COVER STORY: The Puerto Rican Amazon


The United States does not have such a great track record pertaining to the conservation ofits native parrots. Historically two species of Psittacines have been recorded as "native" to the continental United States, the Carolina Parakeet (Conurensis carolinakelelj) and the Thick-billed Parrot (Rynchopstitta pachyrhync). The last wild specimen of the Carolina Parakeet was killed in Okeechobee County, Florida, in 1904, and the last captive bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo on Feb. 21, 1918. This was the male specimen "Incas," who died within a year of his mate "Lady Jane." Coincidentally, Incas died in the same aviary cage in which the last Passenger Pigeon, "Martha," had died nearly four years prior. It was not until 1939, however, that it was determined that the Carolina Parakeet had become extinct. The Thick-billed Parrot disappeared from the southwest U.S. in the early 1900s, but is still found in remote parts of Mexico. It was also re-introduced into its historical range in the 1980s, but due to some technical issues with the program, it vanished once again from the skies of the United States.

However, a much more encouraging story can be told of the Amazon parrot that is found on the island of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. The Puerto Rican Amazon (Amazona vittata) was once so close to extinction that its total population numbers could be counted on the fingers and toes of two American children. During the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. government took an interest in this endangered bird and initiated the bureaucracy needed to protect it in its native habitat. Later the inclusion of captive breeding into that program would make a huge difference and kick-start the success realized today.

The total estimated population of the Puerto Rican Amazons was less than SO birds back in the 1960s. By the early 1970s, population estimates showed that number had fallen to around 13 individuals. And although parrots were popular as pets around the world, the pet trade could not be blamed for the demise of this species, as there were none in captivity off the island. Some were kept as pets by island residents, but it was so rarely encountered that thankfully pet owners settled for other "talking" species and did not pursue vittata. Instead, habitat destruction and the island's location, sitting right in the path of many strong hurricanes, reduced its numbers to a critical level.

The habitat of vittata is the island rainforest starting at about 800 feet above sea level. The average rainfall in the native habitat is in excess of 200 inches per year and some days it may rain 37 inches in one 24-hour period. It is said the bamboo and other plants in the forest can grow a foot a day. Interestingly, vittata will utilize more than 80 different plants and shrubs within the native habitat, but it prefers the Sierra Palm seed as its main food source. Wild birds may eat as many as 500 seeds per day, per bird. (Velez, interview with Jordan)