4 years after the new pairs were formed the Spix's Macaws start to breed

A report in the June/September 1999 issue (Pages 12-15) of Cyanopsitta, the newsletter of the Loro Parque Foundation, Teneriffe.

In March of this year, after a change of aviaries in the previous November, one of the Spix's Macaws pairs held at Loro Parque Fundación started to breed. Although both clutches, altogether five, proved to be infertile, we feel that we are now on the right way to soon again reproduce the species, and thus allow a wider range of strategies to be considered for the re-establishment of the species in the wild. The following summarises a report submitted by Loro Parque Fundación to the Spix's Macaw Recovery Committee in August 1999.

Loro Parque Fundación currently holds two pairs of Spix's macaws. Two birds came to Tenerife on a breeding loan from the Fundação Parque Zoológico São Paulo, relocated from Brazil to Spain in 1995 under the auspices of the 

Permanent Committee for the Recovery of the Spix's Macaw (CPRAA), to improve the breeding potential of the global captive population. The two birds that already were at our facility at the time, and of which the ownership was transferred from the foundation to the Brazilian government, were newly paired up with the birds from São Paulo.

The Spix's Macaws at Loro Parque Fundación

Since the arrival of the two Spix's macaws from Brazil, the four birds have been housed in an outdoor breeding centre situated inside Loro Parque, with no admittance for the public. The area around the aviaries is guarded day and night by security personnel and video surveillance, and is closed overnight.

The male of Pair 1 (Studbook No. 9) had formerly been paired up at our facilities with a female (Studbook No. 8) that died in November 1993, one and a half years after having raised one female offspring (Studbook No. 26). After the death of its mate, the male remained together with the young female until it was introduced to the new female from Fundação Parque Zoológico São Paulo (Studbook No. 2) in July 1995.

The female of Pair 2 (Studbook No. 26) hatched in Loro Parque on 21st March 1992 and was subsequently hand-reared. It is the only captive-bred Spix's Macaw at Loro Parque Fundación. In July 1995, this young female was paired up with the wild-born male that came on breeding loan from the Fundação Parque Zoológico São Paulo (Studbook No. 5).

Between the creation of the new pairs in 1995 and late 1998, there were no breeding attempts. However, after three years of partnership, the pairs were well established, evidenced in the observed courtship feeding, allo-preening and copulations.

Changes in the husbandry

Although the Spix's Macaws held at our facilities have always received special attention by our staff, the lack of breeding results led us to introduce some major changes in the second half of 1998. Principally, we believed that the Spix's macaws might require more secluded aviaries than the ones they had been housed in. In October 1998, the birds were transferred to a new area inside Loro Parque, reconstructed in the wake of the inauguration of the new breeding centre. After the transfer of the largest part of the parrot collection to the breeding centre in "La Vera", the new aviaries are only frequented by those animal keepers that are looking after the two pairs of Spix's macaws, and there are no adjacent other parrot species. In sum, this provides the two pairs with absolute privacy and seclusion.

Both aviaries are 12 m long, 2 m wide, and 3 m high, and constructed of concrete block walls on three sides covered by climbing plants, and of wire mesh at the front side. The material on the ground is grey gravel, the roofing is entirely made up of double wire mesh; two meters at each of the two opposing ends of the aviaries are additionally covered with corrugated opaque fibre for shelter against sun and rain. The aviaries of the two pairs are adjacent to each other, and communicate through a 100 x 60 cm removable window in the separating wall. The window was placed to allow visual and acoustic contact between the four birds, to possibly create a reciprocal stimulus in the case of breeding activities. Access to the aviaries is given through doors in the front sides; this is also where the food recipients are mounted. A large part of the front side of the aviaries was additionally furnished with translucent plastic sheets as sight barriers to minimise the visual contact with the area in front of the aviaries.

For additional environmental enrichment, fresh eucalyptus and pine branches are provided on a regular basis and attached to holders at the side-walls; furthermore, like in the former aviaries, daily showers are offered through a sprinkler system installed at the roof. Each aviary has four pine wood perches at a height of 1.5 to 2 m, reaching from one side wall to the other, with the central two perches lower than the other two, to allow ample space for flying. All the perches are close to one of the nesting boxes, such that the birds can easily access these for inspection.

Five nesting opportunities, distributed at various sites and with varying orientation, have now been offered to each of the pairs:
Two wooden nest boxes (80 x 30 x 30 cm, nest opening 10 cm diameter hung up vertically near the roof in the centre of the right side-wall, and horizontally at the far right corner, respectively. In all four wooden nest boxes are installed small infrared cameras to allow monitoring of the activities in the nest through a remote video system.

A two metre high palm trunk standing in the far left corner. The top 20 cm of the palm were cut off and adapted to form a removable cover to allow nest inspection. With the aim to create an additional breeding stimulus, a square opening and a small cavity were carved into the palm trunk just below the removable section. A similar, but smaller, palm trunk was hung up at the wall at the front side, near the food recipients.

A large eucalyptus trunk in the centre of the aviary, with its upper surface cut clean, and various natural cavities which the birds might use as a starting point for the excavation of a nesting hole.

In addition to the transfer of the birds to the new aviaries, we introduced a slight change in the nutrition of the birds. The change consisted in offering the birds an even greater variety of fruits, vegetables and seeds (including pine nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, and pieces of coconut). In particular, during the breeding season, the seeds were allowed to germinate for 36 hours, such that the birds would be provided with both a behavioural and a physiological stimulus with the aim to enhance their breeding disposition. In fact, during the breeding period (see below) the female of Pair 1 could be observed waiting for the arrival of the animal keeper to quickly feed on the new nut mixture before returning to the nest.

First clutch of Pair 1 and removal of infertile eggs

The transfer to the new aviaries induced a notable change in the behaviour of both pairs of Spix's macaws. Most of this appears to be related to the more limited contact to other parrot species and humans. In particular, that the presence of animal keepers was reduced to the few minutes of feeding, and that the front sides of the aviaries were covered with plastic sheets to reduce both the possibility of clinging to the wire mesh and the visual contact with the outside of the aviary. In addition, the larger size of the aviaries, the environmental enrichment, and the change of diet should have contributed to the observed change of behaviour. The birds were far more active, explored their new environment and evidently enjoyed the daily showers to an extent previously unobserved.

From mid-March of 1999, Pair 1 started to take serious interest in the vertical nest box. The male, in particular, was active inside the nest box for extended periods of time, working the inside walls with its beak. Pine wood pieces and shavings were immediately provided, which were chewed up with great enthusiasm. The pair appeared closely bounded, and was frequently observed vocalising and allo-preening, and flying simultaneously together from one side of the aviary to the other. When humans approached the aviary, both would fly together to the entrance of the nest box, which provided a strong indication for breeding intentions. In the last week of March, the pair became noticeably quiet, with the female spending more time inside the nest box, and working on the provided nesting materials; calls of the pair upon approach of a human to the aviary subsided.

On 29 March 1999, during the routine control of the camera monitors, we found to our delight that the pair had laid one first egg. It should be noted that this is supposedly the first-ever clutch of the female from São Paulo. The female started with the incubation from the first egg. Second and third eggs were laid on 2 and 5 April, respectively.

Sadly, during the ovoscopy performed after the adequate period of incubation, the eggs proved to lack an embryo. In the hope for a replacement clutch, we decided to remove the eggs. The later performed microscopic examination underlined that the lack of embryo was due to a lack of proper fertilisation and not caused by inadequate incubation.

Second clutch of Pair I and rearing of two Illiger's Macaws chicks

After the removal of the clutch from the nest, the female continued to spend long periods of time inside the nest box, working on the nesting material. Over the following days, we could observe repeated copulations, which increased our hope for a fertile new clutch. However, the male in general did not appear as interested as the female, which usually had to solicit the copula.

The second clutch of two eggs was laid on 24 (ca. 19:30 hours) and 29 April (between 19:00 and 19:25 hours), respectively. Unfortunately, also this second clutch proved to be infertile during the ovoscopy performed in the afternoon of 10 May. In the attempt to nevertheless provide the pair with first breeding and rearing experience, we exchanged the entire clutch with two fertile eggs taken from a pair ofAra maracana.

After successful incubation, two Ara maracana fledglings hatched without difficulties on 14 and 17 May, respectively. Including both its own eggs (24 April to 10 May) and those of the Ara maracana (10 to 17 May), the Spix's macaw female had incubated a total of 23 days, when the second fledgling hatched. Both parents fed the chicks, which appeared well nourished in the first weeks, and developed healthily. However, on 6 July, during the routine monitor controls, one of the two chicks was found dead. Upon control of the video tapes, it could be confirmed that it had died the previous day in the late afternoon. The nest box was inspected and both the dead and the second chick were taken out of the nest to secure the survival of the latter and preclude any possible infection of the Spix's macaws via the young. The necropsy of the dead chick reports a superficial skin wound on the head, and a deep necrotic wound at the end of the pygostyle involving the spinal cord, indicating mutilation by either the parents or the sibling. The body plumage of the dead young was furthermore plucked, which however can commonly be found in breeding pairs, and must not hinder the eventual fledging.

The weight of the second chick upon removal from the nest was 227 g, indicating that it had been well nourished, in comparison to its sibling. It was transferred to the hand-rearing station on the day it was taken out of the nest, where it successfully weaned to independence.

Fertile clutches in the year 2000?

Although we have so far not obtained fertile eggs from the newly formed pairs, this breeding season has finally brought highly promising results that give us great hope that in the corning year Spix's macaws will be raised at Loro Parque Fundación. Also in Pair 2, the behaviour indicates that the change of management has produced an all over positive result. The pair appears increasingly bonded and we believe it may start breeding soon as well. At around the same time as Pair 1, the partners became more reclusive and showed extended periods of courtship and copulation - particularly in the morning and evenings.

There can be no doubt that with the recent changes in husbandry, we are on the right track to add young to the captive population reared from the four birds at our installations, which genetically are considered the most valuable of the entire known population of the species.

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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)