In 1492 in Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican Parrot’s population thrived with approximately one million parrots. But after Christopher Columbus came to Puerto Rico in 1506 and the Spaniards began to settle the island the parrot’s habitat became destroyed. The Spaniards started cutting down the Palo Colorado tree which was the nesting tree of the Puerto Rican Parrot. This tree was a great material for building ships. As a result the population of the parrot was affected and started to drop.
In 1954 Jose Rodriguez Vidal counted only 13 parrots in El Yunque National Park. That is when the scientists stepped in and started recovery programs to help save the Puerto Rican Parrot. There are many challenges like hurricanes, predators and the monogamous behavior makes recovery difficult. The scientists are still working to learn about the Puerto Rican Parrot to prevent their extinction and the last few years have been quite successful. Looks like the Puerto Rican Parrot might make it after all!
Animal Name / Common Name / Genus and Species
The Puerto Rican Parrot’s common names are either The Puerto Rican Parrot or The Puerto Rican Amazon. Both names are very commonly used. The genus and species is Amazona Vittata.
Anatomy / Appearance
The Puerto Rican Parrot is a one-foot long bird. It has an emerald green body, a red forehead, wide white eye rings, blue primary wing feathers, flesh colored bill and feet, and a pale beak.
The Puerto Rican Parrot mostly flies but sometimes it walks. It is a fast moving animal and that is important for its survival because its predators are also fast moving.
The Puerto Rican Parrot is native to Puerto Rico and lives in the East and North-East of the island. The two forests that it is found mainly in are El Yunque and Rio Abajo National Forests.
The Puerto Rican Parrot’s habitat is in the rainforests. The two rainforests that it lives in are El Yunque and Rio Abajo National Forests. Recently the scientists discovered that the parrots like it in a drier climate, so they moved one of the aviaries further down south and the reproduction in that aviary has increased by 62%.
Because the human population and development is spreading, the parrots moved to the south of the forest. El Yunque is not their natural habitat; it is just the only safe place they could find. They love the Candle Wood Forest and The Red Wood Forest because of the nice weather and all the Sierra Palm Trees. The Sierra Palm Tree’s berries are one of the Puerto Rican Parrot’s favorite fruits. They also like it there because there are not a lot of people.
The Palo Colorado, a type of Red Wood Tree, is the nesting tree for the Puerto Rican Parrot. The tree will open cavities in the trunk as it gets older, the parrot goes into the cavity, goes down six feet in the trunk and makes its nest there. It will look for twigs and grass to build the nest. To have a cavity the Palo Colorado has to be at least 500 years old. Because of this it became even harder for the parrots to build a nest because the Spaniards were cutting down these trees for building ships.
The parrots also do a nest selection. The trees they prefer are the Palo Colorado, Cacao Motillo, Laurel Sabino, and the Candle Wood Tree. All of these trees open cavities in their trunks, which is important for the parrot because they go into the cavities and build their nest.
The diet of the Puerto Rican Parrot is Sierra Palm fruits, Tabonoco fruit, other wild fruits, flowers and tender shoots.
Below is what the parrots in the aviary get to eat every day:
- Every day, the people that are in charge of taking care of the parrots (mostly biologists), collect 500 Sierra Palm fruits to feed the parrots, mostly the ones that have their mates already.
- They give the parrots inactive seeds of marijuana, because the seeds have two proteins that they need and they don’t reproduce them naturally.
- They also put amino acids like +L-Canitina and Vitamin E into the parrots’ food. This last is to help them to be more fertile and for the heart to be stronger.
- Steroids also are used in their diet like, Aceida Flax, for more lubrication in their intestine. To the females, they give extra calcium because when they are ready to lay the eggs, they use their own calcium from their bones for the eggs
The Puerto Rican Parrot’s behavior is mostly calm. They are always in groups because if there is any danger, they can protect and help each other. The Puerto Rican Parrot is a monogamous species, which means that they chose their mate and stay with them for life. This makes it hard to recover the species from being endangered because it takes more time to reproduce. The connection between the two parrots is so strong that if the mate dies it can take up to ten years for the parrot to look for another mate. The Puerto Rican Parrot lives in families of at least ten parrots but is also very territorial.
Life Cycle / Reproduction
The time to look for a mate is one of the most stressful moments for The Puerto Rican Parrot and is the main reason that their reproduction is difficult in their natural habitats. That is why, when the mating season begins (January to June), the Fish and Wildlife Service cancels all the tours to the aviary. Until 1999, the aviaries were losing a lot of chicks because the hatching was so stressful and difficult for the parrots that they were actually dying from heart attacks. The scientists now put more Vitamin E in the food of the females and the numbers of chicks dying decreased.
Reproduction is difficult because the Puerto Rican Parrot is monogamous, so when a male finds a female and she accept him (or vice versa) those first weeks are the most crucial for their reproduction. That’s why it is so important not to bother them.
The female lays two to four eggs, and incubates them from 26 to 28 days. In the aviaries, before all the new additions in their diet, biologists were lucky if only two were fertilized, but now with the additions to their food the reproduction has increased 60%.
The Puerto Rican Parrot’s life expectancy is from 20 to 25 years.
Defense / Offense
To survive and compete against all their predators the Puerto Rican Parrot builds its nest deep in the trunk of the Palo Colorado tree. This allows them to have a very good and dark hiding place, so it is difficult for the predators to find them and their nest. The parrots live in groups of at least ten individuals to help and protect each other from predators.
The Puerto Rican Parrots have a very diverse vocabulary that they use to communicate to each other. Each parrot has a specific job. In a group, there will always be one parrot in charge of keeping an eye out for predators and will have the responsibility of letting the other parrots know that danger is coming. If by any chance they encounter any predators, they will fight, and will protect their eggs, chicks and nests, even if they have to die.
The number one predator of the Puerto Rican Parrot is the Puerto Rican Red Tail Hawk. Other enemies are the Puerto Rican Boa Constrictor, Bats, Snakes, Honey Bees, Black Rats, Indian Mongoose, the Mosquito Parasite and the Pearly-Eyed Thrasher. The Mosquito Parasite eats them alive by releasing a substance almost like morphine and they will be feeding themselves from the flesh of the parrot without the parrot feeling it. The Pearly-Eyed Thrasher is the most damaging because it goes down into the parrots nest and instead of eating one egg or one parrot like the others predators, it will eat all the eggs or all the chicks.
Another huge danger for the Puerto Rican Parrot are hurricanes because they don’t only wipe out the population but a strong hurricane can destroy their habitat.
The Puerto Rican Parrot had to adapt when the humans started expanding into their habitat and started cutting down trees to build houses, boats, and developments.
Species Survival Status
The population of the parrots that live in the wild is still very low. There are 24 parrots in El Yunque National Forest and 64 in Rio Abajo. In all there are 88 parrots living in the wild and over 300 in captivity. Overall there are about 400 parrots alive today.
El Yunque was a national forest since 1903 but there weren’t clear reports about the species that lived there. In 1950 president Eisenhower wanted to find out more about all the species and he hired Jose Rodriguez Vidal for this job. Vidal lived in El Yunque for three years, from 1956 to 1959, and published a book about it. Thanks to him we learned that the Puerto Rican Parrots were dying out. He counted 13 parrots alive.
A conservation program was formed and the number of parrots started gradually increasing. In 1964 there were 24 and by 1975, 48 parrots. The scientists helping in the recovery program made sure that the baby parrots grew up safely and leaned to fly by cleaning them off with toothbrushes and gluing extra feathers to their wings.
In 1989 Hurricane Hugo struck destroying about 60% of El Yunque National Forest. This devastated the Puerto Rican Parrot population and only 24 birds survived. That’s when the program got more aggressive by building aviaries, monitoring areas, and studying the parrots more closely.
Biologist Jafet Velez-Valentine, director of the program since 1990, started genetic and physiological investigations and studying the behavior of the parrot to understand how to help with the reproduction. Thanks to him the population of the Puerto Rican Parrot increased by 85%. 87 chicks were born this year so far. Biologists release the parrots from captivity after one or two years, because this has been the most effective age; they are not too young or too old and it’s easier for them to adapt.
Scientists in El Yunque National Forest have set up monitoring areas for the Puerto Rican Parrot. They use camouflaged tree houses and platforms to make census of the parrot and study their behavior. The biologists stay in the tree houses before sunrise and after sundown to monitor the parrots. They record what time the parrots came in, how many times the male went out to find food, how many times the female got out of the nest, etc.
A family of eight parrots was released in November 2011 from captivity, and they have 4 nests now. Between the 4 nests they have ten chicks. Biologists mark the location of the nests with a GPS and keep monitoring the parrots and the development of the chicks. The markings are included for the census they make every month; that means they will put up observation platforms for scientists in that area.
Biologists at the Iguaca Aviary regularly release parrots from captivity into the wild, but because the parrots are connected to humans they often come back. There was a female that was released four times and every time she goes back to aviary. The last time she came back with a mate and they wouldn’t leave. Scientists built them a nest in the parking lot because they were hoping the parrots would survive on their own. Unfortunately the male got lazy and instead of looking for food he stayed near the cages and picked up the food that fell out. Eventually a Mongoose ate him.
While the Puerto Rican Parrot’s life expectancy is from 20 to 25 years, the first parrot to be born in captivity in 1979, Pepo, is still alive and he is 33 years old.
The Puerto Rican Parrot has gone through hard times and good times but the recovery programs have helped a lot with the population. There are many challenges to still come for the Puerto Rican Parrot because their favorite nesting tree, the Palo Colorado is endangered itself. In addition hurricanes will continue to be a threat for the population. As scientists are learning more about the parrots’ behavior and habitat they will be able to help them better in the future.
Maria Cancel Figueroa – Certified Interpretive Guide from El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico
Can We Save Them? by, David Dobson