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The Mysterious Incident of the Exploding Parrots in the Nighttime


Thank you to Kate Connell from the University of Pennsylvania for sharing this "Foot in Mouth" category winner with us!

Living in the Guatemalan jungle for three months keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t take long to learn that you have to check your shoes for scorpions every morning, that the snakes sprawled on the footpaths are just there to sunbathe, and that you could safely swim in the lake if you just avoided shoreline where the crocodiles lurk. That being said, a gringa like myself could never truly adapt to all of the surprises waiting in the wildlife rehabilitation center. I won’t forget the volunteer’s shriek of “the caiman got out of his enclosure!,” the dengue fever victims suddenly falling ill, or the trek through the hurricane to tend to a sick howler monkey.

But the story that I’m going to tell today is surrounding some of the most bizarre circumstances that I had ever witnessed. At first I thought that I was only befuddled because I was born and raised in suburbia, USA, but even the local staff members were completed dumbfounded by what happened over the course of that week.

You see, the green parrots in the far enclosure seemed to be exploding.

This isn’t a metaphor, or even an exaggeration. The volunteers would go out to feed them in the morning, and every day they would find what looked to be the remains of a parrot that had swallowed a hand grenade. A violent burst of feathers, sometimes a head, a leg; the ground moistened with what little blood circulates through those small avian creatures. It was truly quite alarming.

Macintosh HD:Users:Kate:Desktop:10150214327810389.jpgAllow me to set the scene a little more fully, because the setting will become important later in the story. The rehabilitation center was expansive, with a central area for new animals, larger enclosures spaced further away for animals that were rehabilitated but needed time to bond with their new flock, and then even larger, more isolated enclosures in the jungle where there was very minimal human contact. Our bursting feathered friends were in that middle group.

It was a large flock of about fifty birds that was out of sight but not yet out of mind; the birds still received two daily feedings even if we weren’t constantly checking up on them. And they only seemed to be afflicted by these bombastic pathologies during the night.

The obvious answer was there was a predator getting into the enclosure when the sun was down and the human presence died away.

So every volunteer participated in a top-to- bottom inspection of the chain-link area. Every square inch was examined and reinforced, and then eight–foot-tall tarps were zip-tied around the lower perimeter with such care that not even a small snake could slip between them. We were confident that the problem was solved.

And it was, for a few days.

I believe that in the next incident, we found three or four distinctive sets of remains. The tarps that we had hung were undisturbed. The staff members conferred in quiet Spanish, some arguing that it must be a predator somehow getting past our defenses, others saying that it might be some sort of bird-on- bird avicide. Alejandro, the veterinarian on staff, took samples of the remains to necropsy (what he hoped to find from some dismembered limbs is beyond me, but then again it wouldn’t be surprising if there were some grotesque tropical worm that could consume an entire bird overnight).

As luck would have it, one of the center’s biologists returned from the field, and with him he brought night-vision cameras that he used in his wildlife observation. They were able to align the camera to catch a wide side of the enclosure, and from there, we only had to wait.

In the spirit of full disclosure, the rest of this story is what I have been told second-hand. You see, the field biologist failed to save the video from the camera onto his laptop, and only he and the staff vet witnessed what happened that night. So forgive me for borrowing their story. But the finale is just too amazing to not tell.

A Dramatized, Imaginitized Version of What Was Causing the Parrots to Explode in the Nighttime … from the perspective of the field biologist

It was a dark and humid night. The voices of the jungle, so boisterous and cacophonous in the day, had long been silent.

The grainy, greenish image glowed from the small laptop screen. In it we could clearly see the outlines of the birds roosting at the top of the enclosure, heads tucked under wings, somehow comfortable hanging from the sides of the chain-link with their strong talons. Every once in a while a bird would stretch its wings or ruffle its feathers, but besides that, there was nothing.

Macintosh HD:Users:Kate:Desktop:10150214328760389.jpgIt must have been two or three o’clock in the morning when it happened. A small ocelot crept confidently out of the bushes, head tilted upward, eyes on the prize. It squatted at the base of the enclosure, and with a casual hop, it sprang over the eight feet of tarp and grasped the chain-link.

Alejandro leapt from his chair in hopes of scaring the feline away before it accomplished its mission. I remained glued to the computer, too engrossed in watching the hunter.

The ocelot moved with a little difficulty as it clambered to the top, where some of the sleeping birds remained, apparently oblivious to their eminent doom.

Sure enough, the cat slipped his small paw between the links, and snatched one of the glowing birds. There was no audio feed, but I imagined the outraged squawk from the parrot. The ocelot jerked its paw out again with a few sharp yanks. That would explain the state of the birds that we were finding. Doing the math, a 2”x2”x6” bird could not fit through a 1.5”x1.5” hole without losing some dimensions.

Alejandro appeared on screen moments later, arms waving. The ocelot dove from its perch, and was gone in an instant. Alejandro looked at the camera, hands on his hips, and shook his head. We had our answer.

The following day, the volunteers returned to the enclosure. We lifted the heavy tarps from their ground-level position, and heaved them up ladders so that they would cover the nighttime roosting area instead. Traps were set to try to capture the rogue ocelot (with the intention of releasing him farther from civilization), but the scamp seemed to realize that the jig was up. He didn’t return.

In the following year, that flock of parrots successfully made it through the rehabilitation process and has returned to the wild. I’d like to think that this group has an especially good chance of making it. After all, they were the ones that learned to keep an eye out for ocelots as they slept.



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