An extraordinary find!

An article by Barry Fass-Holmes published in Parrots magazine in August 2003

Imagine receiving a phone call from someone requesting your help with a pet parrot, then discovering that the bird belongs to the rarest and most endangered  parrot species in the world!

This is exactly what happened to parrot rehabilitator, Mickey Muck, in July 2002 when she became involved with Presley, the Spix’s macaw.

In the ensuing months, Mickey worked with Presley, his owner, and officials from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), World Parrot Trust (WPT),  the San Diego Zoo’s Centre for the Reproduction of Endangered Species ((CRES) and the Brazilian Government’s Environmental Agency (IBAMA). Together, they made the necessary arrangements and prepared Presley for repatriation to his native country where he will participate in a breeding program to diversify the limited gene pool.

Presley’s journey was such a compelling story that it appeared prominently in American newspapers as well as many avian publications around the world.
Now Mickey has provided additional first-hand details exclusively for Parrots magazine readers.  In the following pages, you’ll learn more about her novel experiences with this exceptionally uncommon species of parrot.

Background    

In case you’re unfamiliar with Spix’s Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii), it is a relatively short parrot, about 55 cm in length compared to 81cm and more for the large macaw species such as Blue and Golds, Hyacinths, etc. The adult’s plumage is a striking grey-blue, irises yellow and legs dark grey as shown in Alain Bryer’s close-up and personal photos of Presley accompanying this article.

Unfortunately, what makes Spix’s macaw distinctive from any other parrot, is its diminishing chances for survival. Since the turn of the millennium, this magnificent parrot has officially been declared extinct in the wild. The last known Spix’s macaw flying freely in its Brazilian habitat disappeared during the year 2000. The species’ future now depends upon the estimated 60 individuals held in captivity, most of them sequestered in private collections.

Presley was estimated to be 25 years old when his story broke. He lived in a home near Denver Colorado, where he shared a cage with a female Yellow-naped Amazon for about 20 years. She died in 2002 and Presley subsequently became listless. His owner decided to seek professional help.

Mickey Much became familiar with the plight of Spix’s macaw through her membership in the World Parrot Trust and her job as the office manager for an avian veterinarian in Denver. Moreover, she had considerable experience with companion parrots, having owned several for more than 15 years. She had worked on her own in rehabilitation and adoption of pet parrots that lost their homes due to medical or behavioural problems.

The phone call 

In a series of conversations with me, Mickey explained the circumstances of her initial contact with Presley’s owner last July and how his owner made the extremely difficult but laudable decision to contribute her companion parrot to a species-recovery breeding program. She goes on:

“ I received a phone call from a woman who had acquired my name and the name of the vet that I worked for, as someone that could and would help with Presley. She asked for help with her rare Blue macaw, because she knew he was a very rare bird and wanted to know how to return him home to Brazil. She did not realise for years how endangered the Spix’s macaw was – she most likely became aware just in the last couple of years. Then after Presley lost his mate, she felt it was time to return him to Brazil. They did not want more birds and knew it was unfair for Presley to be without a companion.”

The challenges

Presley’s listlessness after his Amazon mate’s death was just one of several issues confronting Mickey.

Upon first meeting Presley, she recognised that he indeed was a Spix’s macaw. This was tremendously exciting, but from a pragmatic perspective it posed legal complications. His presence in the United States could only mean that he had been smuggled out of Brazil. The proper authorities would need to be notified.

Mickey also found that Presley’s diet had consisted of only pellets, he was unaccustomed to being handled, bathed or exercised, his perches were too wide for his feet and he had few toys to play with. In addition, he began plucking feathers after losing his mate.

His owner’s knowledge of keeping parrots was about average. Many people with good intentions have parrots in their homes and have no idea what basic things they can add to diet, enrichment, and complete living conditions to improve their parrot’s life in captivity. I really believe his owner did her best for Presley and despite some poor information she still did well. Overall, he was in good physical condition as evidenced by results of the avian veterinarian’s health check.  

Logistics   

The first step was contacting the proper agencies to make arrangements for Presley’s return to Brazil. Mickey advised Presley’s owner to contact WPT. The contact person was Dr. James Gilardi, a conservation biologist specializing in behavioural and physiological ecology, who became WPT’s director in 2000. You might know of his work, he is the lead author on a field study demonstrating that macaws in the wild eat clay to neutralize toxins in their diet.

WPT then contacted USFWS, who assigned Special Agent George Morrison to Presley’s case, and IBAMA through its well-established connections with the appropriate people. These three organizations facilitated rapid processing for issuing the proper permits and negotiated a written agreement that the USFWS would not prosecute the owner for possessing an illegal bird. It might sound simple and straightforward, but in reality this process was highly complicated and time-consuming, involving countless phone calls, faxes and e-mails all for the benefit of a single, but invaluable bird. It had to be done right to succeed.
Mickey explained what happened next. “Morrison and I took him from the owner’s home and moved him to a secure location. We set up a large cage with perches of many different shapes and sizes, food dishes all over the cage to encourage him to explore and exercise and many toys to encourage him to entertain himself and also exercise. After the first few days he was exploring the cage and was fairly active.”

The avian veterinarian who performed Presley’s health check took blood samples for use in confirming Presley’s gender. WPT contacted CRES in San Diego where the Genetic Division, led by head geneticist Dr. Oliver Ryder, utilized cutting-edge technology and verified Presley’s masculinity.

Rehabilitation   

Presley spent five months in preparation for the trip home. The goals for rehabilitation included strengthening his legs for balance and grip, exercising his wings for improved fitness, varying his diet for nutrition and enrichment and handling him so that he would respond well to future care givers.

Legs 

We really had to work on strengthening his legs and feet so that he could be ready for this long journey. Since he had spent most of his days sitting on his perch and preening his mate, he did not exercise a lot. His perches were too wide, so he was not gripping as well as he should have with his feet.

His legs and feet grew very strong from his daily exercise and he really seemed to enjoy his exercise time. He would do just about anything for a pine nut. I exercised him three times a day. This included stepping up and climbing on different size perches and wing stretching exercises to improve his balance.   

Wings

At first he did not like me stretching his wings, but then after a few times he realized it felt good and he would get a pine nut. Then he realized they could come in handy to save himself when he lost his balance. His owner did keep his wings clipped, but by the time he went to Brazil they had grown back.

Diet

We then started to put all different types of foods in all the different bowls to encourage him to try new foods. We offered him everything. Daily he would get four to five portions each of various fresh fruits and vegetables, organic seeds, grains and nuts. We wanted him to become accustomed to a variety of different foods because his diet would change again so drastically when he went back to Brazil. We wanted new foods to be a positive change, not something he was unfamiliar with. By the time Presley went to Brazil, he was used to a very large variety of foods. He loved to  eat. He gained 62 grams while under my care.

Call

His call was very similar to the Lear’s macaw and he did say “hello” with a bit of a screech to it. He became very vocal at feeding times, which was about five times a day. He really loved to eat and try new foods.

Handling

Presley was very curious about me and what I was doing. He was not afraid when I added new toys to his cage, but rather more curious. At first he would bite before he would step up, but it did not take him long to get used to me. I really tried to keep him from getting bonded to me, but his rehab required a lot of hands-on exercising that he needed to build his strength and muscle tone. Although his previous owner did not handle him a lot, Presley was very good with me. He would hiss at Alain! Presley enjoyed the companionship of the African Grey that was in his room with him. He was vocal during his move and became more vocal as he grew stronger.

I wondered how Presley, a Spix’s macaw, compared behaviourally with the large macaws commonly kept in captivity. Mickey told me that she had really only spent time with macaws that are pets in homes. Presley seemed very much like the ones she had spent time with. He was animated, vocal and playful.

The final steps

Mickey Muck, George Morrison and Presley flew to Miami, Florida. There they met Iolitta Bampi, a senior official with IBAMA, who took Presley and flew with him to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

What’s next? Presley needs a mate. Mickey said it beautifully. “We really need some amazing person, who has a female in their collection and has the heart and commitment to conservation to send a female to be with Presley. There was a very unfair quote in one of the newspapers from someone who said that Presley was not breeding material. This is very untrue, he is capable of breeding and being a mate. He is estimated to be in his mid to late 20s and is still very capable of breeding. He knows what to do with a mate. I really want to stress how important it is that we find him one. There are some people out there who just need to come forward and realize how important this is.”

End

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Quotes

 " 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)