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Attack of the Invasive Species Committee of Maui

There is a small flock of Conures of about 60 birds in the sea cliffs of Huelo, Maui. They have been there for almost 10 years, and have not caused trouble. The Invasive Species Committee has scheduled their extermination any day now, by shooting. They have not shown factual or documented proof that they are any hazard. Their reports say "if, may. could." Is this any basis for the killing of these highly intelligent, loving birds? Where will this line of reasoning end? Their spokesman already said peacocks should be shot.

Is there any monitoring of this committee as to what they are allowed to exterminate? What type of documentation is required to enact such drastic measures? Is there any legal way of postponing or preventing this violent act? What is the legal determination of "invasive" or "pest?" Thank you for your time.

Toni Bennett

[email protected]


In 1986 or 1987, a pair of pet conures (reportedly Aratinga mitrata -- the Mitred Conure) were allowed to fly free in the community of Huelo (Maui, HI) by a resident (hereafter called "The Founder") located 0.5 km southwest of Huelo Point. From this founding pair, the Huelo flock has increased to approximately 30 individuals by late 1995. "The Founder" (pers. comm.) stated in January 1996 that the age of the original pair was 11 years. He has a large aviary and leaves the doors open for the birds to come and go as they desire; "they are like peacocks," he said, "and come when called." He anticipated more offspring to be produced in 1996 (April or May).
Mitred Conures (also known as Mitred Parakeets) are rather uncommon in captivity, although a number have been exported from Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru -- occasionally confused with shipments of a similar but less commonly exported species, A. wagleri. Of the 97,000 Neotropical psittacines imported into the USA between October 1979 and June 1980, approximately 3500 were Mitred Conures (Roet et al. 1982). Between 1986-1988, the United States imported an annual average of 94,000 Neotropical parrots (99% derived from wild sources), approximately one third were Aratinga species (Thomsen & Mulliken 1992).

Aratinga species are highly productive in captivity; therefore, in the future, perhaps aviculture will supply the pet trade so that wild caught birds will be in less demand (Clubb 1992). Silva (1993) reported Argentina (setting an export quote of 7000 for 1991) became the sole exporter of Mitred Conures once trade ceased from Peru and Bolivia.

Numerous introduced populations of parrots exist around the world, rarely have these been Aratinga; yet Aratinga pertinax was established on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, before 1860 (Wiley et al. 1992) -- the likely source of individuals now appearing on nearby islands of St. John, Culebra, Tortola, and Puerto Rico (Silva 1993). Recently additional Aratinga species have become established at new locations -- Aratinga mitrata in Puerto Rico, A. leucophthalmus in Puerto Rico and California, A. canicularis in Puerto Rico, and A. holochlora in Texas (Silva 1993).

Maui � State wildlife officials want to use lethal means to remove a flock of mitered conures from the wild after a nonprofit group failed to capture the parrots and move them to its Maui sanctuary

proposal to survey and track the flock's movements and conduct "land-based control activities" to get rid of them, but state officials hope the project will fly later this summer with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

State wildlife biologist Fern Duvall called Maui's mitered conures "a ticking time bomb," an invasive non-native pest that threatens crops and native forest.

If the growing parrot flock isn't removed from the wild soon, Duvall said, it could become impossible to control, allowing the fruit-eating birds to accelerate the spread of miconia, the state's most-feared weed and target of millions of dollars in eradication work.

Teya Penniman, manager of the Maui Invasive Species Committee, said officials are looking at a $52,000 plan that includes land and air surveys to learn how big the population is, and radio tracking to find out where the birds are flying.

It has not been decided what methods will be used to eradicate them, she said. Officials talked about shooting or trapping and netting, although the latter option would involve rappelling down the precipitous Huelo sea cliffs.

"The goal is to remove all known mitered conures from the wild," Penniman said. "We know it's very controversial. They are beautiful creatures that a lot of people associate with a tropical paradise. But they are not part of Hawai'i."

A flock estimated at 200 birds grew apparently from a single pair released in Huelo in the mid-1980s. Today, the brightly plumed red-and-green conures nest high in the vertical sea cliffs at Huelo Point on Maui's north shore. On most mornings, the flock emerges from its nightly roost with loud shrieking, flies into the windward highlands and returns in the afternoon.

Wildlife officials were considering eradication in 2001, when Maui Animal Rescue and Sanctuary stepped forward with a plan to capture the birds and move them to an aviary at the group's Ha'iku property. Sanctuary officials said they wanted to prevent the state from shooting the birds.

Working with scientists with the World Parrot Trust, sanctuary officials planned to establish a base in Huelo where humane traps and a large cage would be constructed. The plan was to feed the birds and establish a habit of visitation, then shut the door.

The group was issued a yearlong permit to implement the plan. With progress slow, it made inquiries about getting another 12-month permit. That's when money for the project dried up, said Fern Van Sant, a bird veterinarian in San Jose, Calif., who is director of Maui Animal Rescue and Sanctuary.

Van Sant said the group ran into coastal-access problems in Huelo and she started using her own money to see the project through. A last-ditch effort involving a California biologist failed, and the project was abandoned.

"Every direction we turned, there was a roadblock at the end of the road," she said.

Penniman said such species upset the environmental balance of the Islands and put native plants and animals at risk.

Duvall said recent feeding trials have proved that miconia seeds can germinate after passing through the bird's digestive system. With the parrot's ability to fly long distances, he said, the threat worries those trying to stem the spread of invasive weeds.

"They will be a terrible problem if they get into the heartland of the (East Maui) miconia infestation," Duvall said. "It's a ticking time bomb that could change the structure of the forest."

Workers with the USDA's Wildlife Services branch would be hired for the work, but funding remains uncertain, said Mike E. Pitzler, state director of the federal agency. Special year-end money has been requested, he said, but budgetary restrictions make it likely that the state will have to match the money.

Van Sant predicted the state would have trouble removing all the swift-flying birds from the wild.

She said the parrot threat to crops and the environment was being overstated to justify the eradication plan. Although hungry conures eat miconia seeds in controlled experiments, she said it is not known whether they would do so in the wild. Van Sant also thinks there are far fewer birds than the state has suggested.

"I spent more time at that cliff at dawn than anyone else. We took video footage and counted and recounted, and we couldn't come up with 100 birds. It looks like roughly 60 birds to me," she said.

"So the odds that someday these birds are going to become a flock that blackens the sky are not good."

Posted on: Monday, January 8, 2001
Parrot invasion worries Maui

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau
HUELO, Maui � Every day at dawn, this small coastal community is awakened by a raucous chorus of parrots, a large flock of green and red mitered conures taking wing in search of food.

It�s a beautiful sight, but one that worries Renate Gassmann-Duvall, a bird veterinarian who has been keeping an eye on the birds for months in a study commissioned by the Maui Invasive Species Committee.

Gassmann-Duvall and other wildlife experts are worried that the flock, estimated at 150 to 200 birds, will continue its rapid growth and spread into other areas, playing havoc with Maui�s environment and agriculture.

Maui officials aren�t the only ones concerned. Parrots have become established on all the major Islands, and their numbers are said to be increasing.

"We�ve got to do something," said Fred Kraus, the state�s alien species coordinator. "We�ve got to deal with it now before the problem gets out of control."

Parrots are just one of many alien species to become established in Hawai�i. In 1994, the federal Office of Technology Assessment declared the state�s alien pest species problem the nation�s worst.

Range of species

Sixteen parrot species have been documented in Hawai�i, from red-crowned Amazon parrots on O�ahu to rose-ring parakeets on Kaua�i and little corella cockatoos on the Big Island.

State wildlife officials are planning to meet with a U.S. Department of Agriculture bird expert from Florida this month to learn more about the options available for dealing with the parrots. The Maui study is the first aimed at trying to learn the scope of the problem on a single island.

Parrots are known as a pest to agriculture, especially to growers of fruit, corn and seed crops. Control efforts already have been launched by farming concerns on the Big Island and on Kaua�i, where three seed-corn companies have permits allowing them to shoot the pesky rose-ring parakeet.

"I don�t think they kill them," said Tom Telfer, Kaua�i district wildlife manager for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. "They mostly just scare them away."

Scientists say they fear the growing number of parrots will contribute to the degradation of Hawai�i�s native ecosystems by spreading the seeds of invasive weeds far and wide, and by introducing bird diseases. Parrots also are known to kill other birds and compete for nesting space.

In addition, said Kraus, parrots can slow the reproduction of native plants, especially in dryland forests, where native seeds and flowers are vulnerable to foraging. Parrots are known even to destroy plants with their powerful beaks.

"We�re having a hell of a hard time getting natives to reproduce. The last thing we need is something like this to make it harder," Kraus said.

It started with a pair

On Maui, three types of parrots have been identified in the wild. In addition to mitered conures, there is a sizable flock of rose-ring parakeets in East and Upcountry Maui, and a smaller group of Moluccan cockatoos in the Waikapu area, according to Gassmann-Duvall.

The Huelo flock of mitered conures reached its current size from a pair released 14 years ago. Today, the flock nests high in the sea cliffs at Huelo Point on Maui�s north shore.

Gassmann-Duvall said the conures have been seen in pairs and groups of three within larger groups from Ha�iku to Hanawana Point, and flying into mauka areas to feed on rose apples, mountain apples, banyan figs and guavas.

On most mornings, the flock emerges from its nightly roost with loud shrieking and returns with a similarly strident chorus.

"They fly over the house screeching their heads off," said Jonathan Ross, a lifelong Huelo resident who has seen the parrots multiply over the years.

Ross is so annoyed about the problem that he let state wildlife officials onto his 12-acre property so they could shoot a few of the birds to collect for samples. He also said he stands ready to allow eradication efforts anytime state officials wish.

Control options limited

But exterminating parrots is a touchy subject, one that state officials plan to approach with caution. Kraus said the dilemma is that most people think of parrots as pets, and the creatures are intelligent. There are nonlethal options, including hand-capture for sale, but even that could generate controversy among those who believe birds should not be kept in captivity.

"We�ve got to get people to stop releasing the damn things," Kraus said, noting that it is illegal to let a parrot go in the wild.

The spread of parrots especially concerns officials on Maui because the island has so much uninhabited terrain where parrot populations can expand. There may be flocks of wild parrots officials don�t even know about. In 1995, a flock of 30 or so Amazon parrots was seen flying near East Maui�s Twin Falls.

"We don�t know how big the problem is," said Fern Duvall, Gassmann-Duvall�s spouse and a state wildlife biologist on Maui.

If left unchecked, Duvall said, the parrots probably will move into warmer and drier regions of West and South Maui, which have coffee and seed-crop farms.

Duvall, former head of the state�s Olinda Endangered Species Facility, said it is frustrating to discover that so many people are not aware that parrots do not belong here.

"They think they�re just part of the landscape," he said, adding that many works of art in Lahaina�s galleries add to the misconception by depicting parrots in Hawaiian rain forests.

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