It’s been two and a half months since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, but Tom White hasn’t stopped searching. Wild Puerto Rican Parrots were a rare sight in the El Yunque National Forest before the hurricane, but since Maria’s 155 mile-per-hour winds tore through, there have only been glimmers. A bird call here, a fleeting radio signal there. But if he finds even a handful of the vibrant, green and blue birds, the search will have been worth it.
“We have been doing weekly checks, searches, and counts of parrots in their traditional area,” White, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working on the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program, told Earther. “And we have not documented any parrots in that area as of right now.”
White has spent the last 18 years helping the critically-endangered Puerto Rican Parrot (Amazona vittata) stage an unlikely recovery, after decades of habitat destruction and poaching reduced the wild population to just 13 individuals in the 1970s. Today, there are about 500 birds, spread across captive-breeding facilities and wild populations in El Yunque and the Rio Abajo state forest, and at an acclimation/release facility in the municipality of Maricao.
At least, that’s how things were before Maria struck on September 20th. Most of the 230 captive birds at El Yunque, and all of the 174 at Rio Abajo, survived the storm, but the Maricao facility was so badly damaged that the birds there had to be relocated. And despite the fact that the El Yunque rainforest is bouncing back, most of the forest’s wild flock—which numbered 50 to 55 parrots before the hurricane—remains unaccounted for.
“Hopefully, what has happened is that the entire flock was completely scattered,” White said. “Since there was no cover and no food, they were forced to look for food in other places.”
The alternative is that the wild population—which has been painstakingly cared for by biologists who construct artificial nesting cavities to help boost the birds’ breeding success—was decimated. Some parrots definitely died during the hurricane, but more might have succumbed in the weeks and months since. When the storm stripped trees of their foliage, it also took away the parrots’ food, and their protection from predators, namely red tail hawks.
Of the 22 radio transmitters attached to wild birds in El Yunque, White says 17 have been recovered from parrots that died. His colleagues have conducted a thorough, but largely unsuccessful search for the remaining five tagged birds, looking as far as 30 miles away from their traditional habitat.
There are glimmers of hope. Three wild birds showed up at the El Yunque aviary several weeks back. Staff have been feeding them, and they’ve stayed. Recently, someone posted a photo to Facebook of a parrot 25 miles west of El Yunque. “There was no doubt” it was a Puerto Rican parrot, White said. He and his colleagues picked up a radio signal for the bird, and they were able to track it down. But about a week later, it was nowhere to be found.
The Rio Abajo wild flock seems to have fared much better. Gustavo Olivieri, Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program Coordinator for the Rio Abajo aviary, told Earther via email that staff have counted nearly 100 wild birds, representing about 73 percent of the pre-hurricane population.
“The Program is doing everything in our power to restore the facilities to working conditions prior to the start of the next breeding season next January,” Olivieri said. “We are also working to repair or replace any damage to artificial nesting cavities for the wild birds.”
White and his colleagues at El Yunque are doing much the same—repairing damaged cages at the aviary, taking care of the captive birds, and trying to restore a sense of normalcy. Even though their wild flock has vanished, the biologists are still setting up artificial nesting cavities for the breeding season, which starts in February. The hope is that come winter, some of the scattered birds will return to their traditional grounds.
“The only thing we can do is continue to search for birds, and wait for the next breeding season and see if some actually make it back,” White said.
There was a bit of encouraging news earlier this week. According to White, one of the Forest Service personnel reported hearing a parrot in the wild breeding area. It has yet to make an appearance.