Rosemary Gnam and the Bahama Parrot Project

Release and Decrease:

U.S. Government Conservation Programs
by Rick Jordan

On Wings Volume 1, Issue 3, June 1995

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service release program for the Thick billed parrot is one example of how we can no longer justify tax dollars going to PhDs who have "deemed" themselves conservationists. They spend many years in a university studying ornithology and population management in order to "save the world" with their education and titles. So where are the Thick-billed parrots that were released? Most of them ended up as the "pellets" that were regurgitated- by the hawks that ate them.

This release effort is a prime example of the type of program that should have incorporated the knowledge and-experience of captive breeders. Unfortunately, many of us do not have the required letters following our names that would "qualify" us to participate in such an endeavor. Instead, the PhDs of the project asked us to supply them with captive-bred birds to be used in their program. All of our years of dedication and study of the captive breeding biology of this bird-were ignored.

The only thing the PhDs wanted was to use our offspring so they could try to utilize the book knowledge they attained concerning reintroduction principles. The one-sided approach to this program resulted in a huge disaster for the Thick-billed parrot.

As an aviculturist you have much to offer these "Doctors". Don't let them bully us into believing that only they can save parrots from the ravages of mankind . Do you think they can hatch an egg? How about assist the hatch in problem cases? What about all the other things you have learned about parrots while keeping them in captivity? You have learned about nesting site preferences, food choices, mate selection, courtship displays, infertility, incubation, rearing, socialization, nutritional requirements, medicine, environmental factors, stress, age of reproduction, roosting habits, compatibility with other birds, parental feeding, weaning, etc., etc. If the PhDs in charge of the Thick-billed project had asked specifically for "parent raised" offspring, I am sure their results would have been different.

Aviculture is not taught in the classes of any university. Instead, most courses concentrate on the reasons that the study of ornithology and population management are necessary. They blame the trade for the demise of many species in the wild while ignoring the real reason many birds are now becoming rare: habitat destruction. Take a good look at the Bahama Parrot or the Puerto Rican Amazon; neither are represented in the breeder trade, yet we always get blamed for their plight.

The list of species of parrots that are not represented in captivity, but are rare in the wild, is a long one. Perhaps this list should be mailed to the U.S. FWS and the Animal Rights groups so they will know who to blame the next time a range country reports a bird in peril. Past experience with these stubborn PHDs does not paint a pretty picture for the future.

Captive breeders have knowledge that would be invaluable to biologists and true scientists involved with psittacine population studies. Since many of us breed some of the more common parrots for the pet trade, these scientists assume that we know nothing of any value to them. They don't understand that all of those birds that were bred for the trade have provided us with the experience that could make their programs a success. They ignore the fact that aviculture has taken many species, rare in the trade, and bred them to the point where they are not common enough to be sold as pet birds. This is no easy task when you are dealing with only ten or twenty original birds.

The dynamics of captive breeding have been utilized in a few governmental programs around the world. The government of New Zealand utilized the concepts of surrogate parent birds to save the rare Black Robin. This species had been reduced to only two females (no, not by the pet trade). On the island of Mauritus, scientists and aviculturists are working together to save the Echo Parakeet (also not represented in the pet trade). They are using captive breeding pairs of the common Indian Ring-necked Parakeet as surrogates for the eggs and chicks of Echo. In the Bahamas, the government has finally decided to try to breed their amazons in a cage. It worked, and the first captive born Bahama Parrots hatched this year. This is despite the fact that a certain PhD sat around and watched the feral cats destroy active nests and nesting females only a few years ago, all the while screaming that the trade was destroying rare parrots. Take another look, Doc, the trade has saved more than it has destroyed.

All over the world (except here in the land of freedom) people are beginning to recognize the importance of our work in the private sector of captive breeding. Only a few anti-captive breeding groups are still out there trying to save the world with out of date ornithological data that was learned in a textbook. I assure you they will not succeed for many years, or at least until they learn what most captive breeders in this world already know.

The Puerto Rican Amazon is another example of a governmental project that needed a captive breeding biologist on staff. This project has shown very poor results in the past eleven years. Only recently have they incorporated the use of artificial incubation, surrogate parenting and the fostering of the chicks back into the wild. These are all specialty areas that have been perfected and used by captive breeders for many decades.

Finally the results of the project are showing an increase in birds! We can only hope that a "light" has come on somewhere in the jungles of Puerto Rico. I certainly hope that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service soon realizes that the illegal trade in parrots is not the direct result of aviculture. We often get blamed because these smuggled birds are usually too unruly to be sold as pets and they eventually end up in an aviary somewhere. We are bird lovers and would offer a homeless bird the chance to breed in a captive situation rather than watch it die in the hands of the ignorant.

Don't think for a minute that aviculturists have "placed an order" for these smuggled birds. We too would love to see the illegal trade stopped. There are many birds in the trade and distinguishing between the legal and the illegal is not always possible. If you tell an aviculturist that the bird you have for sale is illegal, nine times out of ten you will be reported to the authorities. Is this an example of our dishonesty?

In the meantime, while the USFWS concentrates on setting us up, these birds need a-place to go. Since it is a common practice to exchange and sell (legal) single birds until they are paired with a compatible mate, the trade in "unruly" birds will continue. All the "hot air" out of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has resulted in very few actual arrests for smuggling. If smuggling is, in fact, so common, why is our law enforcement so weak?

It appears that the government programs are not the answer to saving the birds in the wild or in captivity. Furthermore, it appears that the government is not very successful at stopping the trade in illegal birds. So why is our government passing more and more laws that give them the authority to control birds when they can't enforce the ones they already have? Wouldn't our money be better spent on habitat restoration or preservation? I know there are a few textbooks in the universities dealing with that subject. I for one will loan any of the famous PhDs my library card if they want to save the world. In the meantime I wish that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Conservation Community would stay out of the business of aviculture! Quit lobbying our representatives for laws that control captive breeding and start doing what you are paid to do — conserve something!

On Wings December 1995 Vol 1:8

P.O. Box N3028
Nassau, Bahamas

Dear Editor,

The Department of Agriculture would like to clarify some of the misconceptions regarding conservation on the Bahama Parrot (Amazona leucocephala bahamensis) which appeared in the article "Release and Decrease: U.S. Government Conservation Programs", by Rick Jordan.(Volume 1, Issue 3, June 1995)

Conservation efforts for the endangered Bahama Parrot focus on the survival of this parrot in the wild for future generations of Bahamians to see and enjoy. This parrot survives today on only two islands in the Bahamas -- Great Inagua and Abaco. The Abaco population is unique because it is the only New World parrot to nest in subterranean cavities. The Bahama Parrot declined because of habitat loss, predation, hunting, and capture for the pet trade. Since 1973, the Bahama Parrot has been protected by the Bahamas Wild Bird Protection Act and by international conventions such as CITES -- and the U.S. Endangered Species Act. It is illegal to capture and possess a Bahama Parrot without government permission.

Being concerned about the Abaco population of the Bahama Parrot, the Bahamas National Trust in the late 1970's requested one of its Board members, the New York Zoological Society, to arrange to undertake some field work. That is how Rosemary Gnam was found and became involved. In 1985, Dr. Gnam undertook a six-year field and conservation research project on the Bahama Parrot in Abaco. This project was carried out With the permission of the Bahamian Government, and with the involvement of the Department of Agriculture, the Forestry Section, the Bahamas National Trust, and Abaco residents and schools. The objective of this project was to develop a thorough understanding of the biology and ecology of this parrot, so that an effective conservation management plan for its survival in the wild could be developed and implemented.

Extensive data were collected on population size and stability, nesting biology, feeding ecology and habitat requirements. As the project progressed, several Bahamians became interested in conservation biology and the project became an important training exercise for our personnel.

As a result of this project, recommendations were made to government on h how best to conserve this species. In May, 1994, the Government of The Bahamas declared the creation of a 20,000 acre National Park in southern Abaco for the protection of the Bahama Parrot. This Park contains critical nesting and feeding areas for the parrot. Rick Jordan's article gives a disconcerting and unfair portrayal of Dr. Gnam's project. She was far too busy to just "sit around and watch feral cats destroy active nests and nesting females", as the article states. Actually, feral cats -- an introduced species on our islands -- were not considered a threat to nesting Bahama Parrots until Dr. Gnam's data showed otherwise. Dr. Gnam was able to devise a protective fencing design that protects nests from feral cats and also made important recommendations for feral cat control which the Forestry Section and the Abaco Chapter of the Bahamas National Trust are presently implementing. Her research has been of the highest professional calibre. The Department of Agriculture and the Bahamas National Trust greatly value her contribution.

The Bahamas' conservation efforts focus on the survival of this unique parrot in the wild. The Abaco National Park will play a critical role in the development of bird-watching and nature tourism in The Bahamas. Bahamians and tourists alike will be able to enjoy seeing these beautiful creatures in our forests.

Captive breeding of the Bahama Parrot has played a minor role in these conservation efforts. Captive Bahama Parrots at Ardastra Gardens, a zoological facility in Nassau, helped to educate the public about this endangered parrot. The Bahamas National Trust were the first to successfully rear Bahamas Parrots in captivity when they reared a three-chick clutch in 1987. Ardastra successfully reared three chicks in 1994 and one chick in 1995. Government is currently expanding the captive breeding programme at Ardastra. In 1987 three Bahama Parrot chicks were illegally removed from The Bahamas. We continue to be concerned about the vulnerability of the small Bahama Parrot populations to poaching and smuggling. Such illegal activities could rapidly decimate the present parrot populations. If any aviculturists have information on Bahama Parrots outside The Bahamas, we would appreciate hearing from them.

Thank you for the opportunity to set the record straight. We invite your readers to visit The Bahamas and see a Bahama Parrot flying free in the wild. Our experience demonstrates that determined conservation efforts can succeed in their native habitats.

Earl D. Deveaux Director of Agriculture

Dear Editor:

I read with great interest the letter from the Hon. Earl D. Deveaux of the Department of Agriculture. I agree wholehearted with the statement that much progress has been made in recent years and firmly believe that the present government can be given much of the credit. In 1980 those of us attending the St. Lucia parrot conference heard Rod Attrill talk about the proposed National Park on Abaco, but for many years that followed, the proposal appeared t have fallen on deaf ears. The efforts of the Bahamas National Trust and the new government paid dividends with the final creation the park.

I am also pleased that Rosemarie Gnam is no longer at odds with the National Trust and the government. In 1990, Gnam asked me to write an article praising her work, plugging the proposal for a translocation program and downplaying captive breeding by the Bahamas National Trust. She was hoping that this would bring her the recognition that she so desired. The article was written and it caused quite a stir amongst certain circles.

In hindsight, I should have had a more open mind and not been so critical; at the time I was seeing things from a one-sided perspective. I accepted, for example, Gnam's view that the Bahamas National Trust was using her as the excuse for not having done anything to conserve this parrot.

The Trust, I learned later, has done much to conserve this species. It now appears that all have reconciled their differences for the good of the Bahamas Amazon and this pleases me greatly. Rosemarie Gnam is a good biologist with much to offer. The Trust has a long tradition in the Bahamas, and the new government is making some very dramatic and positive changes in all aspects relating to the Bahamas. They certainly deserve credit for helping to preserve this species.

Tony Silva

From the Editors:

The Bahamas National Trust (BNT) was created by Act of Parliament in 1959. It is responsible for the protection of wildlife in the Bahamas, and has been instrumental in the creation of a number of parks and for the passage of several laws for the protection of native bird species. The Wild Birds Protection Act of 1965, and amended in 1972, banned collection of or possession of birds for pets, or for any other reason without a permit. When the Bahamas Government became a party to CITES in June of 1979, the Bahama parrot Amazona leucocephala bahamensis was already included on CITES Appendix I.

Shortly after that time, as reported in Conservation of New World Parrots, Proceedings of the ICBP Parrot Working Group Meeting in St. Lucia, 1980, the BNT presented to the Bahamas Government a conservation proposal listing 27 specific areas as critical habitat for protection of species. Included in this listing was a parrot reserve, described in their proposal as follows:

"All that area which is bounded on the North by the line marking 26°.00'.00" North Latitude, on the East by the Sea, on the South by the line marking 25°.53'.0" North Latitude and on the West by the Main Road leading to Hole in the Wall. [Reference Sheet No. 27 of the New 1:25,000 Series of Abaco]

This area is the home of the northernmost breeding population of the Bahamian Race of the Cuban Parrot (Amazona leucocephala bahamensis) and, indeed it is the northernmost breeding population of any of the large genus Amazona found only in the New World. The geological structure of the coastal ridges overlooking the Atlantic Ocean is in fascinating contrast to the calm mangrove shores of the western side of the island. Several of the major vegetative zones of the Bahamas are to be found in this area and the forest — mixed broadleaf coppice and extensive pine stands — constitute a habitat and sanctuary for a number of native birds, some of which are on the endangered list. Fresh water ponds and swampy areas are a source of drinking water for both resident birds and migratory waterfowl and, with an abandoned settlement and the picturesque wrecking outpost of Lantern Head in the area, there are abundant reasons for the protection of this entire area under the umbrella of a National Park and Nature Monument."

Although the BNT did not have sufficient funds or political clout to proceed with plans for the Park at the time, even fourteen years later the establishment of such a facility is welcome. We commend Dr. Gnam on her role in conserving the Bahama parrot in the wild.

ON WINGS readers will recognize Dr. Gnam as the Executive Director of the Association for Parrot Conservation, and as the Service employee, with Susan Lieberman, primarily responsible for the promulgation of regulation under the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992. Gnam has consistently pushed for programs stressing translocation of birds as a conservation tool, downplaying the role of captive breeding of birds as a conservation measure, even in-situ, as in the Ardastra project. But perhaps because Mr. Deveaux has acknowledged the even "minor role" that captive breeding plays in conservation of the Bahama Parrot, there is a chance at communication.

A member of the BNT has provided ON WINGS with the Ardastra Gardens and Zoo Bird Inventory for 1994. Its population of Amazona leucocephala bahamensis stood then at three males and two females. (Two males and one female of this total population were included under significant births. The only other "significant births' at Ardastra in 1994 --- were of 2 ocelots Felis pardalis.)

ON WINGS will be contacting the BNT and/or the Department of Agriculture in the near future in an attempt to determine the fate of the birds not accounted for in Mr. Deveaux's letter, i.e., the 1987 birds and /or their progeny.

We also hope to inform officials of the vast knowledge and expertise in the breeding of Amazon parrots in to be found within the United States avicultural community. It is our genuine hope that a dialogue can be begun, and that such projects in the future can take advantage of and be improved through the expertise of such authorities on captive breeding as our own Rick Jordan.

And finally, as Mr. Deveaux says in his letter, the Bahama Parrot has been protected since 1973. In The Handbook of Amazon Parrots, copyright 1983, Al Decoteau states that he knows of no Bahama Parrots in the United States. No one with whom ON WINGS consulted on this matter knew of the bird in U.S. aviaries. This bird has never been in aviculture in the United States, let alone in the pet trade here, and we would ask the gentleman to make clear as to just what 'pet trade' he is referring?

Many range countries have a thriving internal trade in their native species. If this is what he is indicating, we in the beleaguered American avicultural community would like that clarified. We are certain Mr. Deveaux is not aware of the unsubstantiated allegations of widespread smuggling to which the American avicultural community has been subject in recent years, and cannot believe it is his intention to perpetuate that myth. We look forward to his reply, and to a cordial relationship now and in the future.