Zoological Investigations

The Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata) is the only endemic parrot species in Puerto Rico. The Taino Indians referred to this parrot as higuaca or iguaca (the “h” is silent).

Higuaca are about 30 centimetres long. They are emerald green with blue primary feathers, a white eye ring, red forehead and a short, blunt tail. The hispaniolan parrot (Amazona ventralis), an introduced species, is often mistaken as the higuaca.

Higuaca reach sexual maturity between three and five years of age and form long-lasting pair bonds. Pairs remain together year round, breeding once a year during the dry season (February to June). Females incubate the eggs while males forage for themselves as well as for the incubating female. Both parents feed the chicks. Once fledged, the young (two to four on average) remain with the parents for several months or even into the next breeding season.

Higuaca are primarily frugivorous (fruit eaters) and mainly live in the old-growth rainforests of Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, very little rainforest remains, as most of it has been cut down to make way for agriculture. Yes, that’s right folks: that old beast known as habitat-loss-via-deforestation, intensified through massive human population increases, is back to haunt us again in this, the last Puerto Rican edition of Zoological Investigations.

Higuaca are one of the most endangered birds in the world today. Back in the 1400s, the higuaca population was estimated at anywhere from 100,000 to one million (based on field observations). Spanish colonization in the 1600s led to massive human population increases and deforestation. This drastically diminished the amount of suitable habitat, and higuaca numbers were reportedly declining in as early as 1836.

By 1900, the human population on the island was about one million. About 76 per cent of the forest had been converted for agriculture, and less than one per cent of the old-growth forest remained. In 1937, the higuaca population was estimated at only 2,000 individuals and could only be found in the Luquillo Mountains (the last suitable habitat available). Rigorous population estimates were carried out in the mid-1950s (200 birds) and in the late-1960s the estimate was reduced to 14! Imagine trying to choose a date (let alone start a family) from a pool of only 13 others, roughly 50 per cent of which are the wrong sex for procreation.

Finally, in 1967, the higuaca were declared endangered, and in 1968 the Puerto Rican parrot recovery plan was initiated. This was a joint effort of the Puerto Rico department of environmental and natural resources, the Caribbean National Forest and International Institute of Tropical Forestry, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Puerto Rican Parrot Field Office, and the National Biological Service. A captive breeding program was set up in 1987, and by 1989, the wild population had increased to 47 birds. Great news, right? Well, it’s tough love in the jungle, and in the same year Hurricane Hugo wiped out about 50 per cent of the population.

If I might detour away from habitat loss for a paragraph, higuaca are also threatened by the introduction of exotic parrots such as parakeets and other Amazons. This includes birds introduced into the wild on a large scale in the past (parrots are cool, let’s get more), as well as by pet owners who release domesticated birds into the wild (never, ever do that!). These birds compete (and often out-compete endemic species) for food and scarce habitat. Higuaca have also been (and may still be) killed by collectors and by farmers to prevent crop damage, as well as caught and sold for sale in the pet industry (never, ever buy wild-caught animals!).

Ongoing genetic research uses DNA fingerprinting to improve the diversity of the parrots by mating genetically distinct pairs to reduce inbreeding depression. This is both difficult and important for species that have gone through severe bottlenecks in which the population has become drastically reduced. This is an extremely important method used in reintroduction programs, often with great success. Yet for the higuaca, another factor comes into play: “behavioural compatibility.” As I pointed out through the analogy of choosing a procreation partner from the last seven humans on Earth, Higuaca will not mate just because you throw them in a cage with a genetically distinct bird of the opposite sex. They have to like each other. Sucks for science; bonus for freedom of choice.

Currently there are two captive breeding programs in Puerto Rico that focus on maintaining a healthy, viable captive population and successfully reintroducing captive bred birds into the wild. The goal is to establish two free-living, wild populations that will be stable at about 500 individuals each.

With all the thrill and bustle dedicated to the fight to save this beautiful, gregarious and intelligent animal, I think the Puerto Rican parrot has a decent chance at reaching the 1,000 mark. Yet, I will point out that it doesn’t always go so well for what we think of as ugly, useless, irritating, un-cuddly and/or anti-social species. It’s important to remember that we are the most successful species currently inhabiting this planet, and we are making life very, very difficult for most of the species we share this very limited space with. I think we should view ourselves as stewards of this environment and strive to repair the damages we have done to all of the species we have negatively impacted, not simply the pretty and cute ones we feel we can relate to!

I am done preaching. See you in the New Year.

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