About the blue macaws, especially the Lear's Macaw

By Helmut SICK, Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Published in Conservation of New World Parrots (Pages 440-443), the Proceedings of the ICBP Parrot Working Group Meeting in St. Lucia, 1980.

The macaws are the pride of the neotropical region. The concentration of macaws is in Brazil where there are six species o£ real macaws. These are:

The Blue and Yellow Macaw, Ara ararauna, distributed central America to Bolivia and Paraguay. It is the most common species in Central Brazil, living in palm groves.

The Red and Green Macaw, Ara chloroptera, distributed central America to Paraguay and Argentina.. Formerly occurred on all rivers bordered by forests, in eastern Brazil, where today it has completely disappeared. In the Pantanal, Mato Grosso, it is sympatric with A. ararauna and the Hyacinthine Macaw, Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus.

The Scarlet Macaw, Ara macao, is similar to A. chloroptera, but in its distribution it is restricted, in Brazil, to Amazonia, where it was formerly common.

Then come the blue macaws, three species about which I am giving my report here. I remember that during the last meeting of the Parrot Working Group in New York, in 1977, in which I also participated, it was not possible to say anything special about the macaws, including the blue ones. Now we have big news about the Indigo Macaw.

There has a1ways been confusion in the identification of the blue macaws, beginning at the time when the macaws were first found and described, in the last century. This situation has continued up to our day.

To give an example: Vieillot, who described the Glaucous Macaw (Anodorhynchus glaucus) in 1816, revoked his description some years later and presented the Glaucous as a variation of the Hyacinthine Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus).

The Hyacinthine Macaw is the well known very large cobalt blue species, the biggest of all macaws, the biggest parrot in the world. It weighs 1.5 kg. It lives in Central Brazil, up to southern Amazonia, formerly even on the north bank of the Amazon. In the east up to western Piaui and Western Bahia in the south to the Pantanal, Mato Grosso, and eastern Bolivia, Formerly it was common in Central Brazil.

In recent years the Hyacinthine has been exported "legally" in tremendous numbers to the United States from Paraguay, where it does not occur; Paraguay is a member of CITES. Specimens are smuggled from Mato Grosso, Brazil. In 1978- 79 at least 100 to 300 per month entered the United States; perhaps as many as 300 to 500 per month enter Los Angeles, as Greta Nilsson of TRAFFIC wrote me.

The Glaucous Macaw is the smallest of the blue macaws, dull greenish blue, almost grey in color, with a very large and heavy bill. It is the southern representative of the genus. In the last century it was common on the Paraguay and Parana rivers drainage, down to Corrientes and Uruguay, living on river banks. It nested in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, in 1823- 24.

We were not able to locate any specimen of Glaucous Macaw captured in this century, The only person whom I know to have seen a Glaucous alive, is Jean Delacour. He told me in 1974 that he found a specimen in the Jardin d'Acclimation in Paris, which he saw repeatedly between 1895 and 1905. It was accurately labeled and lived there for many years.

In the meantime there was occasionally some rumor that the Glaucous Macaw appeared in the pet-trade, as recently as last year.

The Indigo Macaw, Anodorhynchus leari, a medium sized species, weight 940g, was regarded as one of the biggest mysteries in South American ornithology, Described in 1856, it was known, up to now, only through the pet-trade. It was not possible to get any other information about its origin except "Brazil". The birds were offered for sale, e. g. in Belem, Para, on the mouth of the Amazon, and exported from there to Europe or the United States, sometimes together with Hyacinthines.

Reflecting the general feeling that it was indeed extremely strange that nobody could find the Indigo Macaw in the wild, it was suggested that the Indigo was not a species, but a hybrid between the Hyacinthine and the Glaucous.

The most important morphological character of leari is the bare yellow area at the base of the lower mandible, clearly visible only in living specimens. Whereas the Hyacinthine has a small flat band, turning around the mandible, leari has a big nearly triangular area or knob on the base of the mandible. This characteristic the Indigo Macaw shares with the Glaucous Macaw.

I knew about the leari problem for many years, but only in 1964 did I begin to search for the Indigo systematically in the field. After much unsuccessful research, since 1974 together with Dante M. Teixeira who works with me in the Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, we found the home of the Indigo Macaw, situated in Bahia, northeastern Brazil, in December 1978.

In 1977-78 we came to the conclusion that the only place where the Indigo Macaw could have remained undiscovered was the Raso da Catarina in northeastern Bahia. Our doubts, however, were very great. Could it be that this region was so completely overlooked by scientists, and that there could hide, for more than a century, a bird as large as a macaw? It was hardly believable.

The "Raso" is a white spot on the map of Brazil: no settlements, no roads, dried-up rivers. It is a plateau, cut by canyons. Most of the area is covered by deep loose sand and dense "caatinga": a low, frequently thorny vegetation, adapted to the extremely dry climate. The "Raso" was supposed to be impenetrable. It certainly is inhospitable, owing to its tremendous heat and the lack of water. Apparently it remains one of the least known parts of Brazil.

We left Rio de Janeiro on December 18, 1978, accompanied by Luiz A. Pedreira Gonzaga, working with us in the Museu Nacional, Rio. On December 29 we obtained the first actual material of the Indigo Macaw: flight feathers of a specimen shot some weeks before by a local hunter. It had been eaten, Two days later we ourselves finally met the no longer mysterious macaws in the field: three relatively small dark creatures with a big yellowish area at the base of their mandible, their voice amazingly weak for a macaw.

During succeeding weeks we observed up to 21 Indigo Macaws flying overhead in a single flock. We obtained information about its food, at that time particularly the small nuts of the licuri-palm (Coccus sp.), which the birds sometimes obtained by walking on the ground. They undertake long flights in search of their favorite foods. We reached roosting places of the macaws, situated in hollows in the upper part of the grotesquely eroded walls of the canyons. In such a place, where the birds arrive just before dusk, we counted up to 18 individuals.

Here we could study completely undisturbed, as they climbed on the vertical rock face and defended themselves against the dense swarms of flies flying around them. On the ground we obtained additional molt feathers of the macaws. W e recorded the voice and took photographs. The hollows in the canyons serve also for nesting (later in the year). For the preservation of the macaws it is important that these places remain completely inaccessible to people.

To definitely prove our findings, we collected one specimen (January 16, 1979), a wonderful adult male, the first Indigo Macaw specimen from the wild with full data in a museum collection (Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro). We stayed nearly a month in the area of the "Raso, " sufficient time to completely delimit the range of the Indigo Macaw. First we worked in the southern part of the area, later we approached the region from the northeast.

The satisfaction about our discovery was combined with the anxiety of how to protect the bird, once it was known where it lives. However, by coincidence the area of leari is partly included in a Federal Reserve, the "Estação Ecológia do Raso da Catarina", founded some years ago by SEMA (Secretaria Especial do Meio Ambiente). These very fortunate circumstances encouraged us not to try to conceal our findings completely.

The Indigo Macaw is the only true macaw in that region.

The Little Blue Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixü), which is another endemic from Northeastern Brazil, is not a real macaw, and is not present in this region. It occurs in the north of the São Francisco River and appears sometimes in the pet-trade; it is rare. I met with it only once in the wild, in 1974, in northwest Bahia. C. spixii has been bred in captivity many times in Brazil, particularly by Alvaro Rossman Carvalhaes, in Santos, São Paulo.

There are few other psittacines in the leari-area, most notably the Blue-crowned Parakeet (Aratinga acuticaudata).

The Indigo Macaw is closely related to the Glaucous Macaw. I consider them allospecies, which form a superspecies. The two are widely separated by the Hyacinthine (approximately 2,000 km), which occupies Central Brazil, and must be considered a younger offshoot in the evolution of the group of the blue macaws. There do not exist intermediate individuals among the blue macaws.

We have worked with the Brazilian Government to enlarge the Raso da Catarina Reserve, in order to protect more of the range of the Indigo Macaw.

For several years now, a strong sense of responsibility has made the Brazilian authorities feel that the maximum must be done for the conservation of nature, especially for the birds.

It would be useful to prepare a message for the Brazilian Government emphasizing:

l. The importance of the preservation of the Indigo Macaw;

2. Congratulations for the work already done by creating the Reserve which harbors A. leari;

3. Soliciting all efforts to enlarge the "Raso da Catarina" Reserve and protect the birds efficiently. Only strict enforcement of legal protection and preservation will ensure the survival of this macaw.

(Parts of this paper previously appeared in American Birds, from which they are reproduced with kind permission.)

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  • Wednesday 23rd September 2020
    Blue macaws help to grow the forest around them

    I have loaded a very recent interesting article (August 2020) on how the blue macaws - Hyacinthine and Lear’s - help to grow the forests around them. It is in the article section for "Hyacinthine Macaws in the wild".

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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)