Saving the blue parrots of South America

By Chris Baraniuk

Mario Cohn-Haft remembers the sinking feeling he had when he realised the parrot he had come to see would probably not appear before him, ever again.

He had taken a bird-watching tour to the area where the very last wild Spix’s macaw, a beautiful blue parrot native to the forests of Brazil, was known to show itself. But that tour was the first he had led that couldn’t spot it.

Two blue Spix's macaws
Spix's macaws are now extinct in the wild. © Camile Lugarini
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“I was one of the first people to experience it being extinct in the wild,” says Cohn-Haft, an ornithologist at the National Institute of Amazonian Research.

That was 20 years ago. No verified wild specimens have been seen since. The Spix’s macaw was first described in 1638 and is named after the German naturalist, Johann Baptist Ritter von Spix, who collected a specimen in 1819. It’s small for a macaw, but has distinctive blue feathers, often fading to pale grey around the head. South America has many exotically coloured parrots, but the sophisticated blue plumage sets the Spix’s apart from many other species on the continent.

For years, Spix’s macaws were restricted to a small area of habitat in north-eastern Brazil. Deforestation in the 20th Century contributed to their decline.

The species was immortalised in the 2011 animated film Rio – the characters Blu and Jewel being the last wild pair of breeding Spix’s macaws in the world. Fans of the film are often dejected to learn that the species is now considered extinct in the wild.

But today there is hope. Spix’s macaws still exist. A small number of breeding pairs are currently living in captivity. Conservationists are in the middle of a project to rear healthy birds and prepare them for release into the wild. The Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP) is leading current efforts. A memorandum was signed between the ACTP and Brazil’s government in June this year to ensure the next phase of the project.

Cromwell Purchase, Scientific and Zoological Director at the ACTP, explains that the group plans to send 50 Spix’s macaws to rehabilitation facilities in Brazil, which are currently under construction. If all goes well, the birds will be shipped from Germany in the spring of 2020. The conservation team will first practice a technique for releasing the birds on a small flock of Illiger’s macaws – a green parrot with blue-tinged wings. Then, in 2021, the Spix’s will be released with a small group of the Illiger’s, which will hopefully help them to integrate into the forest of Caatinga, in north-eastern Brazil.

“Over the first few weeks the aviary will be open in the morning and closed at dark, birds will be allowed to return at will to get food,” explains Purchase.

The real test will be whether the birds take to their native surroundings and, crucially, whether they successfully breed and rear chicks in the wild. The macaws will face natural challenges as well as the threat of poaching.

I was one of the first people to experience it being extinct in the wild."

Cohn-HaftOrnithologist at the National Institute of Amazonian Research
A breeding pair of blue Spix's macaws sitting on a branch
A small number of breeding pairs are currently living in captivity. © Camile Lugarini

But Brazil wants the plan to work. There has been an initiative to reintroduce Spix’s macaws to the wild since 2012, says Camile Lugarini at the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation. She and her colleagues are working closely with the ACTP.

“There is no way to bring Spix´s back without the cooperation of the international holders,” she says. South America has dozens of parrot species. Many are thriving in the wild – but blue parrots are rare. One of the most stunning parrots in the world is the Hyacinth macaw, which is in fact the world’s largest by length. It can grow up to 1 metre from head to tail with a wingspan of 1.5 metres.

It is a brilliant, rich shade of blue, with a flash of yellow around its eyes and at the base of its large beak. Its wild population fell to just 2,500-3,000 by the end of the 1990s, according to the WWF. Neiva Guedes is one of the key people responsible for helping the Hyacinth macaw to recover. She set up the Hyacinth Macaw Project in 1990 and helped to design nest boxes that made it easier for the birds to breed. Today, there are thought to be up to 5,000 of the birds in the wild.

Locals who once killed Hyacinths in order to collect their feathers have been taught to protect them. Some even make money from sheltering them on their ranches as tourist attractions, says Don Brightsmith, a conservationist and expert in parrots at Texas A&M University.

There is no way to bring Spix´s back without the cooperation of the international holders."

Camile LugariniChico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation
Two blue Spix's macaws
Spix's are small for a macaw, but have distinctive blue feathers, often fading to pale grey around the head. © Camile Lugarini

“We’ve turned the corner now to where species like that one have really come back,” he says. Knowledge of how to do reintroduce parrots successfully in South America has only really come about in the past 30 years, he adds: “We know how to reintroduce parrots, there are now multiple publications and case studies that show, yeah, we can get birds out into the wild and have them survive.”

It means that there is a better chance today that the Spix’s macaw reintroduction project will go well. Brightsmith notes one crucial point – the birds must be shown to rear chicks independently and successfully. Otherwise any reintroduced population will quickly collapse.

Happily, Purchase says this is something he and his colleagues are working on: “It is a long process, we have a few pairs that can now parent-rear successfully. But we still need to hand rear a few.” Those macaws are some of the last survivors of their kind. But there’s a glimmer of hope that they will return to their true home in Brazil. Should they flourish, the blue flash of a Spix’s wings might one day be seen again by locals and, perhaps, fascinated groups of bird-watchers who have travelled to stroll beneath the canopy – and glimpse this brilliant blue macaw in the forest where it belongs.

Featured image  © Camile Lugarini