Parrots of the Caribbean

Parrots of the Caribbean

If you have heard of Bonaire at all, you may think of it as a haven for scuba divers or, maybe, loggerhead turtles. But this tiny island might also offer the best chance of survival for the yellow-shouldered Amazon parrot.

By Ted O’Callahan/Photography by Kim Hubbard
Published: July-August 2009

Many of the nests the scientists monitor are located inside Washington Slagbaai National Park, which covers most of the island's northern fifth. Fernando Simal, the park's manager, joins us to check these nests. Williams points out red-necked pigeons and tropical mockingbirds, calling for "arms in" as we barrel through a gauntlet of overgrown mesquite. He explains that this year's parrot chicks are almost through their own gauntlet. "We started with 62, but we only had 29 reach this point," he says. Introduced predators take a toll, but the chicks that do fledge have a good chance of living 20 to 30 years.

As the crimson Toyota Hilux bounces along a dirt track in golden light that suffuses the rolling hills, Williams points to a dividivi tree ahead where they've been monitoring a parrot chick. Yellow-shouldered Amazons, like all but one of the world's nearly 350 species of parrots, do not build nests. They rely on finding cavities in trees and rock faces. This means that once a good hole is found parrots will return to the spot year after year. "This chick is eight weeks old," Williams says. He laughs at himself, almost shyly, saying, "That's the way parents talk about their kids." But as we stop he can't resist adding, "I could tell you to the day if you like."

Williams and Simal approach the tree, preparing to record the last set of growth measurements before the chick fledges, but a piece of the tree has been broken away. There are downy feathers scraped onto the bark. The nest hole is empty. The first reaction is disbelief. Then disgust. Williams's face flashes through the impact of so much hope and effort gone for naught.

"Poached!" moans Simal.

This makes seven out of 29 chicks this year that have been taken from their nests to be sold as pets. Williams's hurt bursts for a moment into anger. "If I ever caught one of these poachers, I'd break his legs," he says. While it is a fleeting impulse that he wouldn't act on, it does reflect the depth of his feelings for the birds. "If they took an egg, it's really not a big deal. But when nothing else is going to kill it. . . . At this point, the only thing it has to do is fledge. . . . I had known the chick since it was an egg."

Martin, meanwhile, has been checking other nests. His reaction to the news is more measured. "The single best thing that could happen would be to catch a poacher in the act, have him prosecuted, and his picture in the paper," he says.

Although there have been laws protecting the parrots on Bonaire since 1952, they simply haven't been enforced. Meanwhile, yellow-shouldered parrots have gone extinct on Aruba. The birds live in an arid habitat, which in this part of the world means they are native to just three other islands and a few disconnected dry patches of coastal Venezuela.

The populations are isolated from one another, and current conditions on the mainland make conservation there dangerous and difficult, if not impossible. Mainland poachers could take as many as 70 percent of the chicks. Even though there are thought to be more yellow-shouldered parrots on the Venezuelan island of Margarita, poaching there, at least in some places, may claim as many as 90 percent of the chicks, leaving Bonaire as probably the species' best chance.

Waiting one morning for the parrots at a nest site, we spot four ruby topaz and two emerald hummingbirds among white blossoms. For a quarter of an hour we watch the darting shards of color turn the branches into a kaleidoscope. Unexpected sightings are regular occurrences on Bonaire. With so little real estate, habitats overlap so that in one direction there could be a crested caracara in a tree alongside an iguana, while in the other direction there might be a Caribbean coot, a brown booby, or a blue-tailed skink.

When several parakeets fly past, Williams points out how they flap from the shoulder as compared to parrots, which fly like ducks--he extends his arms straight out and frantically flaps just his hands to demonstrate. The bushes rattle with lizards and the air is full of bird calls, so we never quite have his complete attention. Williams's ears seem to have control of his head, causing it to constantly bobble about in search of a better fix on the soundscape. He interrupts himself midsentence with, "That's the bananaquit. Hear how it seems to have a lisp?" Or, "That squeaky-dog-toy sound is the flycatcher."

Even in such a peaceful spot there are reminders of what is at stake. Sun-bleached pieces of a makeshift ladder have been left by poachers. At other sites the researchers have found ropes hanging down cliffs. In many ways it is a competition between the conservationists and the poachers.

 

Buchie frans greets Sam Williams with a shout, then chastises him for having waited so long to visit. Williams excitedly introduces us to this Bonairean for whom he has enormous affection and respect despite the fact that he's a poacher.

Collecting birds was something Frans learned as a boy from his father. He says it was done in a way that took sustainability into consideration--never taking chicks from the same nest in successive years. Frans says he is about to turn 80, but the tattoos on his arms bounce as his muscles bulge with every gesture. He says he stopped poaching in 2002, when the fine was raised to roughly $600, and he is disdainful of the current poachers who resort to chainsaws to get chicks out. "People are stupid. You chop it. That's the last time. You can't take birds there anymore."

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