Travels into the heart of a wild parrot metropolis left me with a feeling akin to what a parrot must feel when taken out of its world and into our own. Charlie the parrot was taken from a vast psittacine metropolis, to live in a NYC apartment; but he led me, a city kid, out of my urban jungle and into the verdant cities of his own.
I stood alone, lost, as the jungle around me darkened to an impenetrable blackness with the fall of night. I picked up a stick and started to sharpen the end with my Swiss army knife, more to stave off my growing panic than as a real defense against prowling jaguars. I had been in dangerous situations before and knew how to calm my fear with a chuckle, but now I was really worried, powerless to find my way several miles back to the camp. The camp beside the clay lick was ten hours upriver from the nearest town by motorized canoe. I was lucky enough to have found a portal in the canopy above me, through which I could glimpse a few stars. At least I was safe from attack from above, I told myself with little sense of assurance. Every now and then, I would call out “Julio!” and strain to listen through the symphony of nighttime sounds for a human voice. The jungle is quite alive at night.
Back at school in Cambridge in 1993, just months before this event, I had just secured a grant to study parrots in the wild. I worked the telephone trying to find more information about where wild parrots could be observed. My hunt finally led me to Charlie Munn, who had been studying macaws. He told me all about the Tambopata Research Center and the clay lick, which brought an abundance of macaws and parrots there. I targeted the amazons for study because of their amazingly complex vocalizations.
When I arrived in Puerto Maldonado, Pepe Moscosa met me at the airstrip. We rode together in the back of an overloaded pickup truck through the dusty dirt roads to my hotel. The next morning I met Fernando, who had spent the 40-plus years of his life in the area. Fernando was to serve as my guide and as captain of our peki-peki, as the long, thin boats are called. We spent most of the day moving farther and farther from the human sphere of towns and cities and into Nature’s realm.
Out here, I was a displaced creature in a foreign and strange world. But to the parrots and macaws that live here, the unbroken expanse of green is a vast metropolis, with skyscraper trees heavily-laden with their garrulous inhabitants. Lying on my pack in the bright sun, I inspected the tall, dense riverbanks to either side. I thought about how Charlie, my amazon, must have felt, as he was first brought to New York City from somewhere in this green ocean. He was sold by a Brooklyn pet shop to my father and wound up in a tiny Greenwich Village apartment with only his memories to connect him back to the noisy flocks from which he was taken.
Even though the chances were slim, I was still hoping that when I finally saw flocks of his species, I might hear some of the sounds that Charlie still makes. These sounds would indicate that I had located his land of origin. My feeling of being out of place was made even more tangible as the rain started to pour down. We made camp for the night on a sandy bank and were soon lulled to sleep by the sounds of rushing and falling water.
We were awakened by the sounds of macaw screeches echoing through the forest. Fernando had to swim out to retrieve the peki-peki. We had pulled it up on the bank the night before, but the Tambopata River had risen with the deluge. The peki-peki was now several soaking yards from the bank. After another five hours with the constant peki-peki-peki-peki (motor) sound drowning out even the voices of macaws, we again pulled up on the green bank. This time we made our way to the Tambopata Research Center, a long thatched-roofed platform with no walls. This would be my home for the next ten days.
The jungle around our little encampment teemed with life. Capuchin monkeys passed overhead, taking a moment to peer at us warily. Agoutis (which look somewhat like a large guinea pig on deer legs) came into the camp’s clearing to browse on leafy greens. At the river’s edge I observed a family of wading capybaras (rodents as large as pigs) lazing away the heat of the midday sun. At the edge of camp, pressed into the powdery trail, I found the little hills and valleys left by jaguar paws. And everywhere resonated the peeps, squawks, whistles, and songs of the birds.
Curiously absent, though, was the chortling laughter of the amazons I had come for. Fernando and Julio, who was taking care of the camp, told me that the parrots did not visit the clay lick every day, and so it might take a few days before we got a good look at them. The clay lick is one of many such sites in South America where parrots of many species land to eat the pale dirt, which is believed to aid in their digestion of semi-toxic seeds and acidic fruits. This one clay lick is famous for its attraction of spectacularly gaudy flocks, one species after another in routine shifts. But the macaws, when they arrive, take over the clay lick and all others yield.
Julio was preparing the afternoon meal for the chicos, a group of 18 fledgling macaws. They had been “rescued” from near-certain death by starvation. Macaw pairs often lay more eggs than they can provide for, as a sort of insurance policy should tragedy befall their first-born. And so, in 1993 the researchers of the Tambopata Macaw Project had carefully weighed the chicks in the nest for several weeks after hatching. If the smaller chick began to deviate from its normal growth curve and toward starvation, it was taken back to camp to be raised by people. (This practice was stopped in 1995 by the Peruvian Government and is no longer done.) These chicos would not be pets. They spent their afternoons free up in the trees. Julio would call to them - “Chicos! Come on, it’s Feeding time!” And, like tardy children reluctant to end a game to come home for dinner, they would eventually fly down to be fed. Once down, though, Julio would be nearly overwhelmed with many nagging, gaping beaks. After being fed, their crops were heavy with their gruel, too heavy to fly, and so they looked for mischief on the ground.
Over the next few days, we heard a few amazons pass overhead, but always high up and moving quickly, to where we did not know. We tried floating down the river and found a couple Yellow-crowns, Amazona ochrocephala ochrocephala. They were not vocalizing much, and the sound of the rushing river made it difficult to get a good recording of them. While their barking calls had a familiar ring, these amazons evidently spoke a different tongue than the population Charlie was from.
Sure, there were lots of macaws flying in small groups back and forth across the river at sunset. There were Blue-headed Pionus, Pionus menstruus, and other species of parrots in large numbers at the lick. But as I neared the end of my time, I still had not really gotten a good look at the birds I had come so far to see.
With only a couple of days left, I was following the trails farther and farther away from camp, with Julio at my side. Late in the day, we came to a swampy area with a grove of Puna palms, and there they were. An astounding cacophony of trills, yodels and piercing barks filled the air as Mealy, A. farinosa, and Yellow-crowned amazons gathered in a small flock. I quickly set up my tape recorder and microphone, eagerly taking acoustic dictation. After nearly an hour, Julio told me he had to return to camp to start our dinner. I told him that I would remain a bit longer, to see if this area was an evening roost. If it was, more parrots might arrive, and they’d also be here tomorrow morning. Before he turned back, I asked him if I should turn left or right where the trail we were on meets the main trail back to camp. He told me neither. Just go straight where the trails meet. I remained until I estimated that I had enough time to make it back to camp before the sun went down.
I headed back along the narrow machete trail, until it intersected the main route. But there was no straight, just a left turn or a right. My sense of direction told me to turn left, and so I did do in haste, knowing I might have picked the wrong direction. I went for at least a mile through fading light until the trail became submerged and swampy. That wasn’t right, I thought, as we hadn’t come through this. So I turned around and started back in the other direction. But after going for five minutes, my sense of direction (despite the lack of shadows down at the rain forest floor) told me that it had to be the other way. I tried to ford my way through the watery path, but the difficulty of getting through seemed to make clear that this could not be the way. By then, no light was reaching the forest floor. I had not brought a flashlight, and I had no matches. I did not know if I had moved toward camp or further away. I did not even know if I was on the main trail anymore. I decided to move slowly toward the spot where I could see a small bit of dark sky through the inky canopy above, and began sharpening a stick.
“EEEeeee!” I heard back in answer to my call. I strained to discern whether this was a human voice, Julio’s. I knew he’d come looking, but when, and would he find me? And so an hour passed, the blackness boiling with sound. My stick seemed silly, and yet it gave me some assurance - or at least something to do. I strained to see through the darkness with my ears, but could not tell a mammal from an insect from a frog in this unfamiliar environment.
At long last, the answer to my periodic calls was not animal, and Julio approached through the darkness, the white spot of his flashlight beam leading his way. I showed him my stick and joked that I was prepared for the silent approach of a jaguar.
“No, Mike,” he explained, “Not jaguars you need to watch for. Snakes.” I was glad not to have known this, I thought on the way back to camp, as I recounted the many varieties known to slither here. When we came to the sodden ground that had stopped my earlier return, I followed as he detoured into a thin path through the bush, invisible but for the fact that he knew where to look.
The next morning, there they were at the top of the clay lick. Amazons in abundance! Somehow, the time was right for them to come back to this place so frequented by all the parrots in the vicinity. I spent the day photographing them when I could see them and recording them throughout. No, they were not using the language that Charlie, my amazon, had grown up with, even though this was his species. I would have to keep looking if I were ever going to find his homeland. I eventually settled on another site, in Mexico, where I could more easily see the amazons day to day and collect video footage as well as audio.
Tambopata is now one of the premiere destinations for eco-tourists, and the influx of travelers has changed the area in some marked ways. The forest around the site is now a federally-protected reserve, and the people of Puerto Maldonado and the surrounding villages are reshaping their economy in ways that service the eco-tourism business and are more environmentally aware. We can show our support by taking a trip to where our favorite species flies free and seeing firsthand the magnificence of parrots living the life they have evolved to live. Maybe then we wouldn’t be so inclined to take parrots from the wild, to become exotic travelers lost in our own urban jungles.
You can hear recordings of parrots in the wild and find out more about my project and one-hour documentary film Stalking the Wild Amazons at http://www.reflector.net/parrots, or contact me at 23 Sacramento Place, Cambridge, MA 02138.