The Parrots of the Caribbean

Facing the Uncertainties of Climate Change

by | Aug 1, 2018

Fall 2018Volume XVIII, Number 1

Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata), critically endangered. Photo by Gloria Archilla

I ask you, for a few moments, to imagine a Caribbean region where you can suddenly be rendered breathless by the sight of a flock of a thousand Amazona parrots flying overhead, darkening the skies like a gaily colored, deafeningly squaking eclipse of joy. Columbus, sailing past the Bahamas, described such flocks of parrots “obscuring the sun.” 

The dazzling display—unimaginable today—occasionally met European explorers sailing between Vieques and Puerto Rico before the ecological revolution unleashed by colonization pushed most Caribbean parrots and macaws onto their slow but inexorable path towards extinction. Climate change—manifested through warming trends, decline in food availability and the intensification of extreme weather events, as we saw through the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017—may signal the end of parrot species that have lived in the region for millions of years, long before human inhabitants were recorded in the area. The threat to parrot populations posed by tropical storms has deepened due to changes in the climate caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. Parrot extinctions have taken place throughout the Caribbean region, where there only remain 14 of as many as 20-25 species recorded in the first centuries after the European encounter.

At the time of Columbus’ encounter with the “Indies,” there were twenty-some parrots species in the Caribbean. They belonged to the psittacine subfamily of birds, as did the region’s macaws, about eight or nine endemic species of the Ara genus, now all extinct. Together, they took center stage in his account of the first encounter with the native peoples of the region, as one of the salient items offered in this historic first exchange. As Columbus describes it in the diary of his first voyage,  “they came swimming to the ship’s boats, where we were, and brought us parrots and cotton threads in balls, and spears and many other things, and we exchanged for them other things, such as small glass beads and hawks’ bells, which we gave to them.” Native Caribbean peoples were known to have kept and traded live parrots and macaws, but this familiar gesture of exchange was going to forever change the scale of such trades, endangering numerous species in the process. 

Amazona parrots and Ara macaw specimens were exhibited at the royal court in Barcelona as Columbus, upon his return from his first voyage, presented a procession of naked Native Americans adorned with gold and bearing multicolored parrots. A year later, upon Columbus’s return from his second voyage, masses of Sevillians rushed to the docks to watch a Palm Sunday parade of Indians in gold masks carrying New World parrots and macaws. Specimens of various psittacidae were given away to European kings as tokens of Spain’s feat of discovery. From the earliest moments of the colonization process these psittacidae specimens became emblems of a wondrous spectacle that embodied the marvels of the newly discovered Caribbean territories, lands of exotic abundance and green tropical forests vibrant with sparkling parrots glimpsed as flashes of red, emerald and turquoise. 

Jaco (Amazona arausiaca). Photo courtesy of Paulo Reillo and the Rare Species Conservation Foundation

The parrots’ symbolic and very public display before the old world marked, ironically, the beginning of processes that would lead to most of them being now extinct or listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as extremely threatened or endangered—some of them among the most endangered birds in the world. The steady decline of the Caribbean’s Amazona and Ara populations can be measured from the first century of the colonization process, caused by rapid deforestation to open millions of acres for agriculture (including sugar production), cattle raising, widespread logging, introduction of exotic plants and animals (among them parrot predators), and poaching to supply birds for Europe’s growing exotic-pet market. Island bird species, given their particular vulnerability to anthropogenic extinction (extinctions caused directly by humans), represent roughly 90 percent of bird extinctions since European colonizers targeted islands as prime possessions. Most of the birds currently on the world’s endangered list, not suprisingly, live on islands, and many of them belong to the Caribbean’s psittacidae family, whose need for reasonably large expanses of forest made them particularly vulnerable to the type of ecological revolution that European colonizers brought to the region. Their vulnerability has led some experts to conclude that they are “doomed in the wild.” 

The impact of climate change on Caribbean avian populations can be measured already through changes in population distribution, increased temperatures on breeding grounds and changes in rainfall that affect patterns of migration for wintering birds. But by far the greatest menace comes from the increases in hurricane intensity—frequency, size, duration, levels of rainfall, and wind speeds—that scientists expect as global temperatures shift upwards—and which have been linked to the loss of life and extensive damage to nature and property throughout the Caribbean in the wake of Category 5 Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

Parrot species are especially vulnerable to hurricane damage because they are dependent on forests and their thick vegetation for food and protection from predators. Direct hurricane hits on their habitats can bring species to the verge of extinction. As storms strip their forest habitats bare, surviving the hurricane itself is only the first step in survival, as they must then struggle in deeply compromised environments with limited food supplies, often competiting with predators for food and shelter. This was the case with the damage inflicted by Hurricane David (1979) on the island of Dominica, when the populations of the island’s two endemic parrots, the Sisserou (Amazona imperialis) and the Jaco (Amazona arausiaca or red-necked parrot), already endangered, saw their numbers reduced to catastrophically low levels. Their condition prompted the forestry service to engage in a highly successful project to increase the number of specimens and bring the species out of the IUCN’s endangered list. 

Puerto Rico’s own endemic species (Amazona vittata), with a population of about 2000  in the 1930s, had sustained an ongoing population decline that reduced it to 47 parrots by 1975. The impact of Hurricane Hugo (1989), brought that number down to a critically endangered low of 22 birds, a number impacted negatively again in 1998 by Hurricane George. Before the rainforest at El Yunque, the last stronghold of the relict wild population of Puerto Rican parrots, sustained a direct hit from Hurricane Maria in September 2017, the number of individuals had been reduced to thirteen. Tom White, chief biologist of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program, expressed his deep concern in a 2016 conversation. He feared that the fragile remaining population, a tiny group “on life support,” “could not survive another hurricane.”

Sadly, the endemic parrot populations of Puerto Rico and Dominica were the hardest hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The impact of the hurricanes on the two islands best known for their assertive efforts to conserve their parrot species illustrates the extreme vulnerability of threatened and endangered parrot populations to expected climate change. In an interview in July 2017, Steve Durand of Dominica’s Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division, cautioned that despite the Sisserou and Jaco’s slow but steady recovery—which had made it possible for the two species to reach numbers close to five times their pre-Hurricane David population (250-350 for the Sisserou, 1,200-1,500 for the Jaco)—climate change, with its potential for intensive hurricanes, reminded us that “the species’ future was far from secure.”

The Sisserou, the largest of the Caribbean’s Amazona parrots—a remarkably beautiful bird whose distinctive colors (purple head and underpants, dark maroon wing-speculum and red carpal edge) justify its “imperial” name—sustained heavy losses following the obliteration of its mountain canopy habitat by Hurricane Maria. Shy and elusive at the best of times, the bird had not been sighted for nearly six weeks following the hurricane despite television and radio appeals to the population, and it was feared that the species had been driven to extinction by the storm. On November 8, Durand confirmed the first sighting of a single individual south of the capital, Roseau, away from its usual habitat, where it had been driven in search of food. Other sightings have followed, but these have not been numerous, and we await an official count by the Forestry Office to determine the extent of the surviving population and gauge the steps needed to aid its recovery. It is a disheartening predicament for a group of dedicated forestry officers who have been working on the saving of the species for close to four decades, since the launching of “Project Sisserou,” a national effort to acquire the large parcel of privately-owned land to consolidate the parrot’s habitat, the expansion of environmental awareness programs, the support of scientific studies aimed at the preservation of the “shy and secretive” Sisserou and the more abundant “noisy and gregarious” Jaco (Dominica’s “second” parrot). The Jaco, always more numerous than the Sisserou, has been recorded in healthy numbers since Hurricane Maria, and there are no present fears for its survival, although it remains on the IUCN’s “threatened” list.

The survival status of the Puerto Rican parrot in the face of hurricanes and climate change is complex—as there are two distinct populations—and fraught with colonial entanglements and cultural dislocations. The Puerto Rican parrot—a vibrant green, 12-inch tall bird, with blue-feathered primary wings, a characteristic red stripe over the beak and striking white-ringed eyes—is listed by the IUCN as one of the ten most vulnerable birds in the world. Two subspecies of the Puerto Rican parrot have already gone extinct, including the Amazona vittata gracilipes, which disappeared from its range in Culebra, off Puerto Rico’s eastern coast, in the late 1890s, a victim of deforestation, hunting, and San Ciriaco, a devastating August 1899 hurricane that holds the record as the longest-lived Atlantic hurricane in history. Before Hurricane Maria struck, the 13 parrots left in the extant wild population lived in a range of a little over six square miles, 0.2 percent of its pre-colonial range, an area increasingly encroached by tourism and vacation homes. These developments had not only restricted the wild population to its smallest range and lowest numbers ever, but have increased the presence of its natural predators, particularly of the guaraguao hawk (the red-tailed hawk or Buteo jamaicensis), pushed away from its habitat by continued construction of hotels and shopping malls into the parrots’ range. 

The area of El Yunque where this extant wild population struggled is in a “national” forest under federal protection and supported by federal funds since it belongs to the U.S. National Park Service. The irony of the island’s extant wild parrot population living in an U.S.-controlled habitat was not lost on Puerto Rican ecologists, who in the early 1990s demanded (and received, after tense negotiations), half of the captive population (around eighty birds born and raised in captivity) to set up a new breeding aviary in Río Abajo—the José L. Vivaldi Aviary—on a “state” forest controlled by the Puerto Rican forestry commission. This aviary, where Puerto Rican scientists have continued to breed parrots in close cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife team at El Yunque, is in the island’s karst area, a once densely populated area with numerous small agricultural holdings abandoned in the 1940s. This allowed the secondary forest to recover to become the largest contiguously forested area on the island, harboring the richest biodiversity, with more than 1,300 species of flora and fauna, among them the native and endemic species that include thirty federally listed as threatened or endangered. 

The Río Abajo aviary began an enormously successful captive parrot release program in 2004. When Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept through Puerto Rico, some 140 released Puerto Rican parrots were living and (most importantly) breeding in the wild in the new recovered forests of the northwest. They fared relatively well after Hurricane Maria, despite significant damage to the forest, with a survival rate of about 73 percent. This new population, born and bred in captivity, is creating its own “culture” and language without access to sthe extant wild population in El Yunque, the only population that knows the characteristic vocalizations that marked the “culture” of the Puerto Rican parrot at the time when the species began to be studied by scientists. It is the threatened repository of acquired, not genetic, vocalizations and behaviors on the verge of extinction.

The wild population in El Yunque did not fare well in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, both of which hit their precarious habitat. Realizing the precarious situation of the extant wild population under their care, White and his forestry team were planning the capture and re-release in the karst region of one of their wild breeding pairs, hoping that they could breed again in their new habitat and teach their own young about vocalizations about to go extinct, thereby preserving a cultural component of the parrots’ development in the wild that can go extinct even if the species survives genetically. They were praying for time, enough perhaps to gradually move the remaining wild population to the new habitat, perhaps to join the small flocks of Puerto Rican parrots that can now be seen again over the Puerto Rican forest. 

It was not meant to be. The wild flock of parrots at El Yunque—the relict wild population and a flock of released captive-bred individuals—has not been located in its former range. It has been either scattered or decimated. Twenty-two recently-released parrots at El Yunque wore radio transmitters; the seventeen that have been recovered were from dead birds. A dwindling hope rests with the five missing transmitters that they have survived and the next breeding season will bring them back home, with the handful of wild birds that have been seen or heard in the recovering forest, and with the captive population that survived the storm under special protection in the aviary. White has not dwelled on the disillusionment and frustration, but in every interview speaks of his hope.

White keeps the faith. His resistance to the possible loss of the remaining parrots is an act of defiance, an effort to preserve what remains of the sacred in their natural habitats, in their contributions to biodiversity, their specific roles in island ecologies, their quirks and idiosyncrasies, their particular beauty, their capacity to make us marvel. 

Lisa Paravisini-Gebert, the 2016-17 Wilbur Marvin Visiting Scholar at DRCLAS, is a Professor of Caribbean culture and literature in the Department of Hispanic Studies at Vassar College.

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