Back to Brazil: part two
Stories of conservation in South America Article and Photos © Evet Loewen
In part one of Back to Brazil (PsittaScene Summer 2015 Issue) WPT supporter Evet Loewen recounted the tale of her trek to the country where she spent her childhood. There she met up with Dr. André Saidenberg, WPT’s Brazil Programme Manager, and together they travelled to Ilhabela, where the release area Cambaquara, a rescue and rehabilitation centre, is situated. Here in part two she heads to the Lymington Foundation, where we pick up the story…
March 3 & 4 - Countdown to Release As I generally understand it from the field biologists I have worked with, a “soft release” is one in which the animal has had an opportunity to learn about the surrounding environment so that it can identify a place of security, where it is in the habitat, is fed a diet based on what is in the surrounding forest, and is cleared of health issues. It has been given an opportunity to fly and be as strong as possible. AND, it has the choice of going foraging right away or coming back to the release site for food and security, for as long as is needed. This protocol for repopulating birds in the wild was used extensively during the restoration of the Peregrine Falcon population in the United States. I’ve seen a “soft release” of juveniles and it worked perfectly well. This group of Vinaceous Amazons (Amazona vinacea), as I understand it, was seized from individuals who trapped them as chicks and raised them in captivity. While I was photographing them, one decided to fly to my shoulder. André was not pleased with that and told me to brush the bird away. Of course, I was secretly thrilled that the bird came to me because it will probably be the only time I will ever have physical contact with one. But that is the “parrot keeper” side of me. André wants them to become totally wild, and totally free.
The point of all of this is that this group of Vinaceous Amazons had been around humans more than a field biologist would like. So the process of retraining them to be as wild as possible was tricky. However, those wild instincts are all there. How else would there be wild parrots in San Francisco, San Diego, Florida, and many other locales, if that wildness was not evident? Humans like parrots because they are obviously intelligent. They figure things out. With a bit of help, they would figure out how to be wild again. It will only survive as a species if humans allow it to be in a safe territory, and then basically leave it alone. So, to prepare this group of 18 vinacea for release, a large and tall “flight aviary” had been constructed. It was built around a tree so that palm fruit could be hung from that tree, as one example of teaching the birds what they could eat and where they might find the fruit. They could easily know the area around the aviary, could see it from the forest on the surrounding hillsides, and could return any time for food or security, as they chose. Strong mesh netting kept the birds in the aviary, and other animals out, quite well for the time they were being acclimated to their surroundings.
I had the opportunity to just sit inside this flight aviary and observe the birds fly, tussle, eat, and clamber over the tree and other structures placed inside. It was clear to me why humans like this species. They are quite charming and beautiful with the almost dusky purple on their chests and the red on their beaks. And of course, they have the direct curious stare of an inquisitive parrot. I watched the birds, watched André gather the native fruits and foods and place bromeliads (from the pineapple family of plants) in water bowls to associate the plants with finding water. It was all coming together. It was all beginning to make good biological sense to me. Release day was Thursday, March 5th. Precisely at 7 AM. Be there. March 5 - Release Day I arrived promptly. Carlos, one of the Lymington staff, was already taking down the mesh, dropping and rolling it so that it would form a barrier about 4 feet tall to keep predators out of the flight to the maximum extent possible. André, Bill and Linda were, of course, all there to watch. Once the mesh came down, it was a waiting game. A couple of hours passed. Some of the birds were clearly looking around and assessing the situation. The barrier to freedom that had kept them in for probably their entire lives was gone. They could choose to stay or leave.
(left) Dr. André Saidenberg working on one of the aviaries (top right) The release aviaries at Lymington (inset right) A Vinaceous Amazon taking tentative steps towards freedom
Bill and Linda were very cool-headed at this point, and left to go on with their daily activities. I had come to see the release, however, and was going to see these birds fly. Finally, one decided to fly out and settle on top of the metal aviary where the birds spent their time when not in the flight aviary. That one whoosh totally surprised me and my heart began to race. Then a second decided to explore the top of the door to the flight aviary. Then a third decided to sit on the mesh â€œfenceâ€? that Carlos had made. That bird posed for me and was very nonchalant.
As the noon hour approached, it was getting plenty warm, and I was getting very parched. So I excused myself to re-hydrate and get out of the sun for a bit. AndrĂŠ, on the other hand, stayed for every part of this long day. Time ticked on. The birds were not moving out. I think they were waiting to be fed. Then, all at once, four of them took to the skies. It all happened in a blur. Two went to some nearby trees. Another two seemed to head in the opposite direction, into a densely forested area. The ones still in the flight aviary were making a racket, calling out to their other flockmates in seeming alarm as only parrots can do. It was the first time I heard loud insistent vinacea calls.
Three of them were very strong fliers and the fourth seemed likely get there with some practice. As the sun went down, I became more and more anxious.
When it became clear that the four of them would be out in the forest and trees for the night, and the rest would hang around the aviary, I decided to call it a day.
All right, it was OK for them to go out and fly around. But weren’t they coming back in for the night? Wasn’t that the deal? I was a nervous wreck. I wanted all of the birds to go back into the aviary for the night and they were not cooperating. However they had not just disappeared -- they were still near the aviary.
When we saw Bill and Linda, they were quite pleased with the way the day had gone. André reported that the group was doing well, and some were foraging well enough on their own that they no longer had the need or desire to come back to their former “home” to eat.
Unfortunately I have had parrots that I lost when they somehow escaped the safety of being indoors, and my fear of having something bad happen is quite ingrained. André was very even-tempered about all of this. At one point, he was watching one fly overhead. I clambered up the hillside to crook my neck to see the darkening sky, and must have had a very anxious look on my face. André said “It’s OK, it’s OK. He is just having fun!” I told myself that I was being silly, that of course it must be fun to finally fly, really fly, and do what this parrot was born to do. This bird settled in a tree where I managed to capture a silhouette photo of him with his ruff up on the back of his neck, looking almost jaunty in the evening.
We had a quick dinner, and then it was time for André to drive me to a hotel by the Garulhos Airport where I would stay until catching a flight to Rio the following day to visit Mary and the Brazilian side of her family. It was a very long day for André, and I was more than grateful for his continued effort to guide me around the centre and its work. It was, as my friend Mary said of her volunteer time at Lymington, a truly transformative experience. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, and this time try to be more helpful on the ground. And more fluent in my very rusty Portuguese. It is worth it to sponsor a release flight aviary wherever there is a need for one. I highly recommend it, as a donor, and as a conservationist.
About the Author: Evet Loewen is an attorney who practised municipal law for 30 years with the City of San Jose, California. Her legal experience there included a wide range of legal issues, including environmental law. In 2005 Evet became a lifetime member of the World Parrot Trust, and in 2011 she became a volunteer legal advisor for the WPT. In the past year her involvement in WPT conservation work has expanded to include support of the release of parrots to the wild, focused on projects in Brazil, Bolivia, and Bonaire.
(opposite page) Freedom! (top right) Balancing on feeding platform (left - top and bottom) Foraging on local foods (far right) Up, up and away!
Back to Brazil, Part 2 PsittaScene excerpt Issue 27.3, Autumn 2015