Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Parrots Over Puerto Rico

(Copyright Susan L. Roth)
As birds go, parrots seem to have a very special connection with humans. We are charmed by their colors, intelligence, and voices. The broad order that includes parrots contains over 350 birds but I suspect most of us think about parrots as pets more than wild birds because they have shared our lives and been popular companion animals for centuries. Some imitate human speech and a few, like the African Gray Parrot (see the October 22, 2013 post about Alex), are so good at mimicry that they seem almost human. In the wild some birds live up to 80 years! But some wild parrots are endangered and although it is illegal to sell wild-caught parrots, the popularity of the birds continues to drive illegal trade that further decimates some populations. For example, there are fewer than 500 Blue-throated macaws, while there are less than 50 mature orange-bellied parrots in Australia. Fortunately some efforts to save  parrots, like the kakapo, the world’s heaviest parrot and one that is also flightless, are working.

Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore tells the story of the fight to save another breed of parrot. Their story is about the birds that have lived on the island of Puerto Rico for millions of years, but it is also a history of Puerto Rico and the impact that population growth has had on the birds. Also called Iquaca, the Puerto Rican parrot is the only bird unique to Puerto Rico. (Iquaca is the onomatopoeic name that mimics their flight call.)

Before the island was settled, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican parrots lived in the area. As soon as people arrived on the island, beginning with the Tainos around 800 CE, the parrots were hunted for food, to keep as pets, or to use the feathers for decoration. As sailors landed ships at the island, black rats began to take over the nesting holes and ate the parrot eggs. Since each pair of parrots usually mates for life and  produced only one nest of chicks a year this took a serious toll on the parrots. By 1937 there were only about 2,000 parrots in the mountains of Puerto Rico and in 1954 only 200 parrots were left. By 1967 only twenty-four parrots remained. Unless something happened quickly the Puerto Rican parrot would be extinct. 
Puerto Rican Parrot
 ( USFWS Photo; licensed by Creative Commons)

This is becoming an all-too familiar story. Hunting, environment and other factors decimating a population. Sometimes scientists and concerned individuals are able to step in and help before it's too late. Fortunately this is one of those stories with hope for a happy ending. 

Concerned scientists started to raise chicks raised in captivity using Hispaniolan parrots, their less rare cousins, to nurture the babies. By 1979 the first aviary-raised chick was released back into the wild. By 1999, one of the two aviaries had 54 parrots. Ten captive-bred parrots were released in 2000. People taught the birds to hide from hawks and avoid becoming prey. Dozens more birds were raised and released. Perhaps these birds will not disappear after all. An Afterword details more about the Parrot Recovery Program with photographs of the birds and the aviary staff and a look at how the history of Puerto Rico is intertwined with the history of the birds.
Hispanolian Parrots
(Licensed by Creative Commons)

The picture book is arranged vertically, rather than horizontally, allowing a spectacular view that runs from the ground level, high up into the tree tops. The story is beautifully illustrated in collage by Susan L. Roth. I had the opportunity in April 2013 to watch Susan work her magic. By only ripping or cutting pieces of paper, including take-away menus, into shapes, Susan forms pictures that are then positioned and held with tape and glue.  She takes pride in the fact that no other media are used--no pens, pencils, paints. The book offers a great story for bird-loving young readers and will inspire them learn more about endangered birds and maybe try their hand at collage art.

A copy of the book was provided by the publisher, Lee and Low Books.

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