The Glaucous Macaw - Dead or alive? The continuing saga

by Tony PITTMAN. Published in Just Parrots, 1997/8, Issue 19

In early July of this year I found myself unexpectedly sitting in a 4WD bouncing along a dirt road in southwest Paraguay on my way to the area where the great Rio Paraguay joins the now much reduced flow from the Parana river. Accompanied by Margarita Mieres and Cristina Morales from the Paraguayan wildlife protection agency as well as Jorge Escobar, a well-known Paraguayan ornithologist and expert field-guide, I found myself once again searching for the Glaucous Macaw (Anodorhynchus glaucus).

Five years ago in July 1992 Joe Cuddy and I had undertaken an almost epic journey in a little hired vehicle and later by local bus, travelling around the distribution area attributed to the Glaucous Macaw in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil to study the habitat and its condition. After examining all the evidence available I came to the conclusion that the macaw had sadly become extinct in the early years of this century. I then wrote a report, which appeared without footnotes in the November 1992 issue of the Parrot Society magazine and later in early 1995 in the German Magazine \"Papageien.\" The full report with notes was circulated to some leading ornithologists and interested scientific institutions at the end of 1992.

Joe Cuddy and I had been fascinated by the Glaucous Macaw for some time and had carefully studied all the available literature, published and unpublished, in the original languages to avoid translation errors and interpolations as well as most of the skins in the museums around the world. We had quickly discovered that the Glaucous Macaw with its greenish general plumage as well as greyish-brown throat and hindneck was clearly different from the Lear\'s Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari), although similar in size and form. Like the Lear\'s Macaw it had the distinctive \" sleepy \" eye and a prominent crease in the small bare facial patch, which Joe puts down to the much smaller head compared to the Hyacinthine Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus ), their larger relative.

The Glaucous Macaw was first mentioned in literature by the Jesuit missionary, Sanchez Labrador, in a work on the birds and fishes of Paraguay published in 1767. Called according to him \" guaa obi \" in Guarani, the local Indian language, he stated that although rare along the River Paraguay, this blue macaw was common in the woods along the eastern banks of the River Uruguay, which flows between Argentina and Uruguay along the eastern boundary of the Argentine province of Corrientes.

Azara described the Glaucous Macaw in detail in 1802, but mentions only seeing several pairs. D\'Orbigny, the great French naturalist, visited the area between 1827 and 1835. He wrote a detailed account of his travels, which included several references to a blue macaw as well as numerous references to the \" yatay palm \" (Butia yatay), which we believed to be the main food source of the Glaucous macaw. Although D\'Orbigny did not mention the feeding habits of the macaw in his account, he did send a note to another French naturalist, in which he stated it fed off the kernels of various palm fruits. In 1860 Martin de Moussy, another French scientist reported the presence of a small \" violet \" macaw in Corrientes province, which lived in the yatay palm trees feeding off its fruits.

We had sought out the yatay palm, which had almost become extinct until the establishment of a national park for the species in Argentina in 1965. D\'Orbigny had described vast blue expanses of palms more than 150 years ago, but had prophesied that they would all soon disappear because their presence indicated fertile land. After the advent of steam-powered shipping at the time of his departure, the area was very quickly settled and the palms rapidly removed. The area with its shared frontiers with Paraguay and Brazil also suffered enormous disturbance because of the military operations there in the frequent insurrections and disputes of the 19th century. In recent years there has been further considerable upheaval with the construction of dams and major hydroelectric works, particularly on the rivers Uruguay and Parana.

Joe and I visited the areas mentioned in literature, including the nesting sites in the river banks at Ita Ibate on the Parana, and discovered no suitable existing habitat for a large macaw. We spoke to the local people and showed them illustrations. None had heard of or seen such a bird. However, unconfirmed sightings persist and having been told that two Japanese ornithologists claimed to have heard a macaw recently in the wetlands area to the east of the province of Corrientes, I decided to visit Argentina and Paraguay again to investigate these reports as well as renew and foster contacts there.

One of these was Judy Hutton, who has lived for 30 years on a ranch near Mburucuya, some 150 km (95 miles) southwest of the city of Corrientes. I had faxed her in advance and she had already confirmed that she believed the report by the two Japanese to be without foundation. After flying to Buenos Aires, I travelled by overnight bus to Corrientes. After staying there for two days I caught another bus to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay.

There I became a member of an impromptu expedition to investigate reports of the macaw\'s occurrence in southwest Paraguay. We travelled south on the main highway to Encarnacion, a major city in southeastern Paraguay, through the town of Paraguai to San Juan Bautista, where we left the paved road to travel 144 km (90 miles) southwest along a rutted dirt road to Pilar. During the wet season this road becomes impassable and the city of Pilar is cut off from the rest of the country for months with the only contact with the outside world being by water.

In Pilar we met up with Gustavo Granada, a lecturer at the small university there, who accompanied us to a research station on a ranch he owned in the area between the Paraguay and Parana rivers. He knew the area well and was keen to show us forests of \" yatay \" palms. However, I was surprised to find short palms - 3 to 4 metres (10-13 ft) high - instead of the very tall specimens I had seen in Argentina. They also fruited for a very short period, which was also puzzling. However, I later discovered they belonged to a species closely related to the yatay with the scientific name of Butia paraguayensis, which elsewhere in Paraguay is called confusingly \" jatai \". I asked if there were any really old inhabitants still living in the area and Gustavo after asking local people took us to meet Ceferino Santa Cruz, a 95 year old cotton farmer, in the little village of Lomas. He spoke only Guarani, so Gustavo and Jorge conveyed my questions in that language and translated his replies into Spanish. Margarita assisted me with any difficulties I had with the rather staccato Paraguayan form of Spanish.

Ceferino related he had been born in the village in 1902 and that his father had moved there in 1875 after the devastating war with Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, in which 90% of the Paraguayan adult male population had been killed. He had never seen the blue macaw, although he had seen the red one (Ara chloroptera). However his father had told him about it. He claimed that his father said it fed off the fresh green fruits of the \" cocos palm \" (Acrcomia totai) on the tree. It did not feed on fruits, which had fallen on the ground as they were too hard. This was an interesting observation since Azara had remarked in 1802 that he believed the macaw\'s bill and roof of mouth was too weak to tackle really hard palm nuts.

After hearing this fascinating anecdotal evidence we returned to Pilar, where we were to have dinner with Andres Contreras, who had received funding from the European Union to set up a study centre dedicated to \" Man and nature in Paraguay. \" His parents were to join us and as his father, Professor Julio Contreras, who lives in Corrientes in Argentina, is one of that country\'s leading ornithologists, I was really looking forward to meeting him.

Julio told me before dinner that he had travelled extensively in the province of Corrientes for 15 years compiling an atlas of the birds of Corrientes and could therefore agree with my conclusion that the Glaucous Macaw no longer existed there. In addition he was able to tell me about the last three sightings in the wild he had established.

These were as follows:

1. His uncle had last seen one near the city of Corrientes in 1919, the year of his marriage.

2. An employee of the uncle, who had died recently at the age of 90 years, claimed he saw Glaucous Macaws in the forests of Riachuelo, south of the city of Corrientes until around 1930.

3. A neighbour told him that a pair of Glaucous Macaws nested in a huge, ancientEnterolobium contortisiliquum tree just north of the city of Corrientes until 1932, when they disappeared.

Professor Contreras concluded by relating that the local people hunted and shot the macaws much as country people in the U.K shoot rooks. I was astonished that this admittedly anecdotal information based on first hand observations indicated that the macaws actually managed to survive into the early 1930s and so close to the main city of Corrientes. It is truly surprising that so little appears in literature or folklore about the species although its presence must have been known to both local people and visitors to the area.

I should like to finish with a translation of a very interesting story about a tame blue macaw on a mission station related by the Jesuit priest Sanchez Labrador in 1767.

\" They tame very well and do surprising things. There was a very tame blue macaw in a village called la Concepcion de Nuestra Senora inhabited by Guarani Indians. Whenever a missionary arrived from another mission, the macaw would go to his lodging. If it found the door shut, it would climb up between the lintel and the door with the help of its bill and feet until it reached the latch. It then made a noise as if knocking and often opened the door before it could be opened from inside. It would climb on the chair in which the missionary was sitting, utter \" guaa \" three or four times, make alluring movements with its head until it was spoken to as if thanking him for the visit and attention. Then it would climb down and go into the courtyard very contented. If it did anything untoward to other tame birds, the missionary would call it. It would then approach submissively and listen attentively to his accusation, the punishment for which was supposed to be a beating. When it heard this, it lay on its back and positioned its feet as if making the sign of the cross and the missionary pretended to beat it with a belt. It lay there quietly until it heard the words \" once en doce \" (eleven of twelve), which meant the twelfth, then it turned over, stood up and climbed up the robe to the hand of the missionary, who had pronounced the punishment, to be stroked and spoken to kindly before leaving very satisfied. \"

This account shows how similar the behaviour of the Glaucous Macaw must have been in captivity to its larger relative, the Hyacinthine Macaw.

In conclusion I should like to thank Claudio Bertonatti, Dr. Navas and his assistant Joanna at the Natural History Museum in Buenos Aires, Judy Hutton in Mburucuya, Lucy Acquino-Shuster for the loan of the 4WD in Paraguay, Margarita Mieres, Cristina Morales and Jorge escobar for their excellent company on the expedition, Gustavo Granada, Andres Contreras and his parents, Julio and Amalia Contreras in Pilar, Ceferino Santa Cruz in Lomas as well as Dietlind Kubein Nentwig, my colleague in Madrid, who advised me on linguistic aspects of the 18th century text by Sanchez Labrador.

Ref:
Pittman.T (1992) The Glaucous Macaw - Does it still exist? Parrot Soc. Mag. Vol. 26 (11) 366-71

Pittman. T (1997) Some new information on the Glaucous Macaw. Parrot Soc. Mag Vol.(11)

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