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Flight to Freedom! Five Captive Puerto Rican Parrots are Released into the Caribbean National Forest (El Yunque)



May 18, 2004

Fernando Nuñez-Garcia, 787-887-8769, ext. 223
Tom MacKenzie, 404/679-7291


Five captive Puerto Rican parrots today joined the 23 to 36 wild parrots remaining deep in Puerto Rico’s tropical rainforest. The captive-bred birds were raised in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Luquillo Aviary in the Caribbean National Forest. Four of the birds are getting their first taste of freedom. One of the birds, a female, was previously released but she returned to the aviary and was retrained and released with the 2004 birds.

“It is always an exciting and gratifying sight to see captive-breds of one of the ten most endangered birds in the world take flight to freedom,” said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We’ve made one more step toward our ultimate goal of establishing several new populations in the Caribbean National Forest and in the karst region of Puerto Rico.”

Working together cooperatively in the Puerto Rican parrot recovery program, the Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Forest Service (USFS), and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (PRDNER) now have a minimum of 48 captive-bred parrots at its Luquillo Aviary and 94 parrots in the Rio Abajo aviary in the Rio Abajo Commonwealth Forest. An undetermined number of juveniles will be added soon because this is the parrot’s breeding season.

"We remain committed in our recovery efforts toward the endangered Puerto Rican parrot at El Yunque.,” said Pablo Cruz, Forest Supervisor, Caribbean National Forest. “Thanks to our dedicated personnel and the exceptional cooperation between PRDNER, the Service, and USFS, we have achieved major progress towards full recovery of the species.”

This 2004 release of captive-bred parrots marks the fourth time that parrots have been released into the Caribbean National Forest. The first group of 10 parrots was released on June 27, 2000; sixteen captive-bred parrots were released in 2001 and nine in 2003. All of the released birds are monitored by radio telemetry, and survival estimates from the previous three releases average 45 percent. Because the radio batteries only last from six months to a year, birds cannot be tracked beyond a year from their release. However, some birds with radios on their necks have been seen foraging, flying, and attempting to reproduce with the wild parrots in the forest. Primary causes of mortality for released birds and wild fledglings are inclement weather and predation by red-tailed hawks.

“Today’s release was the last one in the Caribbean National Forest before we move to initiate a second wild flock in the karst region in 2006,” said Fernando Nuñez-Garcia, supervisor of the Service’s Rio Grande Field Office. “Today also served as a test of our ability to learn and adapt the information from the previous three releases to improve our techniques and increase the survival chances of the released birds.”

The karst region of northwestern Puerto Rico is the island’s most extensive forested area, and the last known population of Puerto Rican parrots, outside of the Caribbean National Forest, was found there. The destruction of native lowland forest and hurricanes in 1899, 1928, and 1932 helped eliminate the population in the karst and forced parrots to find refuge in the Caribbean National Forest, the largest fragment of mature forest left where the species could find nesting trees.

Currently, the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources is working to enhance parrot habitat in the Rio Abajo Commonwealth Forest in Utuado, located in the karst region. Beyond 2006, several other releases are planned in the karst before releases are alternated between the Caribbean National Forest and the karst region.

“We believe that releases in the karst region are critical for the recovery of this unique species,” said José L. Chabert, Director of the Terrestrial Resources Division of the PRDNER. “We are committed to manage the habitat in the Rio Abajo Forest to enhance the resources the species needs to survive.”

While preparations are being made to introduce a second parrot population into the karst, the Service is planning to relocate the Luquillo Aviary in the Caribbean National Forest. The aviary was converted into a captive propagation facility from an old Army building and needs extensive maintenance and repair. Often the area is isolated by landslides after heavy rains. A new site has been selected, and the cost of the relocation is expected to be between $2 to $3 million.

The Puerto Rican parrot was listed as an endangered species in 1967, when only 24 birds remained in the Caribbean National Forest. Deforestation, hurricanes, hunting, nest robbing, genetic erosion, diseases, and natural predators, such as the red-tailed hawk and pearly-eyed thrasher, had devastated the species’ population. The Puerto Rican parrot recovery program began its captive propagation efforts in 1972. Until the late 1990’s, fostering parrot chicks from the aviary into wild nests was the only method of releasing captive-bred birds into the wild. Then, a pilot release study using captive-bred, non-endangered Hispaniolan parrots was successfully conducted in the Dominican Republic. The birds in that group were reared in the same aviaries and under similar conditions as the PuertoRican parrots were. The knowledge and expertise gained from that pilot project led to the four releases in the Caribbean National Forest.

Emerald green with a red forehead, the Puerto Rican parrot is less than a foot tall and has blue feathers along the edges of its wings and white rims around its eyes. The only known parrot in U.S. territory, the Puerto Rican parrot mates for lifeand reproduces once a year between January and July. The species requires mature cavity forming trees, predominately palo colorado, for nesting.

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 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 544 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 63 Fish and Wildlife Management offices and 81 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 Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

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