St. John Parrots: Past and Present
by Chuck Pishko
On Thursday, October 18, our local AARP Chapter helped staff Careforce 2007 at St. Ursula’s where the community was offered a number of health screenings and flu/pneumonia vaccinations. Not only was it a good opportunity to see old friends, meet new neighbors, and welcome back early snowbirds, but also to get up and out at the crack of dawn. Cruz Bay was beautiful and the parking spaces were plentiful.
Above my parking space in a fruit tree, I saw an emerald green parrot feeding. Its colors were brilliant in the morning light and it made getting up early worthwhile.
Many of us have heard Cruz Bay residents exclaim the wonders of our parrot flock hidden in the treetops or heard the birds’ loud squawking at dusk in Franklin Powell Park or in the Frank Bay area, but seeing my parrot at dawn reminded me of the fact that parrots have been on the island for most of our history.
The parrots we see now have escaped from captivity and formed a flock. Our eminent birder, Dr. Wil Henderson, told me there are two kinds of parrots in the flock and one juvenile which shows they are breeding.
The Taino Indians on their travels through the Virgin Islands found abundant flocks of parrots estimated at over a million birds on their final destination, Puerto Rico. They called the parrot “iguaca” because of the squawking sound it made during take-offs and flight. Parrots remained common through the 18th century.
An early writer, Johan Lorentz Carstens, who was born on St. Thomas in 1705 observed that:
“Several wild birds inhabit the woods, including turtle doves and blue doves… The blue doves occur in great flocks, especially on St. John and St. Croix… Sea gulls, wild ducks, wild geese, and green parrots are present in great numbers on St. John and St. Croix. These wild birds are shot and eaten; some are salted down in tubs in whole quarter sections for daily household use all year round.”
The mention above of blue doves may seem to be a digression but they were the favorite bird of the late environmentalist, Doris Jadan, who wouldn’t be ignored, and for island visitors who are amazed at their size and coloring. They are now called “Scaly-naped pigeons” or “Columba squamosa.”
Carstens’ book “St. Thomas in Early Danish Times, a General Description of all the Danish, American, or West Indian Islands,” an English edition and translation by Dr. Arnold L. Highfield, was published by the Virgin Islands Humanities Council in 1997 and is available today.
Another reference to our parrots was written by Christian Georg Andrea Oldendorp who visited the Danish West Indies in the 1760s as an inspector of the Moravian Church Missions and observed:
“Moreover, there are owls, among them a green parrot which does great damage to the beans, corn, and cotton; it also makes an unpleasant shriek in the woods. The young parrots are taken from the nest by Negroes and trained to talk. On the other hand, the adults are quite wary of being trapped, the entire flock flying away quickly when a signal is given by the sentries which they post around. Parrakeets, or small parrots, are plentiful on St. John, where there is still a great deal of bush.”
Oldendorp’s report is in an English edition of his book “History of the Mission of the Evangelical Brethren on the Caribbean Islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John” published by Karoma Publishers, Inc., Ann Arbor, 1987.
Earlier translations of these manuscripts were made by John Lorenzo Anderson, St. John Historian and author of “The Night of the Silent Drums” who asked Richard M. Bond, officer in charge at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of Experiment Stations, Kingshill, St. Croix for comments on the manuscripts.
In a letter dated January 26, 1955 Bond wrote:
“A true parrot (Amazona) still occurs in Puerto Rico, and was formerly found in Vieques and Culebra Islands. It may well have occurred in the northern Virgin Islands, although this is the first ‘record’ I have seen of it there. On geographical grounds, it seems much less likely to have been in St. Croix. Bones of a small Macaw have been found in Indian Village sites in St. Croix, nobody knows what it looked like or when it became extinct, but it almost certainly would not have been described as ‘green.’ All the parrot family are good eating, and many have been exterminated in the West Indies. Native parakeets are known only from
Cuba, Jamaica and Hispaniola.”
The macaw mentioned by Bond may have been a pet like the one illustrated. They are long-lived and could have been brought to St. Croix from other islands.
This letter and the manuscripts are in the files of the late Stephen C. Edwards, the St. John Historian who helped Anderson with his history and explorations of St. John.
Our historic parrot (Amazona vittata) is a forest bird that is an endangered species perilously close to extinction in its last natural habitat in Puerto Rico. The Audubon Watch List and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Puerto Rican Parrot Release Program are available on the Internet.