Leaf 11: The Parrots of Her Youth
A leaf from:
This Broken Land of Promise:
A Chronicle of Conservation in the Hispaniolan Border Country
Just down the street from Yinabel’s house, towards the center of town, there lives a family that kept a big, green parrot. But before we get to the parrot, I should introduce Yinabel, the town, and her house.
Yinabel is Yinabel Pérez Peña. Yinabel’s father, Gaspar Pérez Aquino, was a co-founder of the Tree Bank and its first Director in the Dominican Republic. Gaspar died unexpectedly, of a stroke, in September 2014.
Yinabel is the Tree Bank’s Coordinator. She knows practically all of our farmers and other colleagues, and she is methodical and patient. She is 33 years old and married; her husband, Dauri Yovanni Lagari Fragoso, is a sergeant in the Dominican army. (Everyone just calls him Lagari.) The couple has two children, a six-year-old boy named Dauri after his father, and a four-year old girl, Yulibel, usually called Lili.
The town is Loma de Cabrera — or just “Loma,” as the locals call it. A “loma” is a knoll or hillock. I used to think that “Cabrera” in this context might refer to a kind of bird, a species of trogon, so that the town’s name might mean “Trogon Hump” or something like that. I got this idea from a definition of “cabrera” in the Spanish Royal Academy Dictionary, which is the Spanish analogue to the OED. I was hoping for a link to the island’s one species of trogon, the Hispaniolan trogon (Priotelus roseigaster), which is in decline because of deforestation.
But creative etymology seems to have led me astray: Manolo, one of the Tree Bank’s current Directors and a long-time resident of Loma, tells me that “Cabrera” is just some guy’s name. Presumably he was the town’s founder.
I doubt that any trogons make their home in Loma today, but more than 15,000 people do. Many of them are recent migrants from the surrounding countryside — a demographic trend that is driven, I’m told, by the difficulty of making a living on the region’s farms. Loma is in the southern part of Dajabón Province, about four miles from the border with Haiti.
Like most Dominican towns, Loma is gritty and loud. The town center is filled with the roar of motorcycles and merengue music — a jangly, thumpy kind of Dominican pop — blasting out of passing pickups. Occasionally the main street disappears beneath a big logging truck or a herd of cattle. The buildings are mostly one-story cinderblock structures, painted blue, pink, yellow, and lime-green.
Yinabel’s house is in a section of town called Barrio Garcia. Her house sits on the uphill side of her street and looks out over the neighbor’s bananas and corn, and into a little forested valley. Amidst the trees, here and there on the other side of the valley, other houses look back. The scene could be a suburban version of one of those Haitian tourist paintings: ridge after ridge of pine and broadleaf and palm, recalling a time when there were still forests in that country. Last year, alas, many of the big trees in the valley died, and are now standing snags. I have not gone down for a closer look and don’t know what killed them. Yinabel suspects that they were girdled to prepare for more development.
Now about this parrot. It was a magnificent animal, clothed almost entirely in a vibrant neon-green but with little, red shoulder patches on its wings. It had a thick, formidable beak and was maybe a bit over a foot long, but it had a kind of rolling, swaggering gait that made it seem bigger. I think its wing feathers were clipped so that it couldn’t fly a long distance. No mistaking the species: it was a Hispaniolan parakeet (Aratinga chloroptera).
Matt and I have walked into town along that street many times. We were used to seeing the parrot clambering on a chair, or investigating the broken pavement, alongside whatever members of its adoptive family happened to be sitting outdoors at the time. (In the DR, a great deal of family life is lived outdoors.) The parrot also appeared to be used to seeing us — it just didn’t seem to like us very much. Eventually, I started walking on the other side of the street. And then — I don’t remember exactly when — we just stopped seeing it.
I had been meaning to ask about the disappeared parrot during our past couple of visits, but I kept forgetting. Then finally, a couple of months ago, I called Yinabel to inquire, not just about this parrot, but about local parrots in general, if indeed any remained.
When Yinabel was a child, her family lived, not in Loma, but 10 miles up the road, up in the mountains, in the little settlement of Los Cerezos, where the Tree Bank is based. Were there parrots up there?
“Yes,” she told me. “I remember them from when I was little in Los Cerezos. They would arrive in groups, calling to each other. They were beautiful, flying in. Very beautiful. But then some people came in; they were outsiders, not from the community. And they had some kind of trap. I don’t remember exactly how it worked but they used some kind of glue and the parrots would get stuck. And then they would take the parrots away, into the cities — Santo Domingo, maybe, or Santiago. I don’t know exactly where. And they would sell them as pets. Now they’re gone. They don’t exist there anymore.”
“And what about the parrot down the street?” I asked. “Is it still there?”
“No, it’s gone. I don’t know what happened to it. Maybe they sold it or maybe it died. I don’t know. It’s gone.”
There are two parrot species native to Hispaniola: the Hispaniolan parakeet and the Hispaniolan parrot (Amazona ventralis). Both are endemic — that is, they occur naturally only on the island. (There used to be a Puerto Rican subspecies of the parakeet but it went extinct at the end of the 19th century.)
A third parrot, the olive-throated parakeet (Aratinga nana) also lives on Hispaniola but was almost certainly introduced. It lives well south of our project area. It may be displacing the native parrots to some degree. (Incidentally, the term “parakeet” has no taxonomic value. Ostensibly it means “small parrot,” but the Hispaniolan parakeet is larger than many parrots that are called “parrots.”)
In addition to being endemic, both of the island’s native parrots are listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN Red List, which puts them one step away from endangered.
Both are also considered a serious nuisance by farmers, because of the damage that they can do to a patch of corn or guandules (pigeon peas) — and the speed with which they can do it.
And finally, live specimens of both species are worth a lot of money, especially off the island.
This situation is obviously not conducive to conservation. If things keep going the way they are, then by the time Yinabel is my age — I’m 61 — the wild parrots of Hispaniola will probably be just a memory.
“This Broken Land of Promise” is my attempt to describe and interpret our Tree Bank Hispaniola program. I welcome your comments and questions. Please write me in the comment box below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About quotations: I try to quote people as accurately as I can, but conversations sometimes occur in distracting circumstances, and my memory is far from perfect. An additional complication when quoting our Dominican colleagues and friends: these people speak only Spanish, so our conversations with them are always in that language. For the most part, translating these exchanges is not difficult, but sometimes a literal rendering would make for poor English; in such cases, my aim is to capture the speaker’s tone and meaning, rather than his exact wording.
— Chris Bright
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