Hurricane Maria dealt woman's life mission a major setback -- but she isn't giving up

By Manuel Crespo Feliciano, Accuweather en Español staff writer
April 18, 2019, 10:45:37 AM EDT

UTUADO, PUERTO RICO- After 50 years of inter-agency efforts dedicated to the recovery of the Puerto Rican Parrot, the most devastating natural phenomenon in Puerto Rico's modern history -- Hurricane María -- endangered the existence of the endemic bird.

However, with the help of conservation groups and with the support of local and federal government agencies, the natural bird of the archipelago of Puerto Rico is on a path to recovery with hopeful steps and with surprising rapidity.

In 1967, the Amazona vittata, as the bird is known by its scientific name, was classified as an endangered species.

In that historic moment, marked by major political and cultural upheaval, the socioeconomic scaffolding of the island began to shift from that of an economy based on agriculture to the production of capital focused on the pharmaceutical and manufacturing industries.

These social and cultural changes in turn set off a series of actions that affected the ecosystems inhabited by native species: to build roads, it was necessary to deforest large extensions of forest territory; to develop new agricultural spaces, extensive areas of mature forest were eliminated.

Tanya Martinez, a conservation biologist in the Río Abajo State Forest, says that the level of impact these actions had on the bird species was such that "if you had asked someone in the '70s -- when there were only 16 Puerto Rican parrots in wild state -- if it was possible to see so many parrots together, the answer would have been 'no.'" For years, she's been working to reverse a dire outcome set in motion a half century ago by cultural and economic forces. The hurricane nearly derailed that effort. However, she remains very optimistic.

Tania Martinez

Martínez has worked in the forest since 2012 and, together with a group of experts in birds, is dedicated to the project of reintroducing the Puerto Rican Parrot to its wild state. (Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

The Río Abajo State Forest is a kind of sanctuary, located in a wooded and difficult-to-access area in the town of Utuado. It is one of the cooperative efforts that began in 1968 between the U.S. Federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources of Puerto Rico in a quest for methods to rescue the endangered bird.

In addition to the Río Abajo forest aviary, there are two facilities located in the El Yunque National Forest and in the State Forest in Maricao where recovery efforts are underway. Both localities suffered severe structural damage and it is estimated that more than 50 percent of the population living in these centers disappeared after Hurricane Maria.

"In 2006 we began to reintroduce a second strain of parrots to wildlife," Martinez said. "Now we only have one strain in the wild, two in captivity and our reintroduction efforts are paused for the time being."

"Basically, it's like starting the process of reincorporating the parrot from scratch," Martinez told AccuWeather, explaining that there are many issues related to infrastructure and logistics that prevent the reintroduction process of the parrot from being a simple one.

In addition, the scientist added that it takes about a year to train captive parrots to adapt to the logic of wildlife where they must get their own food and defend against natural predators.

Photo/ Tanya Martinez

So far the 2019 breeding season is off to a great start! As Tanya Martinez states "this is one of the most special seasons of the year".

Photo/ Tanya Martinez

"The birds are doing much better this year than they were last year. In the wild we have already hatched 18 chicks in 6 nests and we are still waiting on chicks from 10 other nests to hatch,", said Martinez.

Meanwhile, more than 50 chicks have hatched in captivity between the two captive breeding centers in El Yunque and Rio Abajo.

Photo/ Tanya Martinez

The increase in breeding productivity in the wild is a good sign and it shows that the forest is recovering from Maria's impact.

Photo/ Tanya Martinez

Also, the parrots have been able to find more food resources this year.

Photo/ Tanya Martinez

The Puerto Rican parrot reaches reproductive age in approximately 3 to 5 years.

Photo/ Tanya Martinez

The parrot builds its nest in cavities found in large trees such as "palo colorado" (Cyrilla racemiflora).

Photo/ Tanya Martinez

The pairs stay together almost all the year, except when the female is incubating and the male assumes the responsibility of providing food.

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The Puerto Rican parrot shows its resilience


Despite the significant decline in the count of species suffered by the parrot after the hurricane, Martinez suggested that the scientific community on the island is hopeful given the strength that the species has shown in wake of the disaster.

The fact that 18 chicks were born after the hurricane struck is proof of the species' resiliency, Martinez said.

"The Puerto Rican parrot is definitely a resilient species. The simple fact that they could have offspring right after the hurricane is simply incredible," she said.

And on top of that, new hands have joined the effort that is seeking to reintroduce the parrot to its wild state.

"It is uncertain how long it will take to restore the reintroduction of parrots to the level that was before," Martinez added. "What I do know is that there are many people committed to the project and that there are many inter-agency efforts happening for the benefit of the Puerto Rican parrot."

Last June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted $11 million to the Puerto Rico Parrot Recovery Program of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources.

These funds will allow the project to improve its infrastructure, as well as the scope of protection and conservation of this endemic species in a critical state of extinction.

Listen to AccuWeather reporter Jonathan Petramala and AccuWeather and AccuWeather en Español's journalist Manuel Crespo Feliciano, discuss their experience covering the special series "Puerto Rico: The Art of Recovery":

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