Written for BiOME by Margaux d’Ambly.
For centuries humans have showed a particular interest in the macaws. Their ability to adapt to captivity, to imitate the language of people and their amazing display of colours has made them very popular. So popular that more than half of all macaw species are endangered or extinct in nature as a result of trapping for the pet trade and poaching for collection of their feathers.
Macaws are members of the parrot family and are native to Central and South America. There are 19 species, of which nine are considered as vulnerable or endangered and two are assumed to be extinct in nature. Among them, the Hyacinth Macaw, with its unique cobalt blue colour, is the largest flying parrot in the world, weighting up to 1.5 kilograms. These birds are intelligent, highly social and live in pairs that stay together for life. The Hyacinth Macaw is highly specialised in its choice of food and nest site. They feed mainly on the nuts of a few palm trees such as the Acuri palms and they nest almost exclusively in large cavities of old Manduvi trees. Their large and strong beak allows them to crack hard nuts and seeds.
Unfortunately, these magnificent birds have experienced a dramatic decline of their population size. Formerly widely distributed in Brazil, they now occur in just a few limited areas with the largest population in the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland. Other small populations can be found in Bolivia and in Paraguay. The Hyacinth Macaw faces severe threats such as capture for commerce and poaching for the collection of feathers. Many are captured to be sold as pets all over the world. In the 1980’s it is estimated that over 10,000 hyacinth macaws were captured due to international demand. Only in 1987 the Hyacinth Macaw was listed on the Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) making the trade of captured Hyacinth Macaws illegal, although illegal capture remains a problem today. In addition, habitat destruction is a major threat, mainly related to the creation of pastures for cattle farming and agriculture expansion, which has considerably reduced their living space and resources. For small remaining populations endogamy can be responsible for decreasing the biological fitness of individuals, thereby reducing their chances of survival. Finally, some studies claim that low reproductive rate, habitat and diet specialisation are additional factors contributing to their decline.
In response to this, the Brazilian researcher Dr. Neiva Guedes made her life mission to preserve the species from extinction. In 1990 she founded the Hyacinth Macaw Project in the Pantanal of Brazil, one of the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world. Since then many research projects are ongoing gathering valuable information and building a strong knowledge of the ecology of the hyacinth macaws. The studies clarified many questions regarding feeding, reproduction, competition, habitat type, behaviour, predation, sickness and threats that were reducing the wild populations. Today, this bird is one of the best known parrots in the wild. Using that knowledge the Hyacinth Macaw Project was able to develop conservation plans to preserve the remaining populations and in the hope of restoring the original number of blue macaws. As described earlier, studies showed that the Hyacinth Macaws use almost exclusively hollows in old Manduvi trees to nest. The scarcity of such nesting sites being a limiting factor for the macaw’s population, the organisation created a total of 198 artificial nests. A study showed that 50% of these nests were occupied by Hyacinth Macaws and the remaining nests were colonised by other birds or bees. Installation of artificial nests is meant to increase the reproductive success of the Blue Macaws by providing them with more breeding sites. All nests are monitored, eggs are incubated and chicks are fed in the first days after hatching before they are re-introduced in their nest.
The project led by Dr. Neiva Guedes also works with local communities, conducting environmental education and raising awareness among people in the attempt to assure the conservation of remaining forest patches, which are fundamental for feeding, sheltering and reproduction of the Blue Macaws. Community education, decreased deforestation and burning by ranchers have all considerably reduced pressures on this endangered animal. They also suggest that farmers grow and protect native palm and Manduvi trees from cattle as intensive grazing hinders their success. Finally, the project also promotes ecotourism; a sustainable and responsible form of tourism which depends on wildlife conservation. In the Pantanal of Brazil, many ranchers have turned their farm into an eco-lodge attracting tourists, wildlife lovers and photographers from all over the world. The Pantanal, where the Hyacinth Macaw Project has been working for the last 30 years, is the land hosting the largest population of hyacinth macaws reaching up to 5000 individuals. A trip to the Pantanal guarantees you many sightings of this impressive bird!
Conservation efforts are successful as the population of Hyacinth Macaws in the Pantanal is recovering. Their numbers have more than tripled since 1990 and they have started to expand to other regions. However, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global population amounting 6,500 individuals is still declining. Today, the species is still considered vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN, but the continuing population growth in the Pantanal leaves conservationists optimistic and hopeful for the survival of the species. The work done by the Hyacinth Macaw Project in the Pantanal shows that conservation work is effective and that more support and people in the field is needed to end the global population decline and restore the original number not only of hyacinth macaws but also of other parrots.
Guedes NM (2004). Management and conservation of the large macaws in the wild. The Neotropical Ornithological Society, 15 (Suppl.): 279–283
Nogueira F, Pinho JB (2003). Hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) reproduction in the northern Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil. The Neotropical Ornithological Society, 14: 29–38
Guedes NM. Installing and monitoring artificial nests by the Hyacinth Macaw in the Pantanal, Brazil. Neotropical ornithological congress, 6, Book of Abstracts, Monterrey y Saltillo, México, 4-10/10/1999, p. 155-156.
Birdlife International : http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/hyacinth-macaw-anodorhynchus-hyacinthinus
IUCN Red List : https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22685516/93077457
Picture References :
Last photo : Dr. André Jardim Arruda
by Margaux d’Ambly.