I was sitting on my bed, trying unsuccessfully to ignore the sticky heat of the evening while typing away at my laptop. David received a phone call in his room across from mine. I took little note of his conversation, until I heard a dark change in his voice, from friendly and jovial to sharply serious and carefully interrogative. He ended the call and paused in the shadowed hallway outside my doorway, looking at the phone in his hand. I looked up from my computer.
"What's up?" I asked after a beat. I immediately regretted the question. I didn't want to pry about his personal life. He is, after all, my professor.
David blinked and heaved a sigh. "Remember my buddy Jason, from the fundraiser dinner?"
"Jason… I think I talked to him. Just a bit." David has made a point of introducing me to any of his friends or colleagues that we visit, which has been a significant number. I vaguely recalled shaking hands with guy with earrings and listening to his chagrined discussion of San Francisco property a few days prior.
David looked down at the darkened screen of his cell phone again and shrugged. Droning insect noise filled the air between us. "He committed suicide. Yesterday."
Even in a beautiful place like Puerto Rico, there is a darker side. It's not exactly hidden, but sometimes the sight of it shocks me, in contrast to the rest of island life. Puerto Rico, as I mentioned before, is in the grip of a looming economic downturn. Crime has risen significantly in the past few decades. Because it is a territory of the United States, but not officially a state, control over the island's future lies outside of the control of the residents of Puerto Rico. Public services like education and health care have been cut in response to mounting debt, resulting in civil unrest, and the already-high unemployment rate is rising. People are nervous. For more than a month now, the University of Puerto Rico, which David proudly boasted was the "crown jewel of Puerto Rico" has been barricaded by protesting students, halting almost all academic activity. Whether or not these students are doing the right thing is a popular, if not charged, topic of many conversations I've been on the sidelines of. These conversations are tense, full of frustrated head-shakes and derisive laughter. Puerto Rican identity is changing, and that process of change is hard to forecast optimistically. Before coming here, I had no idea that such problems existed. The news of Jason's sudden suicide made me acutely aware that Puerto Rico is in no way immune to humanity's common problems.
Jason's memorial service was held a few days later in Rincón. True to the surf culture of the town, it was held on a beach, and started a full hour and a half late. When conversation finally slowed, there was a "paddle-out" in Jason's honor.
"The paddle-out is a surfer thing," David explained. "Everybody who surfed with Jason all paddled out on their boards at the same time, out beyond the surf. Then we all floated in a circle, each person taking a turn to say something about him."
I wondered what kinds of things were said there, as the ring of family and friends drifted on the easy swell of approaching waves, each person caught in their own memories of the man who made his choice to leave.
There's a saying in Puerto Rico: Cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre. "Each hawk has his sparrow". The Red-tailed Hawk is one of the most impressive and powerful birds on the island, and easily rests at the top of the food chain here. Notwithstanding, it has earned the ire of none other than the lowly sparrow. Sparrows constantly pester the hawks, darting about them and jabbing them with their beaks, chasing them through the air in tiny unbridled fury. And like the hawk beset by the unlikely sparrow, everyone is plagued with their own problems, even if they're things that appear insignificant to others.
Before coming to Puerto Rico, I could have never guessed at the nature of its problems, but to the people living here, these issues shape their daily lives. Far away in Canada, I assumed that things were fine. I didn't know Jason, but I'm sure that his internal conflict was as unseen to those around him as much as the issues of Puerto Rico were to me. If people were more aware of the 'sparrows' dogging his flight, might have things gone differently? It's impossible to tell. One thing is certain, though; awareness of issues, whether personal, political, or economic, is the necessary precursor to positive change. Cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre.
This is why education is so important. Not just school, but the real continued pursuit of awareness and the element of truth. Once there is knowledge, action naturally follows.
Up slick, twisting mountain roads that grow more precarious and disused as they climb, far from the dry forest home of my little yellow birds, is the impossibly wet and supernaturally alive mountain rainforest region of Rio Abajo. After several "DO NOT ENTER" gates, far enough to be beyond bumbling civilians, is nestled a remote green concrete building, its tile roof strewn with leaves and moss. This unlikely building, quietly perched on the side of a mist-blanketed valley as if it has every right to be there, is the location of a central effort dedicated to saving the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot, or iguaca.
This parrot species is endemic to Puerto Rico, and once covered most of the island. Back during Spanish rule in the 1600s, its numbers were in the hundreds of thousands, and could be found in almost anywhere, munching away on a variety of fruit and nesting in old trees. But human expansion exploded, and almost all of the old-growth forest was cleared for development. These birds nest exclusively in the cavities of very, very old trees, and unfortunately, we humans love to make chairs and stuff out of very, very old trees. By the 1800s, the population had noticeably declined. By the 1900s, they only existed in a handful of locations. In the 1950s, there were less than 200 Puerto Rican parrots in the wild, and finally in 1975 it bottomed out at 13 individuals. That's all that was left.
Back at the green aviary hiding in the rainforest, Tanya Martinez calls me back into the building. "Want to see something cool?" she asked, scuffing open a moisture-warped door. The walls of this room were lined with hanging straps, harnesses, and ropes. "Not this - this is just were all the climbing stuff is. We use it when we climb up into the nests to check on things. No, in here, the dry room," Tanya opened another door. The room was dark, warm and pleasantly free of oppressive moisture. It's common in the more humid parts of the island to have a moisture-controlled room where you can count on stuff not getting ruined. Here, there was an array of electronics, screens, and other machinery.
Tanya opened an important-looking plastic cupboard and pulled out a plastic cereal bowl full of cotton balls and… some ungodly aberration of nature nestled inside. It looked like a piece of used gum that rolled under your couch crossed with the fetus of a blind mole rat. It lay limp, as if dead, but when Tanya prodded it the tiny thing raised its head and waved it about wobbily.
Tanya laughed as he continued to head-bang in its cotton ball nest. "Momma Parrot didn't want to feed him for some reason, but luckily we caught it in time and we're feeding him manually for a while. We have to mix formula and feed him with a syringe every two hours! So we all take turns feeding him through the night." She carefully put his bowl back in the warm cupboard. "I'm not sure why he wobbles his head around so much."
I peered into the cupboard at the unlucky (or very lucky) parrot chick, thrashing his pink bulbous head about. Cute he definitely was not, but that tiny, wobbling creature struck me as the most vulnerable thing I've ever seen. "What will happen to him?"
Tanya leaned against the counter and blew a strand of hair out of her face. "We might try to put him back in the nest after a while with his siblings, or we might give him to another female who's a more experienced mother. It depends. We don't want to just hand-rear him, he's far more valuable in the wild."
Tanya Martinez is a former student of David's, who did her Master's on dialects in parrot vocalizations. She has a casually warm, but somewhat sassy demeanor which makes her immediately likeable. But behind her lighthearted attitude runs a hot vein of intelligent dedication; at the center of that passion lies the plight of the Puerto Rican Parrot. When talking about issues, like bees getting into the nesting boxes, avoiding in-breeding in the wild population, or the new mother's hatchling that might not make it, her eyes narrow and her tone turns serious, belying persistent concern and deeply felt responsibility. David's description of her Master's thesis defense to his Canadian students has elevated her presentation to a near-mythical status. "Not a single bullet point! Concise, idea-driven graphics! High-quality relevant photographs!" he would spit at us undergraduates. Despite her easygoing attitude, it's easy to see how that spark of motivated concern could produce a truly excellent thesis presentation.
Tanya took me into the forest the next day to accompany her as she checked on a recently-hatched chick of a wild mated pair. The wet forest chirped and squawked with life all around us as we plodded through fallen leaves and red mud under the canopy.
"You gotta get in the nest box when the parents aren't around, obviously," she said, shifting her backpack. She lowered her voice as we drew closer to the nest site. "Sometimes that's only like five minutes, so we need to watch carefully for the mother to leave. I'm a little worried about one chick. He was having a hard time getting out of his shell last I checked."
A hunter's blind appeared at the base of a tree. Tanya motioned for quiet and busied herself with checking a surveillance screen wired to a camera in the nest above.
Tanya swore quietly and her eyes flashed alarm. "She's already gone. I've - I've got to get up there now - watch for the mother and yell as loud as you can if you see her coming." With that, she strode quickly to the base of the tree and fairly flew up the metal pegs, disappearing into the canopy. I crouched beside the blind and gripped my binoculars weakly, straining at the branches and leaves above for movement. The birds were green, and so was everything else. I seriously doubted my ability to see much of anything, and my glasses kept fogging in the moist air. These endangered birds would die and it would be my fault. We would get kicked out of the refuge and David would lose his job. Before I gave in to despair, Tanya returned, beaming.
"The kids hatched just fine!" She said happily, as we cleared earshot of the nest. "One more little win for the parrots."
One more little win. It's easy to get caught up in the drama of it all. As wild parrots squawked noisily overhead, I thought of the incredible effort invested by humans into endeavors like this one, and of the considerable amount of knowledge that's necessary to make it work.
The state of Puerto Rican identity and governance, Jason's suicide, and the plight of the beautiful Puerto Rican Parrot; all of these things were made tragic to me by how unaware I was of the issues at hand. Knowledge is central to how we perceive the world, and consequently how we treat problems that we are aware of. In the case of the parrots, though, appropriate action followed awareness. There are two aviaries like the one Tanya works at, and the wild population at hers alone is currently around 150 individuals in the wild, with about 30 nestlings. The birds' future, while still precarious, is far more optimistic due to efforts like hers.
Cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre. Every hawk has its sparrow. The intricate forces that shape our lives and drive events around us are impossible to fathom completely, but an effort to understand the world is far from futile. We can avoid the tragedy of misunderstanding and ignorance by seeking to understand what's going on on this swirl of earth and water we call home. The more we learn about our reality, the more opportunities we will have to take action and make a positive difference.
And sometimes, it works.
A current undergrad of Psychology at the University of Lethbridge. I'm a budding scientist and... blogger?
My supervisor and professor, the protagonist of this blog. For more information on David Logue's research on Adelaide's Warblers, check out his website: