The Puerto Rican Parrot, Amazona vittata, is the only native parrot species in Puerto Rico and, unfortunately, it is an endangered species. Therefore, it is very important for the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) to preserve existing individuals and their habitat, as well as supervising recovery programs for the species. They are protected by Law 241 of August 15, 1999 (Wildlife Law of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico) and Regulation Number 6766 which states that possession, sale, or purchase of the Puerto Rican parrot or any of its parts -including feathers, eggs, and nests- is illegal.
The Puerto Rican parrot is relatively small in size, measuring approximately 29 cm long, and its average weight is 270 grams. Its tail is small and square, unlike the long, pointy tail of a parakeet. The color of the Puerto Rican parrot is primarily green. The tips of the wings are sky blue, visible only when they are in flight. It has a white ring around the eyes and a red stripe on its beak.
Historical documents reported the presence of the Puerto Rican parrot in all forest regions on the island; it was also reported in Vieques and Culebra. Today, it is confined to swamp cyrilla, mountain palm, and Candlewood forest types in the elevated areas of the Sierra de Luquillo mountain range in the Caribbean National Forest.
Some causes for the reduction in population of the Puerto Rican parrot are the following:
1. Loss of habitat due to massive deforestation on the island between the 19th and mid- 20th centuries.
2. Catastrophic natural events such as hurricanes that struck the island in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of 20th century.
3. Capturing of young ones for the pet market.
4. Illegal hunting.
5. Human disturbance of nursery grounds.
6. Predation, mainly by the red-tailed hawk, pearly-eyed thrasher, mongooses, and rats.
7. Usurpation of natural nests by the pearly-eyed thrasher.
8. Parasitism by philornis sp fly.
Many years ago, the population probably exceeded a million individuals. A large reduction in the population began in the mid-19th century when much of the land was deforested for agricultural purposes; by 1950 the population had been reduced to 200 individuals. In 1970, the wild population reached its lowest point; only 13 to 15 parrots were known to exist. In 1973, a program for breeding in captivity began. In 2005, there was an estimated population of 200 individuals: 20 of them are found in the wild and about 180 are in captivity (74 in the aviary in Luquillo and 106 in the Jose Luis Vivaldi Aviary in Río Abajo, Arecibo).
The latter was established by the DNER in 1989 for breeding parrots in captivity; this facility is not open to the public. The aviary’s main purpose is to serve as a bank of genetic material that represents the species and provides parrots for future reintroduction into the wildlife environment. In the Jose Luis Vivaldi Aviary in Río Abajo, there is profound respect for the Puerto Rican parrot as an animal of great cognitive capacity that, in addition to the basic need for food, water, and refuge, also needs to be provided with a proper environment that allows it to express its wide range of behaviors.
In captivity, they are given a low-fat, commercial diet when they are not in breeding and one with a higher level of protein during breeding season. In the Jose Luis Vivaldi Aviary, the parrot’s diet is supplemented almost every day with fruit, branches, and leaves gathered from the forest. In the wild, they feed on fruits, leaves, and seeds from more than 40 types of trees and shrubs.
They reach sexual maturity when they are between 3 and 5 years old. Adults are monogamous (they only mate with one individual of the opposite sex). During breeding season, the parrots are very territorial. They use cavities that form in trees, when part of a branch or the trunk dies, as nests. They can lay two to four eggs, one every other day. The incubation period takes 26 to 28 days. Chicks are altricial; this means that they are born completely naked and blind and are completely dependent on their parents for food. They remain in the nest for approximately 60 days; when they leave the nest, they continue with their parents for a few additional months.
Efforts to protect the Puerto Rican parrot began in the late 1940s when hunting in its habitat was banned. In 1968, a cooperative program began between the Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service and The World Wildlife Fund for recovery of the species. In 1994, the first breeding season in the Jose Luis Vivaldi Aviary produced two chicks.
The goal of the recovery program is to increase the parrot population to the point that the species is no longer endangered. This is accomplished through laws, regulations, and numerous activities aimed at protecting current and potential habitats, enhancing nesting sites, controlling its enemies, establishing a captive population to increase breeding, and conducting more research to provide better alternatives in order to increase the population.
One of the most important goals of the parrot project, in preparing to release the parrot in the karst region in 2006, is conducting an educational program to inform Puerto Ricans (with special emphasis on those who live in the karst region) of the most important aspects of the release. The purpose of this effort is to motivate people to protect the parrot, not to disrupt their breeding areas, and to see it as a wild animal that must remain free and not kept as a pet. It is important to understand that the future of the Puerto Rican parrot depends greatly on having released individuals survive in a new habitat and form new populations in the wild.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: August 27, 2014.
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