Those left to mourn
Sisserou and Jaco parrots and the predicament of Dominican farmers:By Cuthbert J. Vidal
This presentation is dedicated to the honour of Mr. William of Marigot, Mr. Witnel Louis of Coulibistrie and the many other farmers persecuted by parrots.
We all know that Dominicans are very patriotic people. However, the recent scenario or rather fiasco in which a few parrots were exported provided sufficient reaction to brave the patriotism of our people. The level of concern and the kind expression of love exhibited by Dominicans toward our parrots were overwhelming. Surely, some were furious and many were outrage, not without justification. The departure of these birds has left much to be desired from the authorities.
Although the attention was focused on the birds that were exported, very little was mentioned about those in their natural habitat, their management, and of course, their feeding. It is this aspect of our precious birds I would like to concentrate upon
In order to have a good understanding of this development, it is necessary to go back to the past. Again, we all agree that Dominicans are a very resilient people. The same can be said about our parrots, and even more so.
Parrots have been living in Dominica for hundreds of years. In their national habitat, they have been able to multiply and survive throughout those years. They were probably introduced to this country by native Indians from the Central and South America.
My experience with parrots
As a young boy growing up in my community of BAWI, I was very fascinated by the stories of parrots as told by hunters and village elders. Whenever I go to the garden I use to pay attention for a possible sighting of these rare birds. One day somebody found a feather from a parrot, and that was big news. Frankly, I could not understand what all the big and excitement was all about. Today, I assume, maybe because it was such a rare occurrence.
A few years later, maybe in the early sixties, I was still a young boy; a gardener from the village caught a parrot alive. He kept it at home in captivity for a few days. This time, the excitement was for real. Villagers flocked to glimpse at that brilliant creature. The constant visits were nothing short of pilgrimages. It was on this occasion I saw my first parrot.
During the sixties, seventies and eighties, Dominicans produced far more citrus than any other time. These included limes, oranges, tangerines and grapefruits. There was hardly only sign of parrots. This was due mainly to the fact that they kept within their territory.
It is said that parrots chose their mate for life. We know that they are exceptionally intelligent birds. Some say that they have been known to preen their mate. They are easily tamed and can even mimic speech.
Their choice of feed in the natural habitat is fruits, seeds, nuts and berries. Multiplication is by laying eggs in nets which are built on tree trunks, tops and even on rock crevices. Generally they lay two or three, or sometimes four eggs per clutch. The eggs are incubated for a period of at least five weeks; however, the fledgling might remain in the nest as long as five months. Their lifespan is very similar to human.
In this natural habitat, these birds are as one with nature. We all are well aware that Mother Nature is always in motion. Some say this is its way of finding a dynamic-equilibrium. Again nature is like no prisoner, nor does it carry any garbage. Very often, nature sees the need to cleanse, replenish and rejuvenate itself. Mother Nature is not always precise or accurate. Sometimes when it unleash its fury we think it is excessive, like in the cases of David and Maria. The choice of instrument is fire, water, wind, drought, ice, snow, and blizzards, not necessarily in that order.
In 1979 we faced the devastating force of Hurricane David. The forest, like in the case of Maria, was totally devastated. This was one occasion when we proved how resilient we are. Naturally we did receive a considerably amount of assistance but we did bounce back. By the way, although Nature can always do with some assistance, it certainly does not take too kindly at meddling and interference.
Following the passage of Hurricane David in 1979, this was the first time that most of us had seen such destruction, especially to the forest. Our food supply was practically wiped out. As part of nature, our very survival guaranteed the survival of many others. Among the major concern were the animals in the forest, especially the parrots.
Nature is well equipped to look after itself. Most, if not all the animals in the wild, are equipped with sensory organs, far more developed than humans, to warn of approaching disasters. For instance, whenever a hurricane is approaching, there is a considerable drop in the atmospheric pressure. The animals can sense that drop in pressure long before the effect of the storm is felt. This allows them to migrate when and where possible. They may also seek refuge in areas which they consider to be safe. Needless to say, there certainly are times where the site chosen may not be the safest, as in the case of man.
And so it was after David. However, gradually, we saw the immergence of the parrots. At this point, it is important to mention the pooching and, of course, the illegal trading and exportation of live parrots, even before David. The depletion of the population of the birds caused by illegal means and the storm, created the fear of them becoming extinct.
Somewhere about that time two very important developments took place. Legislation was passed and the birds became protected by law. Interestingly, more and more sightings of parrots were made, and therefore, organized visits were made in the name of bird watching.
By the late 80's and early 90's more and more sightings were made and parrot watching became really popular. Being protected by law provided them with a sense of independence. Gradually they began moving from their natural habitat, and began encroaching upon new territory.
Historically we were told that there are two species of parrots which are indigenous to our country: the well-known Sisserou Parrot (Amazona imperalis) and the Jaco Parrot (A. arausiaca).
We all are aware that the Sisserou is the National Bird of our country and do have a prominent place on our National Flag.
Watching a Sisserou Parrot closely
Somewhere in the 90's, I had a very fascinating encounter. One day, I was on my farm, and I slipped at the edge of a windbreak for a short while. Not long after, I heard a noise above my head in the canopy of some branches. Upon closer examination, I noticed that it was a parrot. I sat down quietly on the ground to avoid any disturbance.
The bird was only about ten or twelve feet away from me on a tree trunk. Apparently it had no knowledge of my presence. The first thing that baffled me was its enormous size. It was what I could consider the size of a yard fowl. Its feet were as large as the same yard fowl. Naturally, the plumage was breath-taking. It was like a display of all different colours of the rainbow. The display of colours was enhanced at one stage, when it began to shuffle the feathers.
A huge beak was the prominent feature of the head. Actually, it looked like some sort of primitive garden tool. Also, there was a very large tongue inside the mouth, which gave the impression that it was eating something. The eyes were bright, and it kept on winking and adjusting, which gave the impression of focusing constantly.
Following the standing-still-display, it decided on a moving action. It started walking up and down the trunk, using its beak like a plough; while in motion, it would kind of spread its wings, exposing more colours, but probable it was used for balance or just to air or cool out. The toes were like a combination of twigs and claws. The toes were pointing both back and front. The movements continued for some time, and while moving it produced a growling sound and kept on shuffling its feathers.
I looked in amazement for quite a while, appreciating the fact only a few men have had the opportunity of seeing a Sisserou in its natural habitat, furthermore, at such a close range. During its grand performance it somehow sensed that something was not right. The display suddenly stopped; it adjusted itself and then it flew away.
After it was gone, I remained where I was sitting and absorbing this wonderful gift of nature. The way that bird conducted itself, so gracefully, so magnificently with so much grandeur and so majestic, that it made me realize why it is called "imperalis". Indeed it surely deserves its place in our national symbol. Also, it gave me the impression that it was not involve or capable of the horrific behavior of the Jaco, and therefore made my day.
Jacos are cruel birds
The Jaco Parrot, unlike the Sisserou, is a loud, noisy, arrogant bird with a despicable attitude. With the exception of its plumage, everything about it is like a great effort of a counterfeit of the Sisserou. I have seen thousands of Jaco Parrots so I can safely say I know what they look like. I can remember on one particular day on my farm we checked at least 33 Jacos in flight at the same time. At that time, our conservative estimate of those in the wind break close by was no less than 100.
Mention has been made of the license given to parrots, granting them the permission to roam freely and, of course, to behave as they please. The Administration placed no rules, restrictions, terms or conditions in the invitation. Since their license was unconditional and they knew they were protected by law, they took full advantage of the opportunity, and with their ghoulish clatter.
By the year 2000, more and more sightings of parrots were reported. It is also about that time that the threat to farmers' cultivation was becoming more and more apparent. Many complaints were made to the authorities. Again, since the management of these freedom loving masters (which they had now become) was absent, then concerns were raised.
At this point, it is important to look deeper into this development. Both Sisserou and Jaco are extremely intelligent birds. They both share the same habitat and everything that goes with it. However, the Sisserou appears to be a softer, humbler bird, whereas the Jaco appears to be a demanding, aggressive one. If that is the case, which appears to be highly possible, then the rest is obvious.
No doubt not only will there be a fair deal of competition for everything but also an understandable amount of domineering and the level of arrogance being displayed by boss Jaco. Should that be the case then one can summaries why the Jaco is so plentiful. The possibility exists that, given the situation, cannibalism may also be a factor.
Jacos may not be the one who introduced crop destruction but they are definitely responsible for making it popular. It would be fair to say that they are destructive machines. For ages birds are known to damage farmers crops. Birds like the Brown Robin as well as the Black ones are well known culprits. Our famous bananas squit commonly called Sikiye are always in the pie. Note well that they do contribute in the pollination process. The collective destruction of crops by birds has been documented; that of parrots is certainly in a league of its own.
In nature most wild animals will only take what they need. Those who carry more than they need are for a purpose such as hibernation. Some people are of the opinion that captive breeding is the only way to ensure the survival of any species. Surely this is a myth; no one can take care of nature better than nature. Besides in captivity, many errors are possible; for instance basic conditions such as environmental pollution. The best and most acceptable method of ensuring the species survive is in their natural habitat.
When the invitation to feel free and make yourself comfortable was extended to the parrots they certainly understood it very well especially the Jacos. As mentioned before, they appear to be more prolific breeders than the Sisserou. Therefore, the exodus and migration encroaching on the farmers turf escalated. Their numbers increased rapidly. The devastation increased steadily, their choice of diet changed with their newly gained territory, and naturally, their appetite expanded.
Famers became their victims. The level of devastation far exceeds anything farmers were used to. As stated before, they do not only feed on crops they do behave as if they were avenging machines. Farmers lodged many complaints. It would be fair to say very little or nothing has been done to find some solution to the problem.
Parrots are protected by law. Is it because they are our national bird? By the way, is the national bird the Sisserou or is it both the Sisserou and the Jaco? Besides management, which includes feeding should be the responsibility of the nation and not left only to the farmers of the country. The volume of destruction is way beyond comprehension.
The worst hit crop is probably citrus. All varieties are affected: valencia oranges, grafted oranges, ortaniques, tangerines, sevile oranges, manderine, grapefruits and even limes. Crops such as guava, mangoes, passion-fruit, papaws and some vegetables are also devastated by the birds. They do not only destroy the crop, they do a considerable amount of damages to the foliage and small branches while carrying out their endeavors.
Many people are of the view that the devastation of the forest and subsequently damaging of the parrots' food supply is the reason why they are all over town. Some say it is due to the shortage of food in their habitat. Although both facts are true, however, the parrots were in town long before Maria. In the case of the Jaco I cannot think of a suitable adjective to describe it. Its actions are like…a looter, a pirate, a Taliban, a bandit, a vagabond, and many others- you pick your choice.
Whether twisted, stretched or bent, I am not asking for the neck of the Red Neck, although I should. I am a lover of nature and do respect all forms of life. I have observed the behaviour of the Jaco parrots for a long time and, to put it bluntly, they are cruel birds.
My own mother cannot understand why I am always defending and giving snakes a break. Occasionally if a bat enters her home and I am present we go through an upheaval because she wants it dead but I must spare its life. At my own home sometimes we are invaded by armies of ants. My wife wants them dead but me no way, they are no problem. Prior to Maria we usually kept lots of fruits around our home. However, the birds are more interested in those in the lady's fruit basket. Many times I would be sitting at the entrance of the door when they fly inside. Upon their entry they mockingly say "you there Mr. Cuthbert", on their way out they say "later Mr. Cuthbert". My wife and I go to some similar upheaval because she claims I am causing the birds to behave in that way. There are many other cases, so clearly I stand for and preserve nature.
Approximately one month after the passage of Maria, the grapefruit trees on the farm flowered profusely, that is after dumping the entire crop after Maria. We all were very excited and we were looking forward for an early crop in March of 2018. By the time the fruits were about the size of a bean, yes-a bean, the parrots converged on the trees and practically ate most of the fruits.
The few remaining, still in the thousands, grew from marble to tennis ball, to cricket ball size, just approaching maturity. Again we saw a similar action from the parrots. However, needless to say, it was far more painful especially since they destroyed all what was left.
People with nothing to say are speculating that the parrots are looking for food. The pulp and even the bits and pieces were not touched by the other common birds. I suppose they are saying to leave parrots in their business. Although wild pigs exist on a different diet, yet still they did not invade our territory. Similarly, agouties though more plentiful behaved equally well. Iguanas are mainly foliage feeders but yet still they did not come to town.
At one time it was said that parrots are unable to take flight from low areas such as citrus trees. As a matter of fact they claim they need taller trees like a step to take to flight. Perhaps this was true before because for a long time I have noticed they have perfected the art of landing and taking off on any surface, better than helicopters. Reports after Maria mentioned parrots feeding on the ground just like any ground dove. Therefore, for their own sake much of the seeds and nuts dumped during Maria could be salvaged by the parrots.
Buds and young shoots from trees are very succulent and very nutritious, a good source of food. Petals of flowers, as well as the entire flower, are also very good source of food directly and forms part of the food chain. Many nuts and seeds can remain wholesome on the ground for very long periods and are edible.
Just as a matter of interest, as mentioned before, Mother Nature can be very severe. In many places Maria swept the ground very clean leaving the earth naked. This could not be allowed to remain exposed for very long. Almost immediately nature hastily provided a cover in the form of vines. They grow rapidly and profusely, covering the bare earth in a canopy. This canopy provides a cover for the young seedlings to grow underneath. At the same time, it provides lots of flowers, leaves and shoots, in some cases, to feed wildlife. Due to the fact that they grow so rapidly these vines cannot keep up with themselves. A majority of them, because of their type of root system, cannot supply themselves with sufficient nutrition and so they self-destruct. The dead and dried canopy once more provides another important function of supplying humus to the ground which subsequently benefits the young seedlings.
Much earlier, it was indicated that nature can sometimes do with a little assistance for our benefit. There are many instances one can think of, however, for the purpose of this information and livestock in particular, a number of examples are known. In Africa, occasionally one elephant develops the bad habit of destroying farmer's crops. This one, or sometimes more, is referred to as a "rogue elephant". Very early at the onset, it, or they, are hunted and transferred to areas where there are no crops.
The same is also true in India where one tiger becomes a man eater. Normally tigers do not hunt humans as part of their diet but whenever they become man eaters they are quickly hunted and eliminated. Around the continent of Australia, and elsewhere, sometimes sharks, especially the large white, attack humans. Whenever this occurs they are immediately fished out and discarded. The same is true of the native dog of Australia called Dingoes. Again, they, a pack, attack and kill rancher's sheep. Again whenever this happens a clear sweep is done in the location and the culprits are either destroyed or relocated.
In North America, sometimes, one wolf or a pack, may attack and raid farmers sheep. Again whenever this occurs they are quickly hunted, destroyed or relocated. The similar treatment is handed to domestic farm animals. In the case of pigs, whenever tail biting is observed the culprit is removed. In the case where hen pecking is practiced a similar action is taken. Even in rare cases where cows are found suckling themselves they are culled. The list of offenders goes on and on but in all cases there is a reaction to the actions.
The complete invasion of the farmer's territory by the parrots appears to be non-existent. All the same, the facts are there to see; the evidence shows that the parrots are well entrenched and with additional protection. Obviously, their diets have changed. They no longer have to crack nuts for subsistence or fly around looking for berries. Their meals are like "take away", or as they say "good to go". What was intended for human consumption is now consumed by parrots. In that ease "are we willing and ready to change over own diet"? Just imagine life without the number of things mentioned earlier. It is not a fantasy, nor is it a prediction, for it is real.
Most of us will remember that the Crapaud or Mountain Chicken had a prominent place as a national symbol. It was once the national dish of our country; but alas, upon its disappearance, I don't remember one "sanky" being sung. Many times, we have heard that farmers are a dying breed; with the present course of action we are fast becoming extinct and like the parrot, protection is required. Therefore, on behalf of all the farmers who are experiencing my current predicament we wish to appeal to those concerned to do something about our plight.
Once more we are calling on the authorities, the administration, concerned citizens, patriotic Dominicans, the many relevant international and supportive groups, organizations, institutions, the many bird-watchers and lovers and all others, help prevent the Dominican farmers from extinction.
Sadly, the parrots are in town; they have invaded the territory of the farmers and we know that they will not voluntarily return to the forest. Therefore, we are calling on all those concerned- protect us to avoid our extinction.