Little chance yet to assess the losses––but the Abaco parrot almost certainly survived
CAPE FEAR, North Carolina––Hurricane Dorian, downgraded to Category 2, with peak gust speed dropping by half to a still dangerous 110 miles per hour, killed five people as it pushed north past the Carolinas, but as of midnight on September 5, 2019 was expected to diminish to a “tropical storm” and miss New York and New England by 120 miles.
Animal rescuers, on alert for a week, evacuating shelters that were at times in the projected path of Dorian and stockpiling supplies in preparation for the worst, were mostly standing down––albeit aware that heavy rains and storm surge in the wake of hurricanes often cause extensive local flooding.
“A miserable experience”
Dorian “has been a miserable experience,” reported International Primate Protection League founder Shirley McGreal, whose small sanctuary for endangered Asian wildlife near Summerville, South Carolina has survived many of the most destructive hurricanes to hit the east coast within living memory.
Hurricane Hugo did extensive damage to the International Primate Protection League in September 1989, as did Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, but compared to those, Hurricane Dorian was a breeze.
“We lost power at 4 a.m. overnight,” McGreal said, “and it was noisy and I couldn’t get back to sleep. The animals are all alive: the gibbons stayed in their houses, and the otters were in sky kennels in the animal care cottage.”
Birders raise funds to survey three species
Meanwhile back in the Bahamas, Hurricane Dorian killed at least 45 people days earlier, with as many as 3,000 people missing according to the Bahamas Press, and left more than half of the residents of Abaco islands homeless. Almost all remained without electricity, short of water, food, fuel, and practically all of the other necessities of life.
But birders already had appeals up to raise funds to seek survivors of three indigenous endangered bird species: the Abaco or Bahama parrot, the Bahama oriole, and the Bahama nuthatch.
The Abaco parrot, a white-headed ground-nesting subspecies of the Cuban Amazon parrot, whose habitat is chiefly in mature pine forest, “once lived on as many as seven islands in The Bahamas, but now can mainly be found only on two islands,” Great Abaco and Inagua, according to the Bahamas National Trust.
Abaco parrots protected since 1952
Inagua, the southernmost of the Bahamas, is now wholly protected by law, as Inagua National Park. Almost nothing is known, as yet, of how Inagua National Park fared during Hurricane Dorian, including a small herd of wild donkeys.
The parrot population on Great Abaco has been legally protected since the passage of the Bahamian Wild Bird Protection Act in 1952. The Abaco parrot population was then believed to be about 2,000, and remained at about that level for 60 years, despite the end of pine forest logging in 1965, as wildfires and development suppressed Abaco forest recovery.
Critical habitat for the Abaco parrot was designated by the creation of Abaco National Park in 1994.
Parrots quadruple as pine forest recovers
Birders commonly credit a 2009 purge of feral cats with a population surge of Abaco parrots in and around Abaco National Park, from as few as 1,000 in the park and about as many elsewhere, to 8,800 in all Abaco habitats combined by 2016.
But feral cats persist in Abaco National Park. Feral cats have not been purged outside the park. And in any event, the Great Abaco parrot population had already survived two centuries of depredations by feral cats, pigs, dogs, and humans.
What appears to have suppressed the Abaco parrots most was simply that the pine forests needed 50-odd years to reach maturity.
“Bones of Bahama parrots found on New Providence,” site of the city of Nassau, “have been dated back to the Pleistocene Era, more than 50,000 years ago,” the Bahamas National Trust web site recounts.
Bahama oriole & Bahama nuthatch
As Abaco parrots have survived countless hurricanes since then, as well as the arrival of humans and centuries of development barely suppressed by hurricanes, they likely will have survived Hurricane Dorian with only incidental losses, perhaps by retreating to underground burrows instead of by trying to outfly the wind.
The prognosis for the Bahama oriole and the Bahama nuthatch is less favorable.
Vanishing from the Abacos during the early years of pine forest recovery, between 1970 and 2000, the Bahama oriole pre-Hurricane Dorian was known to persist only in the Andros islands, south of the Abacos, with as few as 90 to 180 individuals left, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The Bahama nuthatch, surviving only on Grand Bahama island, was down to 23 individuals by 2007, and was believed to have been extinct after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, until one specimen was videotaped in 2018.
As Hurricane Dorian approached the Carolinas, the threat to the Abaco parrot, Bahama oriole, and Bahama nuthatch recalled the loss of the Carolina parakeet just over 100 years earlier.
“The last known wild specimen was killed in Okeechobee County, Florida, in 1904,” according to the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, “and the last captive bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21, 1918. This was the male specimen, called ‘Incas’, who died within a year of his mate, ‘Lady Jane.’ Coincidentally, Incas died in the same aviary cage in which the last passenger pigeon, ‘Martha,’ had died nearly four years earlier.”
Like passenger pigeons, and Cuban Amazon parrots when first described by Christopher Columbus in 1493, Carolina parakeets once flew in huge flocks.
The Carolina parakeet ranged mostly along the southeastern coast of the U.S., from Alabama through Florida and as far north as Virginia. A subspecies occurred from Ohio west to Nebraska, migrating south to Louisiana and Texas each winter.
Agricultural development of formerly swampy habitat and hunting, chiefly for feathers used to decorate women’s hats, are believed to have been the chief factors causing the extinction of Carolina parakeets.
Later in the 20th century the only other parrot considered “native” to the U.S., the thick-billed parrot of the Rio Grande region, retreated south into Mexico.
But even as the U.S. lost the two parrot species who were here before European colonization, 56 “introduced” parrot species came to inhabit 43 states, as of May 2019, of whom 25 species are known to have established wild breeding populations in 23 states––a huge net gain for parrot biodiversity.
Most common are monk parakeets, also called Quaker parakeets, originally imported from South America as pets. Also thriving in new habitat, chiefly in Florida, Texas, and California, are two other Latin American species, the red-crowned Amazon parrot and the Nanday parakeet.
University of Chicago ecologist Stephen Pruett-Jones believes there are now more red-crowned Amazons in California than in their original habitats in Mexico––which may in part be due to climate change.
Altogether the U.S. now has a growing population of as many as 50,000 wild parrots, whose success here helps to ensure that their species will persist, regardless of whatever happens to their “native” habitat in other parts of the world.