A few strokes before midnight for the Spix’s Macaw Cyanopsitta spixii

By Thomas ARNDT, Anton SOJER, Dr. Hans STRUNDEN, Roland WIRTH. Published in " Gefiederte Welt " (Issue 12/86) and translated by the website editor.

(Website editor: the images used here are not from the original article, but belong to the website archive).

Within a few years the sole representative of the genus Cyanopsitta has been reduced by illegal trade to just three specimens in the wild and has thereby been brought to the edge of extinction.

The following report is intended to make known the parlous situation of the Spix’s Macaw to as many people as possible, who are in a position to contribute to the conservation of the species.

It is still possible to prevent this extinction. However urgent action is required so that the Spix’s Macaw does not suffer the same fate as the Cuban Macaw (Ara tricolor), which is only known today from museum skins and illustrations.

We have Dr. Paul Roth of the Universidade Federal do Maranhão, São Luis in Brazil to thank for exact information on the catastrophic situation of the Spix’s Macaw. He carried out field work in June/July 1985 as well as April and June 1986 with the support of the ICBP (International Council for Bird Preservation) and IBDF (Instituto Brasileiro de Desenvolvimento Florestal). The following is a summary of his verbal report in Munich in July 1986.

The Spix’s Macaw is very conservative, i.e it visits the same locations and roosting trees as well as usually flying along virtually the same route. The same nesting trees are used for many years. This behaviour has proved fatal for the macaw as these " habits " have made its capture much easier.

The last three birds remaining in the wild live along a gallery forest near Curaçá in northern Bahia. The distribution area today (if one can still call it that with only three specimens) is the same as that, where Spix collected the type specimen in 1819.

The habitat of the Spix’s Macaw is characterised by so-called " Caatinga " vegetation. Euphorbia (Jatropha and Cnidoscolus) predominate. Other typical vegetation types are the craibeira tree (Tabebuia caraiba), the catingueira tree (Caesalpiniasp.), joazeiro tree (Zizyphus joazeiro) and various cactuses. This vegetation can be found for some 100 km (60 miles) on both sides of the São Francisco river between Remanso and Oroco. The many creeks are conspicuous in the habitat of the Spix’s Macaw, which have water only during the wet season and are bordered by old craibeira trees.

Groves of the buriti palm, which according to literature were sought out by the Spix’s macaw, are completely absent from this region. The Spix’s macaw feeds mainly on fruits and seeds of various plants, particularly those of the "favela" (Cnidoscolus phyllacanthus) and "pinhão" (Jatropha sp.). These are plentiful and available even in extremely dry periods.

The Spix’s Macaw breeds from November to March. Nesting hollows (in which there is no substratum) in "craibeira" trees are preferred. The 2 to 3 young bred have relatively small crops compared to other macaws and have to be fed by the adults at frequent intervals.

During his first expedition through vast areas of the states of Maranhão and Piauí Roth did not succeed in finding the Spix’s Macaw. Persistent questioning of the local people, particularly dealers and trappers, finally led him to the macaws. One of then even showed Dr. Roth a photo, on which the trapper was pictured with young macaws just taken from the nest.

In inquiring about the Spix’s Macaw it gradually became clear, however, that the Curaçá population, which had never consisted of more than 60 individuals, had been ruthlessly plundered in the years after 1980. At first, at the beginning of the 80s, the trappers took only young macaws, but then a family of trappers from Floriano, who had specialised in dealing in Spix’s Macaws, trapped three young and seven adults at once. In addition the population had to contend with sport hunters and bees introduced from Africa, which killed the young. However it was never acutely endangered by either of these factors. But the Floriano family had worked "thoroughly". There were only five macaws left.

The pressure on the species can be illustrated by a comparison of the prices paid in Brazil for the Hyacinthine Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus). This macaw could be obtained for just US$ 50. On the other hand in 1984 a Spix’s Macaw cost US$ 2,000 in Brazil.

It is therefore not surprising that the remaining macaws were not left alone. When Roth visited the area again in 1986, he found only three macaws. Since his visit in 1985 another breeding pair had been trapped. It is only due to a lucky circumstance that Roth was at least able to observe the last three birds and take some impressive photographic evidence. In February 1986 one of the two females had started incubating when a trapper attempted to capture the three macaws, which had remained close together, in the nest. They managed to escape through a second opening in the nesting tree. A second attempt to breed ended in a similar fashion.

The Zoological Society for Species and Population Conservation based in Munich is able to support Dr. Roth financially because of a generous donation by a German doctor. Some of this money will be used to guard the remaining three macaws. Perhaps it may be possible to protect them so that they can breed successfully in their distribution area, which remains intact. Most of the finance will be used to try to locate another population before the trappers. Only then will it be possible to take timely measures.

There is at least a small chance that other Spix’s Macaws may exist as a fairly large area has not yet been thoroughly investigated. If, however, one considers the intensity in which the Spix’s Macaw has been hunted for years, it’s not easy to be optimistic. The only real chance of survival for this species is therefore a breeding project with Spix’s macaws held in captivity.

Up to now Roth’s efforts in Brazil have failed because of the egotistical attitude of the owners, who regard these birds a status symbols. There is evidence there are at least 20 birds in captivity in Brazil, three of which are in the São Paulo Zoo and a further 9 with private individuals in São Paulo. Three are known of in Rio de Janeiro and four in Recife. In addition there are the following persons or institutions outside Brazil, who have a responsibility in whether the Spix’s Macaw survives or not.

Walsrode Birdpark (Germany) - 4 birds

Loro Parque, Tenerife (Spain)-2 birds

Naples Zoo (Italy) -1 bird

Private keeper (Philippines) - 4 birds

It is possible there are other birds in Portugal, Yugoslavia, Japan and the USA.

Often all attempts to save a species from extinction fail because of lack of money or the expertise to operate a meaningful long-term breeding project. This is not the case here. All the keepers are wealthy institutions or private individuals.

Today a number of successful breeding projects for threatened species exist worldwide. These activities are co-ordinated by the IUCN/SSC Captive Breeding Specialist Group and the AAZPA (American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria).

Leading zoo personnel, geneticists, veterinarians and other specialists in the species concerned from many countries belong to the body, which co-ordinates and plans these breeding programmes. Thus it can be guaranteed that this breeding project can be operated under optimal conditions with a broad range of know-how from various specialities in the planning and supervision of such projects is available

Latest News

  • Tuesday 9th July 2024

    There is a short interesting article in the July 2024 issue of the German magazine "Papageien" about the setting up of a nature conservation centre for Spix’s Macaws  in the São Paulo zoo. Under the guidance of biologist Fernanda ... Read More »


 " 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)