Birdsafe California Bird Nerds

By Laura LaFay

EARLY ON A sun-dappled morning in December, a large blue-and-yellow parrot flew through the high canopy of a Caribbean swamp forest and landed in a cocorite palm. Then came another, lighting on a nearby wild nutmeg tree. Then another. Then two more, their deep raucous calls filling the forest.

blue and golds
Blue-and-gold macaws share a pomerac inside the acclimation flight in Nariva Swamp on the island of Trinidad.

The birds, a dozen in all, were wild blue-and-gold macaws enjoying their first day of freedom after being released into Trinidad's Nariva Swamp. Once indigenous to the swamp, their species had disappeared from it 40 years earlier, wiped out by poachers and industrial rice farming.

But someone remembered the blue-and-golds. And wanted them back.

That someone was Bernadette Plair. A researcher at the Cincinnati Zoo's Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW), Plair remembered the blue-and-golds from her childhood on Trinidad in the 1950s, even though she saw them only once, while visiting her grandmother in a town near the Nariva called Sangre Grande. Six or seven of the large parrots passed high overhead. She remembered the sun glinting off their gold feathers as they called to one another.

"They belong there," she says. "Anyone can see they belong there."

Bringing back the blue-and-golds
Plair left Trinidad in 1963 on a scholarship to study biology at Mount Saint Joseph College in Cincinnati. She met her husband, Norman, there and raised three children.

She then returned to school, earning an M.S. from the University of Cincinnati. That led to her current job at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden where she has done reproduction research on both plants and animals. But she never forgot the parrots.

For the past 10 years, Plair has worked to recreate her childhood memory. In so doing, she has become one of a handful of scattered efforts around the world to use reintroduction to bolster faltering parrot species. So far, she is succeeding, beyond her wildest dreams.

Starting with research
When she began, Plair was not a bird expert. However, she could do research, and she had the backing of the zoo, which had an aviculture division and a mission to conserve species in the wild.

By 1993, Plair and the zoo had the reintroduction project underway, aided by Plair's own Trinidad-based Centre for the Rescue of Endangered Species of Trinidad and Tobago (CRESTT). Numerous public and private donors have pitched in since then and various experts have traveled back to Trinidad with Plair to help.

Bernadette Plair
Conservationist Bernadette Plair heads for the blue-and-gold release site of Bush Bush Island, a remote area reachable only by boat.

For the December release of blue-and-golds, only the second since the program began, Plair's entourage included a veterinarian, a Trinidad bird breeder, a lawyer-turned-toucan breeder, a behavioral psychologist, a veterinarian, and a zookeeper.

It also included me. The previous April, I had spent four days at Asa Wright, Trinidad's famed bird sanctuary, and three days in Tobago. At the hotel in Tobago, I found a lone blue-and-gold macaw named Trini living in a tree next to the hotel dive shop. A guide informed me the bird was the pet of the dive shop, and then mentioned Plair and her project in the Nariva.

When I called Plair six months later, she was making plans for the December release, and invited me to come see for myself. On December 11, I met Plair for the first time at the Miami airport and flew with her to Trinidad, my second trip there in a year.

The most southerly of the Caribbean islands, Trinidad lies just seven miles east of Venezuela. Its sister island, Tobago, is 21 miles to the north. Once part of South America, the island's flora and fauna are similar to that of the mainland.

Well-known for the variety and beauty of its tropical birds, Trinidad boasts some 350 species, including 17 kinds of hummingbirds. But it has never had many parrots. Orange-winged Amazons, blue and yellow-headed parrots and three kinds of parrotlets inhabit both islands. A small but stable population of red-bellied macaws lives in the Nariva Swamp.

Before they vanished in the early 1960s, the island's blue-and-golds also called the Nariva home.

A unique and remarkable wetland located on the island’s east coast, the swamp is a sprawling 15,400-acre tapestry of freshwater marsh, sandy elevations, mangrove swamp and tropical forest.

It harbors an estimated 171 species of birds and 57 species of mammals, including red howler and capuchin monkeys and the rare West Indian manatee. Green cascadou grass covers much of the open water from which moriche, roystonea and cabbage palms emerge to stand stark against the sky. In lusher places, mangroves cluster to form dim enclaves. On drier land, thick forests of silk cottons, palms and hardwoods filter the sun.

Children from the Plum Mitan Primary School perform at the blue-and-gold release ceremony.

A friendlier swamp
The reintroduction of a species is not a simple endeavor.

One of the first tasks is identifying and analyzing the factors that led to its disappearance in the first place. Do those factors still exist? If so, what can be done about them? And if not, how will the reintroduced animals avoid the fate of their predecessors?

In decline for years prior to disappearing, the Nariva's blue-and-gold population probably never numbered above 150 at its peak. The birds vanished for two reasons: the devastation wrought by the the swamp's industrial rice farmers, and the results of overzealous hunting, trapping and poaching for the pet trade.

But in the years since, the fortunes of the swamp have turned. In 1993, it was declared a "wetland of international importance" under the Ramsar Convention. The first international, intergovernmental conservation treaty, the Ramsar Convention requires participating countries to plan and promote the wise use of their wetlands.

In Trinidad, this meant the gradual banishment of the rice farmers from the Nariva, the drafting of a long-term restoration plan and the designation of the swamp as protected. In addition, a 3,840-acre section of the swamp became the Bush Bush Wildlife Sanctuary in 1968.

The practical effect of these designations remains ambiguous. Hunting and fishing are still allowed by permit in all areas of the vast, labyrinthine wetland. And given the limited number of forestry workers on patrol, permit enforcement is a largely aspirational concept.

Still, the Nariva now is a much more hospitable place for blue-and-golds than when the last bird vanished.

Founder stock
Another key issue in reintroduction efforts involves the source of the founder stock - where to get the birds.

Guyanese trappers had chopped the feathers off with machetes, a common practice with birds meant for the pet trade.

Most parrot reintroductions use captive-bred chicks because existing wild populations can't afford to lose any more members.

Captive-bred chicks have been raised and released in Tambopata, Peru (green-winged and scarlet macaws), various parts of Costa Rica (scarlet macaws), Puerto Rico (Puerto Rican Amazons) and Mauritius (echo parakeets). Other efforts, such as the ill-fated thick-billeds, released in Arizona in 1986, have used birds confiscated from illegal traders.

For the Trinidad project, Plair first planned to use macaw chicks bred and raised at the Cincinnati Zoo. But veterinarians there advised against it because of the risk of transferring unknown diseases from Ohio to Trinidad. So under the zoo's guidance, Trinidad's Wildlife Division began a breeding program on the island instead, using wild-caught blue-and-golds confiscated from illegal traders and birds from the Emperor Valley Zoo in the capitol city of Port of Spain. But once again Plair was stymied. Four years passed, with no results.

With no other option open, Plair felt she had to consider using adult birds. Considered threatened but not endangered, the blue-and-gold macaw is one of 15 remaining species of wild macaw. Once common in much of remote South America, it's disappearing from many areas, including parts of Ecuador and Columbia and all of southeastern Brazil, due to habitat loss and trapping.

One of the largest types of parrots, blue-and-golds can weigh up to 2 1/2 pounds and reach up to 36 inches in length. Their gentle, playful temperament makes them much sought after for the pet trade. Although the Wild Exotic Bird Conservation Act has banned the importation of wild-caught blue and golds (and all wild-caught parrots) into the United States since 1992, hundreds of thousands continue to be trapped and exported to Europe and Asia.

Plair knew that stable populations of blue and golds still inhabited the forests of the nearby country of Guyana. An added attraction was that fully-grown wild-caught birds with honed survival skills might stand a better chance anyway in the Nariva, where no wild adults remained to teach such skills to captive-bred chicks.

Sham Ramsubaj
Caretaker Sham Ramsubaj feeds the birds and sleeps near their flight at night. He once saved them from a marauding anaconda, a large South American snake.

The blue-and-golds return
The first group of blue and golds bound for the Nariva - nine males and nine females - arrived in Trinidad in October 1999. All were in good reproductive health and had tested negative for a variety of diseases during a 28-day quarantine in Guyana.

After a second quarantine in Trinidad, they were rowed to a large wire mesh acclimation flight on the swamp's Bush Bush Island.

Lush, forested and isolated, Bush Bush Island is reachable only by boat. The birds spent several months in the enclosure there, becoming accustomed to the look, sounds and feel of the swamp. They ate the native fruits and seeds that would constitute their diet once released.

And they waited for their primary feathers to grow back. Despite Plair's best efforts to prevent it, Guyanese trappers had chopped the feathers off with machetes – an apparently common practice with birds meant for the pet trade.

Meant to be
In December 1999, under the direction of the zoo’s aviculture division, Plair set free four males. At the time, it was thought that the birds would stake out breeding territories, and that those territories would then be well-established by the next month when Plair followed with five females and three males. In March of 2000, she released the final pair of the group. The remaining four would never be released: their flight feathers were too damaged.

When those birds paired up and started breeding, I knew I was put on this earth to do this. --Bernadette Plair

In all, nine of the 14 blue and golds that entered the Nariva during this period survived. Those nine formed four pairs and produced 12 chicks over two nesting seasons. By all accounts, this is an extraordinary success rate. Plair, who has since learned that re-introduced birds survive best when released in larger flocks, regards it as a miracle.

"When that happened," she says, "I knew it was divine intervention, and that this was meant to happen. That is where my faith comes from. When those birds paired up and started breeding I knew I was put on this earth to do this."

The wrong kind of interest
With the rice farmers gone, the villagers living in the rural communities surrounding the Nariva - Plum Mitan, Kernahan, Manzanilla Cocal and Biche – constitute the most serious threat to the newly released macaws.

Conservation is a relatively new idea in rural Trinidad. Generally poor but accustomed to a rich and seemingly endless supply of flora and fauna, rural people have a long cultural tradition of helping themselves liberally to the bounty. For many of them, news of the blue and golds sparks the wrong kind of interest: where are they exactly? How much money would one bring?

Plair was reminded of this point one night last December as we hurtled down the narrow roads of rural Trinidad in a taxi.

"Trinis can find anything," the driver told her. "They will find those macaws and catch them."

The two had been chatting amiably. In the manner of all Trini drivers, the cabbie swerved repeatedly, avoiding successive sets of oncoming headlights at the last minute. In the manner of all Trini passengers, Plair showed no signs of noticing this.

But the remark about her birds made her sit up straight.

"Well," she said, "I am a Trini, too. So I know how to hide things where Trinis can't find them. Also, those birds are protected by guards. And if you try to take one, they will shoot you."

wing check
Trinidad veterinarian Shari Warren, Sham Ramsubaj, Plair and Jerry Jennings, a toucan breeder who helped sex the birds in Guyana, check a blue-and-gold's flight feathers before release.

The threat was patently false: no one guarding the birds carries anything remotely resembling a gun. But Plair delivered it with such sincere passion that the driver, like most who encounter her, was charmed. Upon dropping her off at her destination, he kissed her on both cheeks and gave her his card. It is doubtful he will ever go looking for blue-and-gold macaws in the Nariva.

Winning over the locals
This ability of Plair's to befriend people and procure their loyalty has served her well in what has turned out to be a long exercise in tact, diplomacy, persistence and faith. In addition to her one-on-one citizen ministry as exemplified by her encounter with the cabbie, she has held a number of community meetings explaining her project and the importance of the birds. She has recruited locals to help her track the macaws' flight patterns and nest sites and she has handed out cameras so people can take photos if they happen to see any of the birds.

She wants the blue and golds to mean something to the people of this place. She wants them invested in the success of the birds' return and hopes to make the macaws a kind of flagship species, symbolizing what can be done to conserve Trinidad's natural resources if everyone works together.

There have been small indications of success. A farmer from Plum Mitan came forward to report a fatality from the first release, turning in the bird's leg band to the Forestry Division. Villagers who see the macaws now seek out the macaw monitors they know and report the details of their sightings. On occasion, they have reported other sightings: of suspicious outsiders who may not have avian welfare in mind.

Locals know things have changed, but they don't yet understand their role in it.

But on the whole, says Plair, the local people have had mixed reactions to her conservation message.

"They know that things are not like they used to be...They know things have changed but they don't understand their role in it. It's not so much this generation anymore, but the kids coming up who are going to make or break what happens. If we can get the message through to them, then when they get old enough to hunt and fish, they will follow the guidelines."

Plair's belief in this tenet has caused her to adopt an entire primary school in Plum Mitan, recruiting the students to support the project. She visits them on every trip to Trinidad and updates them on the progress of the macaws.

This past December, she stopped by on the last day of school before Christmas to pass out candy and to tell the children that more blue and golds would be released into the swamp the following week. A few days later, five students attended the official blue and gold macaw release ceremony conducted beneath a tent at the edge of the Nariva.

Plair held the microphone as they sang a song they had composed about the Nariva, "Beautiful Swamp of Life." By way of illustration, one of the two boys in the group faced the crowd solemnly, representing the birds in a blue-and-gold felt macaw suit.

Politics matter
Among the dignitaries assembled that day were various officials from Trinidad & Tobago Ministry of Public Utilities and the Environment, the government agency assisting the zoo in the reintroduction.

The huge mesh acclimation flight dwarfs its blue-and-gold inhabitants (birds in upper right).

This is yet another element of species reintroduction protocol: obtaining the participation of all relevant government agencies.

Plair and CREW Director Dr. Terri Roth had spent the days before the release ceremony in meetings and discussions with these officials. They wanted a commitment that Trinidad's government would begin gradually to help fund, and eventually to take over, the blue-and-gold project. Far from signaling the end of the project, the December 2003 release of this second group of birds would require more money and more resources. Eight of the group of 20 were not yet flight-ready and would have to stay in the enclosure on Bush Bush for a few more months. They would need to be fed, monitored and guarded every night. Although relatively low-tech for a parrot reintroduction effort, not including radio tracking devices or wireless cameras in the birds' nesting cavities, Plair's nest and flight monitoring teams would also need money.

The government officials, Plair and Roth found, were enthusiastic about the project. In fact, they said, they were poised to take on more responsibility. The details, however, remained vague. The details of the ceremony, on the other hand, were another matter. Would the minister be able to hold one of the macaws and release it herself in front of the cameras? Would there be enough boats to transport the media to Bush Bush Island?

As it turns out, a parrot reintroduction is as much a political event as it is a conservation event. Everyone must be taught about the project, given credit, made to feel good, thanked, praised and included. Meetings must be held, lunches and dinners eaten, plans made and photo opportunities considered.

Bernadette Plair
Plair takes notes on release day.

For the better part of a week before the December release, Plair taught, met, thanked, planned and ate. Meanwhile, unaware of this frenzy on their behalf, the macaws peacefully munched palm fruits in the deep green light of the forest.

Date with freedom
The birds' date with freedom arrived on December 17. Forestry workers rolled back the wire roof of their enclosure and waited as each bird tentatively investigated the situation and then flew to a nearby tree to reflect further. A few hours later, they were gone.

All 12 returned the next morning, rejoining the eight flock mates they had left behind. The caged birds clucked and cawed mournfully to their freed brethren and shared pomeracs - a kind of small tropical apple – through the wire roof that separated them.

Counting the macaws in the green and gold light of morning, Plair was more than satisfied. We had spent the night on Bush Bush, sleeping beneath mosquito netting in a dilapidated shack built by virus researchers studying red howler monkeys in 1959.

Pitch black and throbbing with the sounds of the forest, the night had been a long one tempered by soft Christmas breezes The birds had survived it. Somewhere in the swamp were the previously-released nine and their 12 offspring. Thirty-three blue and golds now flew wild in the Nariva. It was Plair’s 60th birthday. "I can't imagine a better birthday present," she said.

How many blue and golds can survive in the Nariva? This is yet another key reintroduction step: figuring out the extent to which a habitat can sustain the population growth of the reintroduced species. Once they know this, biologists can use survival and reproduction rates to determine how many animals to release in all.

Parrot experts calculate this by counting trees and then figuring out the number of birds that can be supported per hectare.

The future of blue-and-gold macaws on the island of Trinidad depends on how well the country's next generation is taught to conserve natural resources.

The Nariva, subject to unpredictable, topography-altering fires during Trinidad's dry season, makes this process difficult. After two helicopter surveys of the swamp's vegetation, Plair has not yet reached a conclusion. But this June, she plans to release the eight remaining birds. Barring more fatalities and not counting any hatchlings, the addition will increase the number of wild blue and golds flying free in the Nariva to 41. Depending on how things go, that may be enough.

For now, it is blue and gold nesting season in the Nariva. Every week at her desk at the Cincinnati Zoo, Plair gets reports from her nest and flight monitoring teams. They are seeing the macaws in pairs and in loose flocks of three to seven birds, they tell her. The sun is glinting off their gold feathers and they are calling to one another.

Laura LaFay shares her home in Richmond, Va., with two monk parakeets, Gaspard and Coco. Published 2004. All rights reserved.


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