The Lear's Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari) has provided one of the greatest ornithological mysteries for more than 120 years. One of the first to see this rare bird was the famous British illustrator, Edward Lear. He was the first to paint a captive bird. It was a few years later, however, (1858) that the species was scientifically described by Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a nephew of Napoleon. The ornithologist had recognised from Lear's illustration and a skin in the Natural History Museum in Paris, that this was a macaw that differed from the Hyacinthine Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), which was already well-known in zoos and the equally rareGlaucous Macaw (Anodorhynchus glaucus).
All these birds had been brought to Europe over trading routes. The origin of the Glaucous Macaw and the Hyacinthine Macaw was fairly clear, but it remained a mystery where the Lear's Macaw came from. All that was known was that this extremely rare bird appeared from time to time amongst occasional shipments of blue macaws from Brazil.
The situation remained unchanged until far into the 20th century. The Glaucous Macaw had become extinct in the meantime and Brazil was being explored. To outsiders it was incomprehensible that such a large, noisy conspicuous macaws could be undiscoverable. Quite a few scientists surmised it was not a species, but a variant or that the Lear's Macaw was a hybrid of the Glaucous Macaw and the Hyacinthine Macaw.
The ornithologist Helmut Sick had been searching for this unknown macaw since 1954. The hybridisation theory, which was published in 1965, which he did not believe in for one second, spurred on to solve the riddle. That he succeeded and that his name will be for ever associated with the story of the Lear's Macaw, is due to his persistence and scientific drive.
The young Helmut Sick studied with Erwin Stresemann before he joined the Berlin Museum. In 1939 he was sent to Brazil to search for the Red-billed Curassow (Crax blumenbachii), which occurred exclusively in the Atlantic coastal forest of the Brazilian state of Espiritu Santo. He was only supposed to spend three months there, but was stranded by the outbreak of the Second World War. After five years he had developed such a love for Brazil with its diverse plant life and its 1,600 avian species, that he no longer wanted to leave South America. He stayed there for the rest of his life.
As a natural scientist he took part in the first expedition through central Brazil. Amazonian territory was explored via the Roncador-Xingu -Tapajos river system as far as Cerrado. It was an adventurous journey from low swampy jungle to the wooded savannah of the high plateau. Later Helmut Sick led further expeditions. At that time there were still numerous species in the wild and each time his expeditions were successful. Of the blue macaws he encountered the Hyacinthine Macaw frequently.
But Helmut Sick was also constantly looking for signs of the Lear's Macaw. After 1950 he intensified his search after he was told by a well-known Brazilian ornithologist that he had seen a Lear's Macaw kept as a pet on a fazenda, a typical Brazilian farm, in the state of Pernambuco. Investigation revealed this bird had apparently been bought in Bahia. Further information was gathered and evaluated. A birdkeeper in Teresopolis owned a bird, which he alleged came from the Rio Negro region in the Amazon and " black macaws " were sometimes offered for sale in Joazeiro, a border town between the states of Piaui and Bahia. All this information was unconfirmed and the true origin of the Lear's Macaw continued to remain a mystery. The investigation showed that time and time again the Lear's Macaw was confused with the Hyacinthine Macaw and even the Spix's Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii).
Professor Sick decided to explore the enormous area in northeast Brazil. Up to that point it was a large white patch on the map of ornithology as nobody had yet investigated the birdlife there. This region is very poor and differs considerably from the rest of Brazil. Only a few roads or tracks ran through the dry landscape, which is inhospitable with its low, bushy, thorny vegetation. Trees only grow in the dried-up river-beds. It did not rain sometimes for months, even years. The population spoke Portuguese and had suffered from civil wars, revolutions and wandering bandits until the beginning of the 20th century. In addition there was constant famine conditions in the " sertão " as the area is also called.
Five expeditions under the leadership of Professor Sick were necessary to explore the locations in which blue macaws had been seen. In a few places he found Hyacinthine Macaws, which nested in holes in cliffs. The final journey undertaken in the austral summer months of 1978-9 brought meagre results. The hot dry season had reached its peak temperatures. The expedition had become bogged down without water in the oppressive heat, when on 29th December a local hunter brought a few feathers, which must have come from a Lear's Macaw. The unmistakable blue colouring of these feathers war the first reliable evidence that the species still existed in the wild and in this part of Brazil. The hunter admitted he had killed the bird some weeks before to eat it. It is not unusual in Brazil that macaws are hunted by the local people for their meat. This discovery provided the members of the expedition with the incentive to intensify their search. On 31st December they were rewarded with the sight of a few Lear's Macaws in flight. For the first time ornithologists encountered Lear's Macaws in the wild. The location of this rare bird had been discovered. After more than 120 years the mystery of the origin of the Lear's Macaw was at an end.
Contrary to what has often been said or written since, this was not a " rediscovery ", but a true " discovery ". However, this discovery was accompanied by an inner struggle for Sick as he could only prove the existence of the Lear's Macaw by killing one. This was understandable to him as a scientist, but not as conservationist and human being, who revered all living things. Equally difficult and conscience-stricken was the necessity to reveal the location, thereby exposing the birds to unscrupulous dealers.
Altogether the expedition only sighted ten macaws. It was clear to the scientist that if it was not already too late, the breeding colony had to be found urgently and placed under the protection of the authorities in the "Reserva do Raso da Catarina".
The present population is estimated to be some 60 Lear's Macaws. They live in two colonies in the sandstone cliffs, which protect them from predators during the night. They leave the cliffs in the early morning gloom and return at dusk. Their harsh calls echo in the canyons formed by the cliffs. They feed mainly on the small nuts of the licuri palm (Syagrus coronata). It is assumed that 450 fruit-bearing palms are required to meet the feeding needs of one macaw. In addition Lear's Macaws feed on the fruits of numerous other trees and bushes.
It is probable that the distribution area was originally more extensive. Reports that they still occurred on the other side of the Rio São Francisco forty years ago appear to confirm this. It is still not known why the macaw does not occur in other areas where the licuri palm grows. The huge distribution area of this palm extends from the northeastern states to Minas Gerais. Although there had been much deforestation, the palms remain in the pasture to provide shade for the cattle. In many places the human population eats the fruit of this palm. There seems therefore to be sufficient food for the Lear's Macaws. Perhaps there is insufficient nesting opportunity, although there are no shortage of cliffs.
The population is threatened by hunting, but since the Lear's Macaw has been declared a national bird, the local people have started to be proud of it and are aware today of its rarity.
Unfortunately the population has not increased. Genetic damage as a result of in-breeding in a few birds is causing curvature of the bill and tail.
Worldwide there are some 15 Lear's Macaws in captivity. (Website Ed: Now the only Lear's Macaws legally in captivity outside Brazil are the two females bred at Busch gardens, Tampa, USA) However most are very old and captive breeding has not been successful. Therefore the conservation of the wild population is extremely important. Professor Sick strove for this in particular. The two volume work Ornitologia Brasileira, which covers the birdlife of Brazil, is one of his outstanding achievements. The English version of this excellent book was about to be published when Professor Sick died suddenly in 1991. Without doubt it would have meant much to him to know that the bird, to which he dedicated most of his life, can survive in the wild of the great expanse of northeast Brazil.
Tuesday 13th June 2017
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" Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret "
( If you drive out nature with a pitchfork, she will soon find a way back)
Horace (65-8 BC)