The chatty green parrots had a front-row seat to a spine-chilling show. Tethered to a tree branch not far from their cage, another parrot, similar in appearance but of a different species, was armored in a small leather vest. As the green parrots looked on, a man approached the lone parrot with yet another bird leashed to his arm: a red-tailed hawk. The hawk lunged at the parrot in the vest, wrapping its talons around it. The parrot screamed, a sound only made when death is imminent. Satisfied, the man pulled the hawk off.

This simulated attack—don’t worry, the parrot was unscathed thanks to the vest—was a ruse, aimed at Puerto Rican parrots about to be released into the wild for the first time. A critically endangered species found nowhere else in the world, those chatty green birds had never known life outside of captivity. So they were being taught what to look out for when they headed into hawk territory.

“We wanted an experience that would instill in those birds a very real fear and recognition of a red-tailed hawk as a deadly predator,” says Tom White, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program. In 2001, White helped spearhead this fear-based training regimen for parrots before reintroducing them into the island’s forests. The training involves several other phases before the simulated attack, including “flying” a hawk-shaped cutout over the parrots’ aviary, playing recorded hawk calls, and having a live hawk attack their cage.

For endangered species, even a small boost in numbers can help shift the needle away from extinction. But isolating animals for safe breeding comes with a cost. Captive “insurance populations” of endangered species, like the protected group of Puerto Rican Parrots, can lose their survival edge, both behaviorally and genetically, in just a few generations. Once they become easy prey, they’re less likely to survive if released.

This situation has left some conservationists in an ethical bind. So far, wildlife-reintroduction programs have been hesitant to embrace an approach where live predators possibly injure or kill one animal for the sake of teaching many—even if, as in the safety-vested parrot’s case, the animal that’s attacked isn’t endangered. But White’s results seem promising. And researchers behind these programs know that pampering wildlife in captivity won’t help if the species can no longer make it on its home turf.

Earlier this year, on an …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Best of

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Staging Bird Murders to Save a Species

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