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Scientists work to save Puerto Rican parrots after Hurricane Maria

The endangered bird’s population was cut in half after the storm hit the U.S. territory.

Endangered Puerto Rican Amazons huddle in a cage at the Iguaca Aviary at El Yunque in Puerto Rico. (Carlos Giusti/AP)

Biologists are trying to save the last of the endangered Puerto Rican parrots after more than half the population of the birds disappeared when Hurricane ­Maria hit Puerto Rico. The storm ­destroyed the food sources and ­habitats of the bright green birds with turquoise-tipped wings.

The Puerto Rican Amazon is Puerto Rico’s only remaining native parrot and is one of about 30 species of Amazon parrots found in the Americas. In the tropical forest of El Yunque, only two of 56 wild birds survived the Category 4 storm that pummeled the U.S. territory in September 2017. Four of 31 survived in a forest in the western town of Maricao. And 75 out of 134 in the Rio Abajo forest in the central mountains of Puerto Rico survived, scientists said.

“We have a lot of work to do,” said Gustavo Olivieri, parrot recovery program coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural Resources.

Federal and local scientists will meet next month to debate how best to bring back a species that numbered more than 1 million in the 1800s but decreased to 13 birds during the 1970s after decades of forest clearing.

More than 460 birds remain captive at the breeding centers in El Yunque and Rio Abajo forests, but scientists have not released any of them since Hurricane Maria. Scientists are now trying to determine the best way to prepare the parrots for release — because there are so few birds in the wild with which they can interact — and whether Puerto Rico’s damaged forests can sustain them. “Our priority now is not reproduction. . . . It’s to start releasing them,” said Marisel ­Lopez, who oversees the parrot recovery program at El Yunque for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, adding that breeding centers can hold only so many parrots.

But first, scientists need to make sure the forests can offer food and safe shelter. Many of the large trees where parrots used to nest are gone.

Scientists also are collecting new data on the number of predators at El Yunque, including a red-tailed hawk that hunts Puerto Rico parrots.

Ilse said scientists plan to help the forest recover through planting. By the end of November, they expect to have a map detailing the most damaged areas in El Yunque and a list of tree species they can plant that are more resistant to hurricanes.

“People keep asking us, ‘How long is it going to take?’ ” Ilse said.

But scientists don’t know, she added.

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