Out on a limb. A report on a visit to the Spix's Macaw project by Alex Bellos. Published in the Guardian on Friday, 17th December 1999.



(Website editor: This article was published very recently in the British daily broadsheet newspaper, the Guardian. Although the journalist is not quite accurate in the detail of the re-discovery of the Spix's Macaw in the wild - see the article by Paul Roth elsewhere on the website - and he identifies Spix as Austrian when he was in fact German, it is an interesting and informative account of the work of the project for the layman, both in direct conservation of the species and the positive results for the local human community.)

This small parrot is one of a kind - the last of his species still living in the wild. For years, an entire Brazilian village has watched his every move, while a team of scientists has made increasingly bizarre attempts to get him to breed. This reports on how the Spix's Macaw became an international cause célèbre.

We turned off the highway on to a dirt track, on the trail of the rarest bird in the world. The earth was stony and reddish; the landscape typical of this remote, drought-infested corner of northeast Brazil - low, wiry trees and fierce-looking cacti.

We got out of our car and crept quietly to the bank of a small river, where a few tall caraibeira trees emerged from the bank.. A camouflaged hutch about a metre high and a metre wide had been cobbled together from branches and leaves. The guide, the photographer and I squashed in and started our vigil.

Shortly after dawn, right on time, we heard a distinctive caw. The guide, a biology student, caught my eye excitedly. Then an elegant blue parrot alighted on the caraibeira opposite. For about 20 minutes it watched us watching it, before it slipped into its nest in the tree's hollow.

In the animal kingdom there can be few sights as poignant. The bird, a Spix's macaw, is one of a kind, the sole member of its species left in the wild. Thanks to the predatory habits of humans - who reduced its habitat through colonisation and then captured the birds for private aviaries the remaining male Spix's macaw that lives near Curaça, 1,300 miles  north of Rio de Janeiro, is the last step before extinction. To paraphrase Monty Python, the species is almost no more. It is almost an ex-species.

Its unique, exaggerated situation, however, has made the parrot an international cause célèbre. It has become a symbol for nature conservation and the battle against animal trafficking. The lonesome Spix's is possibly one of the most closely observed living things. Four people are employed full-time to observe the bird during all daylight hours. They make a log of its movements every two minutes. Local people, most living in extreme poverty and many barely literate, keep notes of whenever they see the bird flying nearby.

"People always ask why we have all of this just to save one bird. But it's a call to arms," says Yara Barros, in-field co-ordinator of the Spix's Macaw Project, who has spent most days of the past three years huddled in the wooden cabin looking out for her blue-feathered friend. "It's an alert to the world about how close to extinction you can get. The Spix's is a figurehead."

Macaws are the long-tailed poster-birds of the parrot family. Living in a region stretching from Mexico to Argentina, they are an emblem of the American tropics. But their beauty has been their downfall. Thousands have been captured for the international trade in wild animals, now considered the third largest illegal market after drugs and guns. Of the 16 species left, nine are considered at risk of extinction.

The Spix's is the smallest of the three blue macaw types - in Brazil it is known as the ararinha azul (little blue macaw). It has never been seen in large numbers, and it is perhaps fitting that the man who in 1819 gave the macaw its name, Austrian naturalist Johann Baptist von Spix, onlv did so after he had shot one down. Even before traffickers began stalking them, the population is assumed to have been about 60. For almost a century after the Austrian visited Brazil, none were seen, and by the 1980s, naturalists assumed that the only Spix's alive were the handful kept in private zoos.

Then, in 1990, a Brazilian farmer from near Curaça turned up with photographs of a bird - its long tail dark blue and its head bluey-white. The excitement in ornithological circles was so great that the Permanent Committee to Save the Spix's Macaw - set up the previous year to link owners of the 15 birds in captivity set up a base camp in the Brazilian outback.

Since then, the project has dedicated itself to researching the bird. The hope is that the Curaça Spix's can be used in a programme to reintroduce other Spix's to the wild. "This male is the only one who has knowledge of how to survive," says Barros. "He has memory of where there is food, of which cactus to sleep on.."

The project has concentrated on finding the male a family. The soap opera of his marriage guidance and family planning has enthralled bird-lovers, zoologists and environmentalists. The starting point was to find him a wife, and then hope that the couple would produce offspring. Macaws pair for life, but there was a problem - there was an "other woman". When the Spix's was discovered in 1990 he already had a girlfriend: a bright green Illiger's macaw. With none of his kin around, he had no choice but to date the nearest species.

The odd couple had a typical domestic life. The Spix's would sleep on the central pole of a facheiro cactus -the macaw equivalent of a gated condominium - then fly to meet the Illiger's, who lived in a hole in a tree trunk. The couple would fly together during the day, than at sundown the Spix's would escort his lady back to her tree and then scoot off home to the cactus.

Researchers decided nevertheless to find a same-species candidate. They located a female Spix's in Recife, 400 miles away, who had spent seven years in captivity She was taken to Curaça, where the head biologist gave her a crash course in non-sedentary life, feeding her food from the wild and building up her wing muscles.

In March 1995 she was released. The researchers were in two minds about whether to capture the Illiger's, to give the female Spix's a clear run. "We decided against this because we thought it might disorientate the Spix's," says Barros. The result was, at first, very positive. The female Spix's quickly started courting the male, and the two Spix's and the Illiger's went around as a threesome.

The honeymoon lasted a month. One day, the female Spix's disappeared. A search party of 30 people failed to find any trace. Only recently has the truth come out - a local cow herder spotted the dead bird but was afraid to say for fear that the project would stop.

Researchers devised another tactic. They decided to have faith in the cross-species couple. In 1996, for the first time, the Illiger's laid some eggs. When researchers noticed that one of the eggs was cracking they took it out and analysed it. It contained a hybrid embryo, but it was dead.

During the reproductive season of 1997-8 the project took to playing God more directly The Illiger's produced some eggs, but they were infertile and were replaced with fertilised Illiger's eggs from another couple. Unfortunately the eggs were eaten by predators.

A year ago Barros tried a variation on the theme. She swapped the again-infertile Illiger's eggs for wooden eggs for the period of incubation. The Illiger's sat on the eggs and on the day that real eggs would have been due to break, Barros took a pair of new-born Illiger's chicks and sneaked them into the nest when the Illiger's was taking her daily stroll.

"When we had a peek in the nest the next day, it was full of food. In other words, she had accepted it. This couple has parenting skills."

The pair brought up the chicks and flew with them until they were old enough to leave. Although genetically completely Illiger's, the young birds developed voices identical to that of their foster father, the Spix's.

Last years experiment has led Barros to hope that the same would work with Spix's chicks. The problem is that all the reproducing Spix's couples are in the northern hemisphere and so their reproductive season is six months out of synch. Next year however, six Spix's are to be moved to an aviary near Curaça to try to induce them to produce young at the correct time.

The Spix's-Illiger's couple are still a couple. They still mate, they still fly together and the male still picks her up and drops her off at her home. But he is now about 15 years old. In captivity the species can live to 35, but in the wild the life-span is thought to be less - and if he dies, the project dies. But recently another strategy for the preservation of this species has emerged. The idea is to train captive birds by keeping them in larger and larger aviaries, feeding them food from the wild, and then eventually releasing them. Two years ago an experiment was started, again using Illiger's as the test. Nine were given a year to adapt to the wild in a Curaça aviary and were then electronically tagged and released. A year later, seven are still alive.

The Spix's Macaw Project has not just helped birds. It has transformed the poor, sleepy town of Curaça by providing it with a primary school, renovating the town theatre and giving it a sense of pride. Children parade dressed as Spix's macaws.

"Without the support of the local population, the project would never work. We rely on people to keep monitoring the bird when he is flying a long way from the nest," says Alexander Gomes, the field assistant.

One 51-year-old cattle rancher has started to carve models of the bird and writes poetry in its honour: Another, Jorge de Sousa Rosa, 42, has swapped his life as a herder to be one of the full-time team of birdwatchers. "I like sitting here all day," he says. "I want to keep up with everything he does. When I was a teenager I remember about 10 of them flying around here. I also remember the traffickers who came. We didn't realise how valuable the birds were."

Barros adds: "It's great that we have taught people that it is important to keep a species alive. The first time I saw him the first sensation I had was fear. You see how fragile the situation is. But, at the same time, he was first spotted nine years ago and he's still here. There is hope."

Sick as a parrot? A little lonely perhaps, and possibly tired of being snooped on constantly, but for once it can take heart that the human race is on its side.

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