The Science — and Art — to Saving Parrots

By Susan Morse, USFWS

At our Iguaca Aviary in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest, the science that is saving the rare Puerto Rican parrot from extinction is everywhere on display: in the wall of TV monitors that relay images from cameras hidden in each breeding pair’s nest cavity; in the sleek emergency care center, where sick birds can be quickly isolated and undergo surgery if needed; in the meticulous record-keeping on each bird’s history, behavior and genetics. 

(Parrots at Iguaca Aviary, Photo: USFWS)

But lucky visitors see more than science. There’s a devotion and an art to captive breeding that are also apparent.

(Note: T
he aviary is normally closed to the public, because human noise and activity can stress the bright green birds and disturb breeding.) 

In the spotless kitchen, aviary staff fill dozens of steel food trays with fresh fruits and berries; the mix, customized for each bird pair, changes regularly to spur the birds’ exploratory instincts. 

In the aviary’s nerve center, coordinator Jafet Velez-Valentin pores over computerized databases, calculating which bird pairings will best further species survival. The higher the percentage of DNA known per bird, the better. The lower the inbreeding coefficient (a measure of how closely a bird is related to any potential mate; .1113 is the highest value acceptable), the better. Then he repeats computations by hand to focus his thinking.

But, just as with humans, promising unions can fail; some would-be lovebirds must be separated before they kill each other.  What gratifies Velez-Valentin: making a science-based match that also produces healthy chicks.  In 2012 he made 33 of these. “I love it,” he says of his job. “It’s like eHarmony for birds.”

Once in a while, a pair beats Velez-Valentin to the punch –  separating themselves from other birds, preening and feeding each other – all signs of mating behavior.   

“We love it when that happens,” he says. Using numbers from the birds’ leg bands, staff check records to see if the birds would make a good match. “If so,” says Velez-Valentin, “we pair them and let them get on with it.” Aviary-bred chicks are released in the wild.  

At the aviary, tending the birds is a 365-day-a-year responsibility, even during hurricanes, when staff bunk down on site to be sure the birds are fed. In 2012, thanks to the aviary’s efforts, the total population of Puerto Rican parrots topped 400 for the first time. The number included 171 in the Iguaca aviary, 152 in a second captive breeding facility, and between 102 and 129 parrots in the wild.

Not only was the 2012 fertility rate – 77 percent — the highest in the aviary’s 40-year history. The chick survival rate also set records:

“Remember those days when fertility was very low and we use[d] to have between 1 to 3 or 4 chicks per year, or sometimes not a single chick a year?” Velez-Valentin crowed in a letter to friends and colleagues. “Well this year we produced 57 chicks with a survival record of 70.17 percent, an all-time record for the program.”

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Susan Morse is a writer/editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 

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