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Post-hurricane, agencies work to preserve a rare Puerto Rican parrot

By Pfc. Christina Westfall | 24th Press Camp Headquarters | October 16, 2017

EL YUNQUE NATIONAL RAINFOREST, Puerto Rico - As Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, the island was not prepared for what it would bring. The structural damage alone caused many people to lose homes. What it meant for the forest was not much different; many of the animals lost their homes too.

The once-dense foliage is now replaced with fallen trees, no longer sprouting green leaves. Without this environment, some wildlife are struggling to find the vegetation or food sources they need to adapt and survive. Found exclusively in Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican Amazon is one of these animals that used the foliage as protection from predators.

All of the Puerto Rican Amazon parrots at the Iguaca Aviary were moved to a hurricane shelter on the aviary's grounds in El Yunque National Rainforest, Puerto Rico, but the parrots already released into the wild battled the storm themselves.

In 1975, the population dropped to about 13 birds, the lowest it had ever been. After steadily increasing, Hurricane Hugo once again devastated the parrot population dropping the total to about 22 birds in 1989. However, the parrots have only been listed as critically endangered since 1994.

Four aviaries now house these parrots across the island. El Yunque's Iguaca aviary has 240 birds, 43 of which were moved from another sanctuary during the hurricane.

"The purpose of this aviary is the recovery of species in the wild," said Jafet Velez, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It is among the 10 rarest birds in the world. We oversee the flock in captivity, breed them, and release a certain amount a year into the wild to build up the population."

The Iguaca aviary was completed in 2007 to protect the species through captive breeding and egg fertility, but it was not sufficient to protect the endangered birds from a strong hurricane, Velez said.

There were nine birds that died as a result of stress and heat change due to the loss of power and trees that provided shade. Many cages were also damaged.

Members of the Forest Service's Incident Management Team, local police stations, and local fire departments helped clear up debris at the Iguaca Aviary and surrounding areas.

"It's important for us to collectively work together to help these birds," said Robert Trincado, the operations branch director for the Incident Management Team.

The remaining parrots and their nesting habitat are constantly monitored and managed through a cooperative effort between the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Puerto Rican Department of Natural Resources.

The sanctuary is currently not releasing the parrots into the wild due to the effects of the hurricane. Because of the devastation, the environment is not suitable for the birds. There's not enough vegetation or food sources to sustain their habitat requirements.

"We've seen a few of these parrots in the wild since the hurricane," said Velez. "Some of them survived the storm. It brings us an image of hope."

Hurricane Maria