Puerto Rican parrot threatened by more intense, climate-driven hurricanes

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There used to be 56 wild and endangered Puerto Rican parrots living around El Yunque National Forest Hurricane Maria in 2017. After the storm, there was only one survivor.

“I'll admit that a couple of times I just cried,” said Tom White, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has been working for 30 years to restore a wild population of Puerto Rican parrots in El Yunque.

The parrot is one of the most endangered birds in the world, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

About 60 years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the parrot as an endangered species, a legal status that has led to an ongoing and challenging effort to rebuild a healthy bird population in the nature that continues today.

“If humans caused it, it's basically up to us to fix it,” White said.

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The Puerto Rico parrot is one of the most endangered birds in the world, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Jose Sanchez / CBS News


But the Puerto Rican parrot is also one of the many species whose habitat and survival are threatened by hurricanes, which are becoming increasingly destructive due to climate change.

Hurricane Maria died almost 3,000 people, causing historic floods and landslides. Investigators found Maria's extreme rains it was 5 times more likely due to climate change.

Battered by wind speeds of 175 mph, White and his wife rode out the storm inside a hurricane shelter with 120 pairs of parrots in captivity, protecting them from the storm. They then went outside to survey the damage.

“We were speechless,” he said. “It went from green and lush to brown and defoliated in a matter of hours.”

All of the captive birds White had in the hurricane shelter survived the storm. But because of heavy debris, crews were unable to reach the 56 wild birds that had been released earlier and were living in remote areas of the forest.

While some of these wild parrots were killed by the hurricane's winds, many more starved to death after the storm, with the island's forests stripped of vegetation.

“There was nothing to eat,” said Marisel López Flores, leader of the Parrot Recovery Program.

Birds in crisis

All over the world, birds are in crisis, and not just the exotic ones. Over the past 400 years, nine species of birds in North America have gone extinct, according to the National Audubon Society. During this century, the group estimates that 314 species are threatened with extinction.

Some of the biggest declines, according to a landmark study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, are occurring in the most common types of birds. The study looked at population decline between 1970 and 2019 and found significant losses of:

  • Wood thrushes, found in the eastern US; 60% of them have disappeared.

  • Baltimore orioles, also an eastern bird; two fifths have been lost.

  • western prairie voles, prevalent in the central and western US; three quarters are gone.

Some of the main threats to birds come from habitat loss and rising global temperatures. But more intense hurricanes also play a role.

Although many birds are adapted to survive major storms, they may struggle to overcome damage to their habitats that are necessary for nesting, feeding and sleeping, which is what happened to many Puerto Rican parrots.

White explained that protecting parrot habitats can also protect the habitats of thousands of other species.

“In doing so, you protect the world for many others at the same time,” he said.

Giving the birds a better chance

Since Hurricane Maria, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been successfully restoring a wild population of parrots, now with a new twist.

Before the hurricane, the birds were released in remote corners of El Yunque. Now, scientists and staff use behavioral techniques that encourage the birds to stay close to the aviary complex.

Essentially, this combines wild and captive birds into one community in the aviary. In future disasters, this may give birds a better chance of being rescued and fed when the forest is impassable.

Biologists developed this technique at a sister parrot aviary in Puerto Rico, in the Rio Abajo State Forest, where, after Maria, they were able to feed 90 birds and save their lives. Techniques developed in Puerto Rico have also been successfully used in the release of endangered macaws in Brazil.

Tom White, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, said the birds survive better in larger flocks.

“Herds defend themselves from predators and also to better find food resources,” White said.

In January, the El Yunque aviary released 22 birds from captivity. Between three aviary locations in Puerto Rico, there are about 300 parrots living in the wild today, a sign that parrot recovery efforts here are working.

“When I am old and die, I can say that I have done something for my country. This is how I think I am contributing to my island,” said López Flores.



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