Parrots have a long history living alongside humans. The earliest written records date from ancient Greece, but the relationship is probably much older. People from all continents have kept them as pets including the Taínos, Hispaniola’s first human inhabitants, who called these lively birds higuacas. With their bright green bodies, accented with striking primary colors, and their cheerful squawking calls, our parrot is undoubtedly one of the most distinctive and charismatic bird species of our island. Unsurprisingly, Christopher Columbus returned to Spain carrying some as gifts for the royalty after his first voyage to Hispaniola in 1493. Like other members of the genus Amazona, Hispaniolan Parrots are chunky birds with large heads and heavy bills, however, the white forehead and maroon belly set this species apart. They fly in energetic, noisy flocks, flashing their blue primary and secondary wing feathers as they call to each other in their loud cacophonous voices.
Hispaniolan parrots can live from sea level to the highest mountains of our island, wherever there are sufficient fruits and wild seeds to eat. They can produce a great variety of sounds, an important ability that facilitates bonding within their social group, in which breeding pairs mate for life. In their nests, they lay clutches of 2 to 4 white eggs. These nests are typically cavities hollowed out in trees or palm trunks, and are often Hispaniolan Woodpecker nests that the parrots have remodeled to their liking.
Our parrot is, unquestionably, Dominicans’ favorite bird. They often keep parrots as pets, affectionately calling them “cuca” and treating them almost as a family member. Ironically, Hispaniolan parrots have also been served as food, and have been described as “a delicate fare, which can be prepared in multiple ways”. However, their beauty, abilities to imitate human speech, to recognize people, and to demonstrate affection, combined with their long lives, have earned them a special place in many Dominican homes, either caged, or loose with their wing feathers clipped to prevent escape. Parrots can even dance to musical rhythms, and use tools, behaviors once considered exclusively human.
“These higuacas are very talkative when they are taught to speak the human language.” Friar Bartolomé de las Casas
“To a teacher of languages there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot.” Joseph Conrad
It is likely their loquacity and cunning that gave rise to the popular Dominican expression to dar cotorra (“to give parrot”), which means talking incessantly, usually in an attempt to persuade someone to act against their better judgment. Owing to their undeniable charisma, most of the Hispaniolan Parrot chicks hatched each year in the Dominican Republic are looted from their nests to be sold as pets. Tragically, these pets will never reproduce and most likely will never reintegrate back into the wild. At one time, Hispaniolan Parrots were highly abundant, with records of flocks of up to 500 individuals. But not anymore. As natural reproduction in the wild declines, and their natural forest homes shrink, their future in the wild is highly uncertain. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species currently lists Hispaniolan Parrots as vulnerable to extinction, while the National Red List lists them as threatened.