Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Birds of a feather

Although endangered by loss of habitat in its native Mexico, the green-cheeked Amazon parrot thrives in the comparatively tame outdoors of Palm Beach.

The parrots have adopted as their home the lanky Australian pines along the Pine Walk beside The Breakers, where they can be seen cavorting and squawking at dawn and dusk.

Keith Lovett, director of living collections at the Palm Beach Zoo, said he knows of no other green-cheeked Amazon parrot flock in Palm Beach County.

"It is rare," he said.

Highly evolved and intelligent creatures, the Amazon parrot, like many other species of parrot, has blossomed here because of the warm climate, abundance of food and the lack of a serious threat from predators, Lovett said.

And because of their scrappy attitude.

"Hawks will go after a dove instead," he said. "It's an easier meal."

Some of the non-native palms planted in South Florida originated in the tropics of Central and South America — an ideal arrangement for the parrots that depend upon the trees for their food.

"These birds are opportunists. They eat nuts, seeds and fruits," Lovett said. "There's very little to stop their reproduction once they are established."

Another reason they have prospered in Palm Beach is that they are legally protected by a 1996 town law that forbids the killing, wounding or maiming of any bird, Town Manager Peter Elwell said. The law also protects the birds' eggs and nests.

"The town is a bird sanctuary," Elwell said.

The Amazons are actually one of seven species of parrot that reside in the Pine Walk, Breakers spokeswoman Ann Margo Peart said. Inspired by the "star attraction" of the tree-lined avenue, the resort published its own children's book, Coconut Crew, featuring animated parrot characters that play and frolick among its amenities, she said.

The Pine Walk Australian pines were planted around 1880 to line the old road that led to a casino. The Breakers has kept them pruned to a height of about 70 feet, which reduces the wind load and extends the life of the trees. That is good for the flock of perhaps 100 or more green-cheeked Amazons, which favors the tree because it can easily nest in the hollow trunks, said Paul R. Reillo, a conservation biologist and director of the nonprofit Rare Species Conservatory Foundation in Loxahatchee, which has been monitoring the flock since the early 1990s.

The downside is that, if the trees are ever cut down or lost to a storm, the flock will disperse and almost certainly be lost, he said.

It congregates each year between late January and mid-February to begin mating season. One parrot will use the same nest year after year.

During the rest of the year, the flock is probably in agricultural areas, possibly the orange groves of St. Lucie, Martin and Indian River counties, he said. However, at least some of the flock live in Palm Beach year round.

"I've been seeing them for 30 years, and the numbers keep growing," said Claudine Laabs, a nature photographer and former president of the Audubon Society of the Everglades. "They love to gather on the (utility) wires and are very vocal early in the morning. I guess they discuss where they're going to go for breakfast."

At least some of the quakers, macaws, parakeets, conures, love birds and cockatiels seen flying around Palm Beach County are former pets or, far more often, descendants of pets that either escaped from their owners or were turned loose, Lovett said.

Reillo said, however, that the Palm Beach parrots were established in the 1930s or 1940s before the commercial importation of wild parrots, and are therefore not descended from escaped pets like other small flocks of feral parrots. Most likely the flock derives from a group of birds imported and eventually released by a Palm Beach resident.

They remain in South Florida year-round and stay close enough to return to their nests each evening, Lovett said.

"They definitely didn't arrive here through migration," he said.

As many as 70 kinds of parrot have been identified in Florida, with 20 believed to be breeding, according to the educational web site Florida All are exotic.

There's been little research on the newcomers compared to that performed on native species in general. The state's only native parrot species, the Carolina parakeet, went extinct around 1900.

Timothy Green, a bird lover and former aviculturalist for Walt Disney World who is now a business banker at Citibank on Royal Palm Way, said he was quite surprised to see the Pine Walk Amazons.

"I have not known of anywhere that had such a dense population of Amazon parrots," said Green, who used to lead birdwatching tours in the Peruvian rainforest. "They are distinct. They have an attachment to The Breakers. There is little chance those birds will move on. Once they nest and set up a pattern for feeding, they will keep that pattern for their entire life."

The birds follow a daily mini-migration, departing their roosting area early and flying off to a particular tree that they know is in fruit or seed at that time of year, he said.

Besides their remarkable memory, they possess exceptional vision and hearing. They also are highly social.

"One bird flying overhead and calling out can be heard miles away," he said. "That probably has a lot to do with how they locate one another in the wild. They have a desire to find each other."

Birds that flock can better defend against predators and find mates with whom to breed, he said.

"These birds that don't 'belong' here found a way to survive," Green said. "Talk about real estate: They couldn't ask for a better place to live."

During its breeding season, the green-cheeked Amazon adopts a territorial posture, becoming the only species on the Pine Walk, Reillo said.

To examine the nests, he uses a telescoping video probe with infrared lens and built-in microphone that reaches up to 70 feet off the ground.

After a 28-day incubation period, the birds hatch and then leave the nest in eight to 10 weeks, he said. Typically, the parents will raise two or three to fledging, or departure from the nest.

About 90 percent of the nests fail because of exposure to the elements or predators, including raccoons, starlings and crows, all of which dine on the eggs, Reillo said.

Last year, the Rare Species Conservatory counted 17 active nests. Only seven resulted in chicks, and four were known to have successfully fledged youngsters.

The problem is that there really is no ideal nesting site available. The birds simply have learned to make do.

"This flock must compress its entire breeding population into a nesting area of high-density nesting cavities, right on top of each other," Reillo said. "That is something that doesn't occur in nature."

The green-cheeked Amazon could well go extinct in its native range, yet continue to exist and even thrive in feral groups in non-native areas like Palm Beach, Reillo said.

South Florida has a population of several hundred that dates to the 1930s. Southern California contains by far the largest concentration in the United States; Los Angeles County has at least 10,000. There are also small numbers in Puerto Rico.

It is fitting that the Palm Beach flock has achieved a kind of local celebrity status, because it is in such an unusually glamorous and accessible location.

"This is an opportunity to see exotic wild parrots doing what they do naturally, without having to travel to the tropics and slog through the jungle," Reillo said.

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