Breeding the Spix's macaw Cyanopsitta spixii at Loro Parque

Tenerife. An article by Tony Silva in the International Zoo Year Book (1994)  Pp 176-180

Abstract: The Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) is a monotypic bird endemic to north-eastern Brazil. In the late 1980s only a single individual was known to survive in Brazil and the species was, for all practical purposes, extinct in the wild although at that time there were at least 17 birds in captivity. In 1992 two chicks hatched at Loro Parque, Tenerife, and both were taken for hand-rearing. This paper gives details on growth and development of one chick until weaning. 

The Spix’s macaw Cyanopsitta spixii  has entirely blue plumage, distinctly long, dark wings and greyish forehead and ear-coverts. The iris is conspicuously yellow, the periophthalmic ring is naked and the lore is greyish with small black hairs across it. The Spix’s macaw is easy to distinguish from other macaws, including the blue macaws of theAnodorhynchus spp, by its colour and intermediate size c. 56 cm. Adults weigh a mean 348.2 g and there is no sexual dimorphism.

The Spix’s macaw was first described in 1638 by George Marcgraf in Brazil but it was not until 1819 that Johannes Baptist von Spix obtained a specimen from Juazeiro on the west bank of the São Francisco River, Bahia, and a skin was brought to Europe (Silva, 1989). In 1832 J.G Wagler named the species Sittace Spixii. Reported sightings since that time have been sporadic (see Collar et al, 1992). In 1903 Othmar Reiser saw three and then two individuals as they came to drink at the Lagõa do Parnaguá. In 1974 Helmut Sick and Dante Martins Teixeira observed three and four birds flying over a stand ofMauritia palms at Formosa do Rio Preto, Riachão, north-western Bahia (H.Sick, pers. comm). All indications until the early 1980s suggested that the species was rare, but not in any immediate danger of extinction. An extensive study on the status and distribution of mainland neo-tropical parrots described the general status at the time as follows: ‘The Spix’s macaw is a rare species, whose population must be very small, and yet there is no available evidence indicating a recent decline in numbers’ (Ridgely 1981). In 1986, however, Dr Paul Roth reported that the species was on the brink of extinction (Roth, unpubl, pers. comm.).

In 1985 Roth searched over 4400 km for C. spixii in Piauí and Maranhão, but failed to find any birds. In April 1986 he located three birds, remnants of s population believed to have consisted of 30 or more pairs in the 1960s. Discussions with locals and trappers indicated that trapping for illegal trade was the main contributory factor to the decline of the population. Investigations since then have not produced any evidence of the existence of other specimens. Late in 1987 or early in 1988 two of the three birds disappeared and evidence suggested that they had been trapped. One bird remained, but the species was, for all practical purpose, now extinct in the wild. There were at least 17 birds in captivity at that time in the Canary islands, Philippines, Germany and Brazil. 

Several immediate conservation problems arose (Collar et al, 1992). Since 1967 there had been no legal export of parrots, with the exception of a few pet birds, so all the birds held outside Brazil had been exported illegally. Brazil could have made a legal case against all holders, but it was feared that would result in birds being hidden. In 1988 informal discussions were held between Dr Faiçal Simon of São Paulo Zoo, Dr Juan S. Villalba-Macias of TRAFFIC South America and the author.

In October 1989 a meeting was held in Lausanne, Switzerland, with representatives of the Brazilian government, CITES Secretariat, TRAFFIC South America and two holders, Wolfgang Kiessling of Loro Parque, where a pair was held, and Antonio de Dios of the Philippines, who had one pair and several young.   

It was agreed that (1) Brazil would not seek the confiscation of the birds, (2) that a committee to save this species would be created, (3) that field work would be started, (4) that an education campaign would start in the area where the single bird existed in order to raise local awareness and (5) that everyone would work towards the preservation of the species. Since that time an additional pair, with their  young, have been brought into the captive-breeding programme. Today the population approaches 30 birds and eventually it is hoped that this species will be re-introduced into the wild.

The Spix’s macaw was first bred in captivity in the 1960s. A pair nested regularly in Santos, São Paulo, until the 1970s and produced 15 young which were distributed to other breeders in an attempt to establish an aviary-bred strain (A.R.Carvalhaes, pers. comm.) Some of these captive-bred birds reproduced, but in the late 1960s the birds perished as a result of food contamination. (U.Moreira, pers. comm.).  Recently a pair nested regularly in the Philippines and in Switzerland a pair has bred rather erratically possibly because of recurring egg binding in the hen. None of the breeders have documented the growth rate of the young on a regular basis.

Breeding at Loro Parque  

A pair of Spix’s macaws has been held at Loro Parque since 1984. In 1989 the diet was changed to include more fruit, vegetables and soaked pulses, and in August of that year an egg was laid. This egg was broken and no more were laid that year. There was no breeding in 1990 or 1991 although the hen showed interest in the nest. In late 1991 the birds were moved from their 17m long enclosure to a smaller aviary measuring 5 x 2 x 2.3 m high. The new enclosure was not so light as the old one and it contained three nest sites, one a hollow log laid on the floor and two nestboxes 80 x 30 x 30 cm high and 100 x 45 x 45 cm high, at the rear. Diet was modified further with a reduced quantity of fruit being offered and an increased amount of sunflower seeds and nuts, particularly pine nuts and cracked Brazil nuts.

The two birds had always been nervous, but in the new enclosure they became more vocal.  In early February 1992 the hen was seen entering the smaller nestbox and on 15thFebruary the first egg was laid.   

This egg was replaced with one of an Illiger’s macaw Propyrrhura (Ara) maracana laid the same morningThe Illiger’s macaw, which occurs sympatrically with C. spixii in the area of Curaçá where the last known survivor occurs, later received the Spix’s egg for incubating. Three days later the Spix’s laid her second egg, followed by a third after two days and a fourth after three more days. Each was replaced with an Illiger macaw’s egg. The first egg was clear, but the other three were fertile. The Spix’s hen incubated the P. maracana eggs and after two weeks, the most critical for parrot eggs, we were considering putting at least one of her eggs back in the nest. On 9 March, before an egg was returned, the hen was found on the perch and all the eggs had been broken. The following day a wall close to the Spix’s enclosure fell down, possibly because of careless construction, and a number of cages were crushed. No birds were injured and all escapees were caught within a few days. On 22 April the hen started her second clutch of three eggs, each laid thee days apart.

The eggs are elliptical in shape (n=4), have a mean weight of 16.7g (range 16.2-17.6g) and mean measurement of 37 x 28.6 mm (ranges 36.2-37.2 mm and 28.2-29.5 mm). Incubation lasts 26-27 days.

From 11 March one of the eggs from the first clutch showed no further sign of weight loss and five days later the embryo had stopped developing. Necropsy showed an unusually small embryo and an unnaturally large yolk. On 19 March our first Spix’s chick hatched in the Illiger’s macaw’s nest. The third egg failed to develop properly and died during incubation. On 15 April the young was banded and appeared healthy and well cared for by its foster parents, but on 19 April the chick was found to have a broken tibiotarsus. After surgery the bones failed to knit properly and eventually the bird lost one toe and could only partially use the leg; no other health problems occurred and the bird was eventually weaned. Juvenile birds have a grey iris, a white or greyish-white culmen and a shorter tail than the adults. As a result of a throat injury this bird died early in 1993 (A.Artal, pers. comm.).

On 20 May after 26 days incubation an egg from the second clutch hatched. One egg had stopped developing halfway through incubation and the third egg was infertile. The young was taken for hand-rearing in the absence of suitable foster parents. The Spix’s macaw as given other eggs to incubate, but when they hatched she killed the chicks. The breeding female has since died.    


The young was reared on a diet of Purina high-protein monkey chow mixed with water and creamy peanut butter. Feeds were given every two hours from 0700 to 2400 hours for the first two weeks. As the crop expanded the interval between feedings was longer. Generally the crop was only allowed to empty overnight. For the first five weeks the chick was fed with a spoon, but then a syringe with a small  catheter tip attached was used to avoid aspiration of food from the spoon during enthusiastic feeding bouts.

Because captive breeding is probably the only way to save the Spix’s macaw and there are so few in captivity it will be necessary for all collections that hold the species to contribute young for eventual reintroduction. A concerted effort will be required to reinstate this species into its natural habitat.


COLLAR, N.J, GONZAGA, L.P, KRABBE, N, MADROÑO NIETO, A, NARANJO,L.G, PARKER III, T.A and WEGE, D.C (1992) Threatened Birds of the Americas, The ICPB/IUCN Red Data B0ook (3rd edn. part2) Cambridge: International  Council for Bird Preservation.

RIDGELY, R.S (1981): The current distribution and status of mainland Neotropical parrots. Pp 233-384 in R.F Pasquier, ed Conservation of New World Parrots, Washington, D.C:  Smithsonian Institution Press for the International Council for Bird Preservation (Techn. Publ. 1)

ROTH, P (Unpublished) Urgently needed: a preservation program for Spix’s macaw Cyanopsitta spixii. Unpublished report to ICBP, 1986.

Silva, T (1989) A monograph of endangered parrots. Ontario:  Silvio Mattacchione & Co.


Day      Weight (g)                                  Remarks

    1            9.2          Primary down white, short on underside, long on back; two grey coloured            

                                            dots on sides of upper mandible,  situated after the soft bulbous pads on the

                                 sides of the white bill, legs pink; nails grey; vocal.

    2            9.9

    3          12.8

    4          13.8

    5          14.7          Grey dots developing on soft pads on lower bill, grey areas extending on      

                                 upper mandible

    6          15.7

    7          16.2

    8          19.2

    9          23.2

  10          26.3          Dark area to upper mandible increasing; soft pads on lower mandible grey;

                                 eyelids forming; very active

  11          29.7          Standing up

  12          32.1

  13          36.1          Eyes starting to open; grey area more extensive to upper bill; white along

                                 culmen except tip of bill which is black.

  14          39.1

  15          45.1

  16          50.2

  17          55.2

  18          59.9             Eyes open; secondary down follicles appearing all over rump; lower

                                mandible grey streaked, except the tip of the cutting edge which is whitish,

                                nails black.

  19          63.5

  20          73.0         Walking unsteadily; alert when familiar keepers walk into the room or start

                                 to prepare formula, stands up and watches preparations; brooder temperature

                                 reduced from 35.5˚C to 33.8˚C because crop kept filling up with air.

  21          81.0

  22          88.8

  23        108.8

  24        115.0

  25        124.2          Tips of secondary down beginning to open; ears not yet open;  legs grey; call

                                 resembles that of an adult Blue-crowned Conure Aratinga(Thectocercus)

                                 acuticaudata, but is harsher and not as highly pitched.  

  26        134.3

  27        151.4

  28        165.2         Secondary down grey-coloured, opening on crop; sides of body, wings and

                                under-parts; bill grey-black, except along culmen and on cutting edge of  

                                lower mandible which is whitish. 

  29        172.8

  30        190.1

  31        205.8

  32        219.0

  33        233.8

  34        248.5         Secondary down open on throat, sides of body, wings, under-parts and   

                                thighs; down is longest on back and sides, shortest on wings; tail pin-feathers

                                25mm long; flight pin feathers 13mm long. 

  35        261.2

  36        268.2         Secondary down opening on rest of body; young becoming shy, attempting

                                to hide when someone comes into the room; this sudden behavioural change

                                occurred almost overnight.

  37        286.2

  38        289.4

  39        308.5

  40        312.7  

  41        326.6         Feathers beginning to emerge, head in pin feathers, tail and flight feathers

                                50mm long and both showing tip of feather and pin feathers beginning to           

                                open on scapulars, area of secondary flight feathers , bend of wing and  

                                under-parts which are obscured by the down.

  42        331.5

  43        345.0

  44        351.3

  45        359.7

  46        367.1

  47        373.3

  48        377.4

  49        383.5

  50        375.3         Young beginning to lose weight, faecal and choanal cultures taken, but no

                                 harmful bacteria or Candida found; behaviour unchanged.   

  51        379.5         Pin feathers on head and wings mainly open; nape, throat, crop, back, rump

                                and sides of body in pin feathers; under-parts, except vent area, feathering;

                                tail and flight pin feathers 88mm long; young calling in a harsh ‘kree-kree-

                                kree’ and producing a peculiar high-pitched squeal and a hiss, never heard in


  52        380.1         Weight loss as chick entering the slimming phase (the fledgling weight of the

                                first chick was 337.7 g}

  53        376.8

  54        370.6

  55        367.9

  56        363.3

  57        358.3         Head feathered, wings almost feathered, pin feathers opening on nape, back,

                                under- parts, thighs and vent area; tail pin feathers 100mm long, the tip of the

                                feather showing through; flight feathers 100mm long and mainly out of the


  58        357.1

  59        355.5

  60        356.5         Producing a ‘shree’ call (not heard before), occasionally with a sharp ‘krah’

                                at the end.

  61        346.5

  62        347.9

  63        344.1         Feathered, though tail still short; like the first chick this bird did not preen

                                the tail sheath and keepers remove sheath when feeding the chick; starting to

                                perch; eating some corn-on-the-cob.

  64       341.9

  65       340.6

  66       337.3          Examined the chick for a uropygial gland, which was lacking, this is present

                                in other macaws.

  67       337.1

  68       337.3

  69       334.9

  70       329.0          Eating corn

  80       317.3

  90       321.6

100       330.7

110       337.1

121       339.6         Weaned

Latest News

  • Saturday 23rd March 2024
    More welcome news about the Spix’s macaws in the wild

    Welcome news about the re-introduced Spix’s macaw. Last weekend the field staff in Brazil were monitoring nest boxes and discovered a pair with three newly-hatched chicks. They took video footage and this is available on the ACTP website

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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)