When Hurricane Maria tore across Puerto Rico as a powerful Category 4 last month, it devastated the El Yunque National Forest, toppling trees and stripping canopies of their leaves. But while the rainforest itself is expected to make a full recovery, the future of its famous Puerto Rican parrots (Amazona vittata), which the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists as critically endangered, is far less certain.
“The status of the Puerto Rican Parrots in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria is only partially known at this time,” Michelle Eversen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Ecological Services Program Supervisor for the Caribbean, wrote last week in an email shared with Earther. While Eversen says most of Puerto Rico’s captive-reared parrots managed to pull through, the health of the island’s tiny wild bird population is a question mark.
A vibrant green and blue bird endemic to Puerto Rico and surrounding islands, the Puerto Rican parrot is thought to have numbered in the hundreds of thousands before Spaniards arrived in the Caribbean. It was found in a diverse range of habitats, from lowland forests and mangrove swamps to the higher reaches of the Luquillo Mountains, where it would nest deep in the cavities of Paolo Colorado trees. But by 1975, the species had been decimated by habitat loss, fragmentation, hunting, and the caged-bird pet trade, with only thirteen wild individuals remaining.
Thanks to intensive conservation efforts since then, the population has made a modest recovery: according to the IUCN, there were roughly 100 Puerto Rican parrots living in the wild in 2013, and a few hundred more located at aviaries in El Yunque and in the Rio Abajo State Forest. Recently, some parrots have also been housed at an acclimation/release facility in the municipality of Maricao, on the western edge of the Cordillera Central.
The good news is that conservation biologists at the aviaries had a dry run protecting their feathered wards when Hurricane Irma passed the island in early September. Before Maria made landfall on September 20th packing 155 mph winds, aviary staff were able to move all of the parrots from outdoor flight and breeding facilities into hurricane-safe rooms, where most of them rode out of the storm in safety.
“Our brave staff left their homes and families and stayed [at] the aviary to care for the birds,” Eversen wrote, adding that it took nearly a week to access all three locations after the storm, because of downed trees.
Nearly three weeks later, both aviaries continue to operate under generator power while the grid remains down. “Generally speaking the parrots at both facilities are doing well,” Eversen said. “Damage assessments to the facilities are on-going but the current inventories including Maricao indicate extensive needs for replacement of breeding cages, perimeter fences and security and observation cameras.”
The status of the wild Puerto Rican parrot population is murkier, although Eversen says wild birds have been spotted near both avairies. Last week, conservation biologist Tanya Martínez, who works at the Rio Abajo aviary, confirmed that a sizable population of wild parrots had survived the storm, posting a dramatic photo on Twitter that shows roughly two dozen parrots perched atop a defoliated canopy like giant green buds.
In another photo, Martínez noted that the birds are eating royal palm fruit, one of the few food resources that still exists after the storm.
But these glimmers of hope aside, it’s unclear how many parrots will survive the sudden and dramatic loss of habitat and food. Previous research has cited hurricanes as a key factor limiting the recovery of the species—when Hurricane Hugo struck the island as a powerful Category 3 storm in 1989, the wild parrot population was cut in half, from 47 individuals to just 23, according to the IUCN. And with climate change expected to fuel more intense storms, it could be harder for the species to rebound in the future.
Sceintific inventories of the the El Yunque forest were just getting started last week, but ecologists are expecting forest damage comparable to or greater than what was seen after Hugo. “It will be some time before those [wild] populations can be accessed due to downed trees,” Eversen noted.
If there’s one thing the parrots have working in their favor right now, it’s a dedicated crew of scientists and broad public support for conservation of the species, which are the last native U.S. parrots still found on U.S. soil. A crowdfunding page launched by the World Parrot Trust to repair damage to the aviaries has raised more than $12,000 over the past week.
Earther has reached out to Martínez and the Rio Abajo aviary for comment, and we will update this post if and when we hear back.