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

With us is Adolphe Debrot, a scientist who directs the CARMABI Foundation, one of the main environmental organizations for the Netherlands Antilles, who is visiting from Curacao for the day. His decades of experience have sustained his respect for island traditions and for pragmatism. "I'm sure all the poachers on the island are known," he says to Frans. "Give them a lesson on how to poach. If you are going to do something, do it right."

Frans, who has been vibrant and confident to this point, deflates for a moment. "They don't listen. You can't teach them." Debrot lets it go but hopes he has planted an idea.
There are islanders who,  because they see the parrots regularly, have a hard time believing they are endangered. The birds are attracted to town because they love the mangoes and kenepa fruits introduced to Bonaire in backyard gardens. The parrots often feed in loud flocks. They are messy, wasteful eaters. When a parrot discards a mango after a single bite, it does not endear the birds to the islanders, except as highly prized pets.

James Gilardi, director of the World Parrot Trust, says this loathe-and-love phenomenon is found wherever parrots are. "It is sometimes possible to educate your way out of this situation. The most successful protection programs combine enforcement of anti-poaching laws and the recruitment of poachers to act as protectors."

In 2002 all pet parrots on the island were banded without penalty, but to discourage poaching, the fine for possessing an unbanded bird was raised. For islanders who rarely get anything better paying than a service job, the $600 penalty could be more than two weeks' wages. Poachers are thought to sell the chicks for $150 apiece.

George Thode, chief ranger at the national park, saw the increased fine as a heavy-handed approach and feared it would create animosity toward the parrots. "I had to go on the radio to ask forgiveness on behalf of the bird." To a similar end, Martin and Williams have adopted a playful strategy--they dressed as parrots to march in the Bonaire Day parade, and they write the "Dear Olivia" column for the local newspaper in the voice of a cheeky, advice-giving parrot.

Their aim is to duplicate the success of Bonaire's sea turtle protection effort, which began in 1991 and has preserved and expanded the foraging and nesting habitat of hawksbill, green, and loggerhead turtles. But perhaps most important, it changed the local perception of the island's sea turtles. Turtle soup used to be a common Sunday dinner, and turtle shells were sold in tourist shops. Education and enforcement of conservation laws have all but ended the poaching.

Another lever may be economics. Almost all Bonaireans earn their livings, directly or indirectly, through tourism. To this point, that has largely meant visiting scuba divers, so protecting water species makes sense to islanders. But if tourists begin to come for the land animals as well, that might change.

There are extraordinary birding opportunities on Bonaire. A road ribbons around the island's low southern end, where nothing  more than a latticework of coral barrier beaches separates land from sea. Levees have been used to turn natural saltwater lagoons into a solar salt works. The concentration of brine shrimp turns the most saline pools a bright pink. Within the salt works, hidden from public access, is a sanctuary with 5,000 flamingos, an important breeding population for these shy birds.

Washington Slagbaai Park has natural salinas, or saltwater lagoons, which also attract flamingos, though in smaller numbers. One night we enter the national park to watch the flamingos feeding at dusk. They are skittish around people, but we're able to inch our way closer using our vehicle as a blind. Moving through shallow pools, the flamingos look like limber punctuation: shifting commas and question marks. In the distance there is the sound of ocean surf; nearby, grunting, gooselike calls pass back and forth among the flamingos as they worry the sand with their bills, filter-feeding on mollusks, brine shrimp, and brine flies.

On other parts of the island, Bonaire's unusual confluence of birds is on display. Next to a waterhole anything is possible. There could be yellow warblers, troupiols, and scaly-naped pigeons, or white-tipped doves, pearly-eye thrashers, and Caribbean elaenias.
One morning we join a tour kayaking the mangrove forest of Lac Bay. Deep among the slow-moving channels, we clamber out of our kayaks, wearing snorkel and mask, and swim slowly into a narrow tunnel entirely enclosed by the tree canopy.

Oysters so thin they become translucent in sunlight live in clutches along the waterline. Dropping below the surface, the color scheme changes from earth tones to Technicolor. There are bright anemones and brilliant coral on the mangrove roots. An upside-down jellyfish pulses past; its stubby tentacles face skyward so that the algae living among them can photosynthesize. Our guide points to a scorpion fish settled on the bottom--an object lesson in keeping our feet afloat. The camouflaged fish is benign unless we step on its venomous spines. We drift by young barracudas and red snappers as well as porcupine fish and needlefish.

Looking up, I notice a green heron just six feet away. It seems aware of us but apparently unconcerned. Though we aren't given time to linger, I'm sure a more concerted amphibian approach to birding would be rewarded.


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