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Fading Brilliance

For plummeting macaw populations, humans hold the key to a brighter future.

by Howard Youth

These days, military macaws seem more myth than reality. Even though range maps show that the birds nest from Mexico to northwest Argentina, and even though their screeches seemingly wake the dead—military macaws (Ara militaris) have become notoriously hard to find.

Since I live in Ecuador, home to seven macaw species, I thought I’d try my luck at finding the military here. These goliath, emerald-green birds measure more than two feet long, and are known to nest in only one or two places in the country. I stacked the odds in my favor by hiring a guide, biologist Rudy Gelis. “They might be nesting right now,” Gelis told me as we stood atop a ridge overlooking a sea of tropical forest flanking the Sumaco Volcano. Six months earlier, Gelis had hiked down to the nest site, a cliff face hidden amid the greenery. But he found the cliff holes bird-less. At perhaps just ten pairs, the Sumaco area’s military macaw population is hardly robust. During our three days in the area, I saw several screeching military macaw pairs, always distant and always headed away from us. But I left feeling fortunate to have seen them at all.

scarlet macaw
A scarlet macaw drinking water in Ecuador. (Robert E Mumford/Natural Images Photography)

Giants of a Declining Realm

Macaws, the world’s largest parrots, are also among the most endangered. Fifteen species inhabit a variety of shrinking habitats—from lush tropical rainforest to arid woodland and palm-studded savanna—in Central and South America, and some parts of Mexico. The dual threat of habitat loss and their desirability as pets has led to their disappearance. Where macaws remain, their survival hinges on innovative ways to keep these parrots and their homes in place as humans continue to move into remaining wilderness areas.

There were once more wild macaws. Listed as critically endangered, the Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) likely went extinct in the wild in 2000, when the last known male vanished in Brazil. Eighty or more birds, however, remain in captivity in aviaries around the world, many part of a breeding program that aims to reintroduce birds to Brazil. No such luck for another South American macaw, the glaucous (Anodorhynchus glaucus). This large blue bird has not been seen in the wild in about 50 years, and there are no known captive birds. Conservationists hope that somewhere wild populations of these two species persist. But search teams sent out to find the birds have come up empty. Until the 1800s, macaws inhabited West Indian islands, which might explain why images of Caribbean pirates include macaws on their shoulders. Such capture, along with hunting and habitat destruction, drove the Cuban macaw (Ara tricolor) to extinction. The last reliable sighting of this red-orange, yellow, and blue bird was in 1864.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, three of the surviving macaw species are critically endangered, four are endangered, one is near threatened, and one—the military macaw—is vulnerable. The remaining seven fall under the “least concern” category, meaning that although the species may be declining in some areas, ample habitat and healthy populations remain elsewhere.

Macaw Idiosyncracies

Social and monogamous, macaw pairs nest in cavities, usually in trees, although some species and populations use cliffs. They are slow breeders and cannot easily bounce back when nest trees fall or their young are taken by tree-climbing poachers. To get an idea of the investment in time and energy it takes macaw parents to raise young, consider a comparison: American robins (Turdus migratorius) and many other songbirds incubate their eggs for about two weeks, then their young leave the nest about two weeks after hatching. Macaws, on average, incubate twice as long, for an entire month. Then it takes up to 100 days (14-plus weeks) for surviving nestlings to reach independence. American robins often nest twice, sometimes three times, a season and often at least two young survive each nesting attempt. Only rarely does more than one macaw chick reach adulthood, and, in many cases, no nestlings survive, succumbing to parasites or predators such as hawks. And while many of the details of wild macaw breeding remain a mystery, there is evidence that some wild macaws don’t breed every year—possibly due to lack of available nesting trees. This makes them even slower breeders than previously thought.

scarlet macaws

A pair of scarlet macaws in the wild. (Robert E. Mumford/Natural Images Photography)

Macaws are on a constant quest for food. Pairs commute back and forth between traditional roosting and nesting sites and their feeding grounds. Raucous in flight, they usually keep silent while feeding in the treetops. They have a perfect tool kit for cracking open tough nuts, stripping bark, or manipulating small fruits: Large feet with two toes in front and two in back hold objects steady while the birds work their hooked bills, strong jaw muscles, and large, versatile tongues.

Macaws often eat unripe fruits and seeds, and may pick up toxic substances while feeding. Many ornithologists think this explains why the birds will eat lumps of clay to help absorb or filter toxins in their systems. They make visits to clay licks—deposits of clay near rivers or in the forest—to ingest the clay each day. Until the birds’ burrows were found a few years ago, the breeding cliffs near Sumaco Volcano were assumed by locals to be clay licks for the military macaws. The site may serve both purposes.

The Ones That Haven't Gotten Away

While, overall, macaws can be said to be in decline, some promising stories point to a hopeful future for the struggling species. In 1987, just 70 Lear’s macaws (Anodorhynchus leari) remained in northeast Brazil. But over the past 22 years, Brazilian and international organizations have banded together to protect and expand a reserve for these birds. It includes roosting and nesting cliffs and palm groves where 751 individuals were counted in 2007—a ten-fold population increase. The only protected area for the species, the reserve now spans 3,600 acres.

Habitat choice of different species can also dictate how well macaws fare when living near humans. Gelis, who has surveyed parrots in Peru, says “Pretty much anywhere in Amazonia blue-and-yellow macaws (Ara ararauna) and red-bellied macaws (Orthopsittaca manilata) can do alright because they favor palm swamps, and these are usually not in people’s land-use plans. The situation is different for red-and-green (Ara chloropterus) and scarlet macaws (Ara macao). They need canopy-height hardwood trees. People like those, too.”

Fortunately, macaws don’t necessarily require untouched forest. Certain agriculture and forestry practices can go on, and if important food and nest trees are left standing and the birds are left unmolested, macaws can coexist with loggers and farmers. Until recently, foresters sought out Dipteryx panamensis trees in Costa Rica. These food and nest trees, which can reach 180 feet tall and be centuries old, are crucial to the survival of scarlet and great green macaws (Ara ambigua). When they were selectively cut, Costa Rican forests that appeared otherwise healthy were devoid of the macaws that depend upon them. Since late 2008, Costa Rican law has protected this tree from harvest. Conservationists who pushed for the ban hope this action will help the country’s macaw populations rebound.

military macaws
Military macaws are hard to spot in the wild. (Pete Oxford/NaturePl.com)


People have a special bond with parrots, but they have a particular fondness for the largest and the flashiest. For this reason, macaws remain in high demand as pets. Many countries such as the United States and those in the European Union now ban import of wild-caught parrots. And many species, including macaws, are now bred in captivity. But parrot poaching remains a widespread problem in Latin America, where protection laws exist but are often ignored.

“The big problem across much of Latin America nowadays is heightened internal demand,” says ornithologist Robert Ridgely, an authority on Central and South American birds and co-author of The Birds of Ecuador. “People love to have parrots as pets, and as human population levels rise, demand only increases. And there is little or no control over internal trafficking of wild birds in Ecuador or elsewhere.”

“In Ecuador,” Gelis tells me, “it’s not as bad as I’ve seen in other countries such as Mexico. But if people want parrots, they just go out and get them.” In my neighborhood in the suburbs of Quito, I hear macaws screeching far from their wild haunts. These pets almost certainly hail from the Amazonian forests of Ecuador or Peru. As the economy and population continue to grow here in Ecuador, roads and development projects are reaching areas not long ago considered remote. The road passing through the area where we watched for macaws is being fully paved for the first time. Trucks whizzed past us, honking from time to time. Easier travel means more settlements and more people. While parks protect a lot of habitat in the area, the military macaw breeding ground has no formal protection and there’s been no great cry for it. “I’m mortified that nobody’s talking about macaws in Ecuador,” says Gelis, “specifically military and red-and-green macaws. I don’t understand why there’s not some great alarm going off.” In coming years, these and the great green macaw might vanish from the country.

“The red-and-green macaw seems to have dropped out from almost everywhere in eastern Ecuador, even in areas that are remote indeed,” notes Ridgely. “I have not seen the species in Ecuador since the mid-1990s and even then a few pairs.” Fortunately, the red-and-green macaw has a wide range. Although it has declined in Ecuador and other countries, it remains widespread and common in parts of Peru and Brazil.

What can be done to keep wild macaws from disappearing like their already lost relations? “Certain efforts to protect wild lands and habitats and the species themselves, bird tourism, along with some changes in local attitudes, may help to avoid extinction…at least that is the hope,” says Paul Greenfield, illustrator and coauthor of The Birds of Ecuador. “If birds and nature are not perceived by people as being important generators of well-being, or as being considered as true resources that can raise living standards through sustainable management and use, there is little hope that things will change dramatically.”

Two months before my military macaw trip, I stayed at Sani Lodge, an ecotourism venue near the Napo River in Ecuador’s eastern lowlands. There, macaws are money-earners. By living wild as they always have, they help generate income for the local indigenous community, whose members staff the lodge. People visit from around the world precisely because the Amazonian forest, waterways, and wildlife communities there remain intact.

From a dugout canoe in the middle of an oxbow lake, my family and I marveled at the dusk flight of dozens of long-tailed birds headed off to their roosts. The macaws’ raucous calls echoed across the lake’s forest-choked edges. Scattered pairs of huge blue-and-yellow macaws were flanked by smaller, green-bodied chestnut-fronted macaws (Ara severa) and red-bellied macaws. Any parrot-lover, from pet store loiterer to world-traveling birder, would probably agree that to lose these wild macaws would be like losing the colors of the wilderness itself.

Macaws at the Zoo

Want to commune with macaws in Washington, D.C.? Head to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, where you will find a pair of red-and-green macaws (also known as green-winged macaws) at the Bird House.

Currently based in Quito, Ecuador, Howard Youth is a long-time contributor to and former associate editor of ZooGoer.