to locate them again. Three released parrots, from 2001, were confirmed alive 9 months after the release, and four either succumbed to predation by Red-tailed hawks or died of other causes. The fate of the remaining released parrots is undetermined at this time. It appears that predation by Red-tailed hawks may be a major mortality factor for both wild Puerto Rican parrots and those released from captivity.

This historical event was marked by an official Press Conference on May 14th at El Portal Tropical Forest Center in El Yunque, Puerto Rico. Dignitaries from the three cooperating agencies, the Puerto Rican and U. S. governments will discuss this unique program and its accomplishments with representatives from the local media.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System of more than 520 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource offices and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state wildlife agencies.

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