When Christopher Columbus first set foot on the island of San Salvador, he was greeted by colorful, raucous Bahama parrots.
Five hundred years later, the few remaining parrots are classified as endangered. Their chances of survival have been weakened by the damage Hurricane Andrew wreaked in August on the Bahamian islands where they still live.
In Columbus' time, the parrots already were cultural icons in the Bahamas. Their fame quickly spread through Europe.
According to his logbook, the explorer gave the natives red beads as gifts. They gave him 40 parrots.
Today an estimated 1,300 birds, at most, remain on Abaco Island and an unknown number on Great Inagua Island.
An eerie silence confronted Jill Weech as she stepped into what was left of the pine forest of southern Abaco the day after Andrew had rolled through the Bahamas.
The Bahamian government forester saw many trees torn out by their roots. Other trees were stripped bare of cones and needles. Much of the lush undergrowth had been swept away.
Most alarmingly, the parrots were gone. There was no sign of the large green birds with white foreheads, red throats and blue wings. The absence of their harsh, metallic shrieks intensified the stillness. "We were very worried," Weech said.
She and her boss, Bahamian forestry director Christopher Russell, have seen a few birds since then. They assume that most of the parrots survived the hurricane but left their unusual below-ground nesting areas in search of food.
"The situation is pretty serious," Weech said. "There's a critical shortage of their natural food, which could lead to starvation in the months to come."
During the last 14 months, a conservation education campaign, jointly sponsored by the Bahamas National Trust and the Bahamian government and financed by the Philadelphia-based RARE Center for Tropical Conservation, has made preservation of the parrot a popular cause. Bahamians cherish the bird as a national symbol.
The government has proclaimed the parrot the official mascot of the Bahamas' Columbus quincentennial celebration this month. The post office cancels stamps with an imprint that urges, "Save the Parrot." The bird is pictured on newly issued paper money. Local businesses sell parrot souvenirs.
Several songs have been written about the parrot, including a rap song that is to be turned into a music video.
"There's been a great increase in public awareness and concern for the parrots' survival," Susan G. Larson of the national trust said.
The trust was instrumental in commissioning the first systematic study of the Bahama parrot, conducted by an American biologist, Rosemarie S. Gnam, in 1985-90. Gnam now lives in Alexandria, Va., and works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Gnam found that the Bahama parrot, which originally ranged throughout the Bahama archipelago, has retreated to two relatively small areas on southern Abaco and Great Inagua.
"The major threat is destruction of habitat, which is subject to increasing developmental pressures from agriculture and tourism," Gnam said.
Another problem is the Bahamas' large population of feral cats. Because the trees of southern Abaco don't provide large enough cavities for nests, the parrots there nest and raise their chicks in naturally occurring limestone holes, where hungry felines find easy prey.
Still another menace is illegal poaching by parrot dealers. Wildlife authorities believe Bahama parr ots, one of more than 300 species of the bird, may be living in cages all over the world. Poaching continues despite rigid laws, including the Bahamas' Wild Birds Protection Act, the U.S. Endangered Species Act and international laws.
The most destructive part of Hurricane Andrew passed to the south of southern Abaco, sparing the bird colony an immediate cataclysm. But the parrots face a survival challenge until next spring, when vegetation will regenerate, including the pine-cone seeds they love to eat.
"I think we'll lose a lot to starvation," Gnam said. "Studies elsewhere in the Caribbean show that you lose birds as a direct result of a hurricane, but the real damage comes afterward, when all the wildlife is starved because there's no vegetation."
Bahamian wildlife officials are now organizing a survey of the area to determine how great a threat the birds face. They hope that the new government of Prime Minister Hubert A. Ingraham will authorize creation of a 30,000-acre parrot preserve in the forest of southern Abaco.
"For years we've said that one of the biggest threats is a hurricane, because it's such a small population that's left," Gnam said. "A serious hurricane could lead to extinction. When it happens, you realize that what you've been talking about could come true."