An unforgettable experience with Lear's Macaws at Toca Velha

by Tony PITTMAN. Published in the Parrot Society Magazine, January 1999, Vol. XXXIII, Pages 3-7.

It was just after 4.30 in the morning and there was only the soft sound of our feet trudging through the thick sand as our little group of four made its way through the tangled undergrowth of thorny bushes and stunted trees shining the light of our hand-held torches on the path just ahead to avoid snakes and the occasional sharp-edged rock poking through the sand.

We passed the old cavern - toca velha - after which the sandstone escarpments in this part of the Raso da Catarina were named. After walking for nearly an hour we reached the base of one of the canyons and carefully pulled ourselves up the almost vertical cliff using little footholds cut at angles in the crumbling rock. This was more difficult for me as my feet were twice as large as my companions for whom they were originally cut.

At the top, some 60 metres (200 feet) from the valley floor, we moved as quietly as we could across the flat mesa top towards the edge of another canyon, where there was a hide. The sun had not yet risen, but there was a very slight lightening of the dark star-strewn sky. Just before we reached the other side, there suddenly sounded a chorus of high-pitched calling and dark shapes hurled themselves upwards out of the canyon. We quickly counted 24 altogether. Within seconds they disappeared from sight. This was my first sighting of a flock of Lear's Macaws (Anodorhynchus leari) leaving their roosting hollows for the feeding areas some 30 km (19 miles) away.

We rested as the sun rose and soon we could see the hollows in the reddish-brown cliff face on the other side of the canyon where the macaws roosted at night. Below several there were the white stains of droppings. We retraced our route down the precipitous cliff even more carefully and then more quickly through the caatinga landscape to the research station to have breakfast and then to travel to the distant ranch where the field-workers expected to find the departed macaws.

I had wanted to make this trip since Thomas Arndt and I had visited the Spix's Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) project in April 1995 and there had been insufficient time to travel the 200 km (125 miles) or so across country to the area where the Lear's Macaw occurred. Thomas had returned later that year with Angela, his wife, and had revisited the Spix's Macaw project and then the Lear's Macaw project. Since then however a research station had been built on land acquired near to the sandstone cliffs where the Lear's Macaws roosted at night.

As the readers of the Parrot Society magazine will know, the origin of the Lear's Macaw was mysterious until fairly recently. It was first described by Prince Bonaparte in 1856 and named by him after Edward Lear. The latter had illustrated the macaw under the description of Hyacinthine Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) in his famous work " Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots ", published between 1830 and 1832.

There were undoubtedly Lear's Macaws as well as Hyacintine Macaws and Glaucous Macaws (Anodorhynchus glaucus) in collections in this country at the end of the 18th Century and in the early decades of the 19th Century. Latham first described the Hyacinthine Macaw in 1790, but gave its measurements as 28 ins, i.e 71 cm, not the correct 40 ins or 100 cm. The illustration, which appeared in a later work of his is clearly a Hyacinthine Macaw, but I believe the engraving, which accompanies the entry on the Hyacinthine Macaw in volume 2 of " The Menagerie and Gardens of the Zoological Society Delineated " published in 1831, depicts either Lear's or Glaucous Macaws. There was great confusion about the blue macaws, with muddled descriptions and information on behaviour. The situation was no doubt complicated by the failure to recognise there were three species.

For 122 years after Bonaparte's original description the location of the Lear's Macaw was a mystery to the scientific world. Finally at the end of 1978 Helmut Sick, the eminent German-born Brazilian ornithologist, discovered the macaws in northern Bahia in a remote area known as the Raso da Caterina.

Today, twenty years later, that area is no longer remote. A good paved highway leads northwards from Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia, to the turnoff to Canudos, a small town, famous for an insurrection one hundred years ago, which is 30 km along a dirt road from the main highway. It was here at the end of March that I parked my rented vehicle and was picked up by Valeria Barros, the field-worker in charge of the project at that time, and the guide/guard called Eurivaldo Macedo Alves, but known locally as " Caboclo ", meaning copper-skinned and formerly a pejorative term for the indigenous population of Brazil.

We then drove in the project truck to the research station near the Lear's Macaw roosting area. There I met the third member of the team, Tania da Silva, whose father was a lawyer practising in Canudos. As I had arrived in the afternoon we visited the roosting area to await the return of the macaws and also to observe a pair, which unusually still had unfledged young, which we could hear calling from within a hollow.

The pair flew off for long intervals, but regularly returned during the day. They initially perched on a bare tree at the top of the cliffs to observe us watching them. There was a small hide there, but it was too small for four persons. They flew down the canyon below us and I could observe their deep wing-strokes, emphasised by their long wings. They appeared to make use of thermals within the canyon. It was already dark as the remainder of the flock returned.

Back at the research station we prepared the evening meal and discussed the work being done there. They were studying one particular group of macaws, whose numbers fluctuated. I realised for the first time that the total population of 100 or so macaws mentioned in literature was distributed in several canyons and therefore it was impossible for one small team to study them all at once.

There were also other escarpments in the area and sometimes some of the macaws from the group being studied stayed overnight at these other locations, so that the population in the Raso da Caterina varied. This aspect appears to contribute largely to the ongoing discussion about the number of populations. Whilst some researchers in Brazil believe there are two populations, others believe there is only one, but with varying locations.

There appear to one or two breeding pairs with each group, producing one or two young every year, therefore the reproductive rate is very low. However the population seems to have remained fairly stable at 120 or so macaws after Sick's discovery in 1978 until two or three years ago. Then trapping activity began in earnest and it is believed some thirty macaws have been removed and illegally exported since then.

On the second day after visiting the roosting area before dawn, we drove to a ranch where Lear's Macaws are known to feed during the day. As many as 55 macaws have been sighted at this ranch, where there are many licuri palms (Syagrus coronata), a small palm of 3 metres (10 feet), whose small nuts are the main food source of the Lear's Macaw. According to Collar et al in theentry on the Lear's Macaw in Threatened Birds of the Americas (1992) the macaws are supposed to consume 350 palm nuts each every day. With a population of 100 birds, this totals some 35,000 nuts to be foraged each day. Some field-workers believe the number to be nearer 50 because of the high nutritional value of the palm nuts. Even so this would total 5,000 palm nuts to be foraged each day.

Many palms have been cleared and young replacement shoots are eaten by the many goats. Therefore the main limiting factor for the population is the shortage of available food, particularly during the dry season. Some efforts have been made to provide more palm trees and encouraging the local human population to protect existing trees from the goats. Transplanting mature trees from other areas, where they are plentiful is not a real option as one tree with root ball would probably weigh more than one ton and the logistics are formidable and extremely costly.

The shortage of water is another problem in such an arid region, where rain occurs during two months of the year and there are often droughts. One invaluable service the field-workers provide for homesteads near the Raso da Catarina is to bring water from Canudos for their livestock. Bore holes have to be drilled to water young palm trees, but this would only be politically acceptable locally if the water was available as well to local farmers and goat-herders for their own consumption and that of their livestock.

I managed to take some photographs of the macaws with a 300mm lens at the ranch. Unlike the Hyacinthine Macaws in the Pantanal, they were very wary and not at all approachable. However, I was able to observe their unusual flight pattern. Their wings are proportionately longer than the Hyacinthine Macaw, enabling them to swoop and turn almost like swallows. They also appear to move as a group very differently to Hyacinthine Macaws. Their call is much higher-pitched and weak in comparison to their larger cousin.

There remains much work to be carried out in researching, protecting and conserving the Lear's Macaw. The working group within Brazil, chaired by Luiz Francisco Sanfilippo, who is based at São Paulo Zoo, has drafted four projects for a management plan. They are 1) monitor the population and feeding areas, 2) monitor and manage the areas where the licuri palms grow, including creating water supply for the local people, 3) study the reproduction of the Lear's Macaw and 4) assess the alleged damage to local maize crops by the Lear's Macaws.

Joe Cuddy and I have suggested a fifth project should be considered, i.e the setting up a state-of-the-art breeding and display complex at São Paulo Zoo as well as a local captive breeding facility at the Raso da Caterina for the illegally obtained Lear's Macaws recovered and repatriated to Brazil, which cannot be re-released into the wild for any reason. There are European conservation organisations prepared to consider financing such a project.

The matter of illegally obtained Lear's Macaws is a hot topic at the moment in the U.K. The issue has been clouded by allegations of misconduct by the customs authorities in confiscating and accommodating other parrots. It should be remembered, however, that to catch these macaws, nets are lowered down the cliff face at night so that when the macaws leave the hollows in the early morning, they are caught up in the mesh and then drawn up 20 metres (60 feet) of crumbling rock face to the top. This will injure many macaws as well as stress them considerably. Thus some will die, so that breeders or collectors in Europe, North America or the Far East may have the survivors in their aviaries. This is exceptionally cruel and traumatic. It can not possibly be described as conservation!

The only Lear's Macaws at present recognised as legal by the Brazilian authorities are the two females bred at Busch Gardens in Tampa 12 years ago. No other Lear's Macaws can be legal, particularly those appearing in eastern Europe, which has become the main smuggling route into the European Union and Switzerland in the past five years. The Lear's Macaw was listed in 1975 and during the entire period since no documentation has been issued by European authorities for the import of the species. Equally the Brazilian authorities have issued no export papers.

Apart from the three confiscated by HM Customs & Excise in April of this year, there are two held by the Singaporean authorities, confiscated from one of their citizens, who also tried to smuggle two other Lear's Macaws in his baggage and was discovered at Paris airport two years ago. One survived and was returned to Brazil last year. There were also a number of macaws in the Czech Republic, which have now found their way to an Arab state.

As reported recently in a number of aviculturist magazines, IBAMA, the Brazilian government environmental agency, has decided to adopt an entirely different policy to that followed for the Spix's Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii). Then it allowed holders of illegally obtained macaws to retain them, provided they joined the Spix's Macaw Recovery Programme. However disappointment with events since the setting up of this programme and a view that the wrong message was given to breeders and collectors throughout the world has resulted in the decision that no illegally obtained Lear's Macaws will be legitimised, but will be recovered and repatriated to Brazil. They should have the support of aviculturists everywhere in this.

Aviculture is under increasing pressure from various quarters, especially in mainland Europe, and simply cannot afford to be involved in or appear to support the illegal trade in rare species. The reckless selfish acts of the few do great damage to the hobby of birdkeeping as a whole. I believe aviculture has a substantial contribution to make to conservation, mainly in transferring husbandry and other technical skills to people working with rare species in the wild and assisting them to adapt and improve these techniques.

The Hyacinthine Macaw project in the Pantanal has already demonstrated what can be achieved, for example, by the installation of nest-boxes and the practice of an effective form of husbandry in the wild.

I intend to return as soon as I can to the early morning stillness of the mesa at Toca Velha. In fact I may even be standing up there in the pre-dawn gloom as you read this report.

Finally I should like to thank Valeria, Tania and Caboclo for their kind hospitality in March of this year.

Postscript

I did return in January of this year and found the experience as magical as in March 1998. Apart from its truly breathtaking beauty, the landscape has an eerie, otherworldly quality. At the end of my report to the Parrot Society on the inauguration of the new base for the Hyacinthine Macaw project in the Pantanal published in the February edition of its magazine, I added the following text.

Finally I did get to the top of the sandstone escarpment again to see the Lear's Macaws on January 3rd. I was able to observe and film a pair interacting at the front of a nest hollow in the cliff with a very powerful zoom lens. What was truly amazing was that although the pair was some distance away on the other side of the canyon and indeed scarcely discernible with the naked eye, the bare skin around the mandible was very conspicuous.

The field workers have just concluded their census work and although I am unable to reveal the number arrived at until it is officially published, I can at least confirm there are slightly more than originally reported. Also just before Christmas (1998) some 680 three year-old licuri palmlets were planted at a ranch frequented by the macaws during the day and they are now being irrigated at night with water pumped from a nearby creek. The operation takes place at night so as not to interrupt the local people's electricity supply during the day. It will be many years before they are large enough to bear fruit, but it is at least a start. A field of maize has also been planted near the research station to see whether the macaws forage there.

My thanks once again to Valeria and her team at Canudos for their hospitality and to IBAMA, the Brazilian government wildlife agency, for permission to visit this area, which is otherwise closed to unauthorised visitors.

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( If you drive out nature with a pitchfork, she will soon find a way back)

Horace (65-8 BC)