Close encounters with Hyacinthine Macaws

by Tony PITTMAN. Published in Cage and Aviary Birds, UK. 28th December 1991.

At the beginning of July 1991, Joe Cuddy and I flew to Sao Paulo, a modern city of 12 million inhabitants on the eastern coast of Brazil, where we visited Sao Paulo Zoo and also Nelson Kawall, the well known Brazilian aviculturist. Nelson Kawall has a fine collection, which includes rare and mutation amazons and conures as well as a magnificent pair of cinnamon blue and gold macaws, a female Lear's macaw and of course one of the few pairs of Spix's macaws in captivity. He also keeps pairs of the Purple-bellied Parrot (Triclaria malachitacea), the Crimson-bellied Conure (Pyrrhura rhodogaster), the red-headed sub-species of the Painted Conure (Pyrrhura picta roseifrons). The amazon collection includes the Red-tailed Amazon (Amazona brasilensis) and a fine specimen of the amazon researched by and named after him (Amazona kawalli).

After our stay in Sao Paulo we flew into the interior to the Pantanal to observe parrots in the wild, particularly the Hyacinthine Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus). The Pantanal is a vast flood plain covering some 230,000 sq. km ( nearly 144,000 sq. miles and thus nearly as large as the U.K) in south-western Brazil and extending over the Bolivian and Paraguayan borders. It is one of the largest areas of wetland in the world.

In the wet season from October/November to March the rains and the flood waters from the River Paraguay and its tributaries inundate the entire area with some localities as much as 3m (10 ft) under water. During the dry season from April to October the water recedes and much of the area becomes a vast prairie. It is then that cattle are driven in to feed off the lush pastures. The Pantanal is the stronghold of many species including the Hyacinthine Macaw.

On arrival at Campo Grande, the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul province, we hired a Volkswagen Golf and drove 200 km (125 miles) along the main state highway to Miranda, a small town on the southern edge of the Pantanal. Some 36 km (23 miles) north-west of Miranda along a rough, dirt road lies the Pousada Caiman, a working ranch, which is also dedicated to ecotourism and research. It occupies over 130,000 acres of typical Pantanal territory, of which some 20,000 acres have been set aside as an ecological reserve.

For $ 300 (œ 175) per day for two people with full board including all activities, the ranch territory can be explored with experienced guides on horse-back, boat, 4-wheel vehicle and foot. As the Pousada Caiman was fully booked, we stayed in Miranda and obtained permission to drive to the ranch every day to observe the macaws.

Our first sighting of a pair of Hyacinthine Macaws flying across the road in front of us was a tremendous thrill. On the ranch itself we were able to approach the birds closely as they obviously did not feel threatened. One problem in observing macaws or indeed any parrot in the wild is that their roosting and feeding sites are usually far apart. The area near to the ranch house was a feeding site. Once sated the macaws usually flew off beyond sight and hearing. However we were able to observe quite a number of macaws during the time we were there.

The largest number we observed at any one time was 24. This was when Joe Cuddy set up the camera and tripod near a huge tree, whilst I stood some distance away with binoculars. There were three macaws sitting in the tree, all craning their necks to see what he was doing. Suddenly one of the macaws started calling and from all directions Hyacinthine Macaws came flying. They all flew into the tree, then seconds later came out and wheeled in a flock like rooks over his head. They then dispersed in all directions, leaving the three macaws still in the tree. It was as if they were investigating his strange behaviour. I counted 21 birds in the flock plus the three in the tree. This was, however exceptional. Mostly the macaws were in pairs or small groups of up to five to six individuals.

Apart from directly observing the macaws at the ranch we were able to gather information about their feeding and nesting habits from the local people. They mainly fed off nuts from the Bocaiuva Palm (Acrocomia sp.) or Acuri Palm (Attalea phalerata), some of which we collected, but which were lost or taken in transit. They nested on the ranch in huge manduvi trees (Sterculia striata), Chimbuva (Enterolobium contortisiliquum) or the Angelim (Amburana acreana). On another ranch we were told by the rancher that they also nested in the " ipe " tree, which we assumed to be the Tabebuia ipe, a large forest hardwood tree common on high ground.

We drove to other parts of the area closer to the Bolivian border, where we had reports of Hyacinthine Macaws. Some 70 km (45 miles) west of Miranda we drove along another rough dirt road to a series of ranches. Using the Fazenda Santa Clara, another ranch catering for tourists, as a base, we explored the local area. We found we were soon able to identify the type of habitat preferred by Hyacinthine Macaws and indeed found them. Unlike the macaws on the Pousada Caiman they were always very shy and we quickly discovered they flew away immediately if disturbed. One pair with a juvenile discovered feeding off acuri nuts in a Attalea Palm flew off over our heads with one adult feeding the young bird in flight.

The local people are becoming more conservation-minded. The ranchers are recognising they can earn useful dollars from ecotourism and they are also beginning to realise they should protect the wildlife for its own sake. The Brazilians love long, turgid TV soap operas and the most popular one at the present time revolves around a family living in the Pantanal and the local wildlife features prominently. In the big cities clothing and other articles promote conservation. Along the state highway from Campo Grande to Corumba on the Bolivian border, there are a number of large billboards, urging people to protect the local wildlife.

It is not generally realised in the U.K that pet shops in Brazil are not permitted to offer Brazilian wildlife for sale. Thus in Rio or Sao Paulo, the only parrots on sale are budgerigars and cockatiels. There are few psittacine aviculturists in Brazil and they have to have special permits to keep birds. In the interior pet parrots will, of course, be found on ranches and other settlements, but this would be impossible to prevent or control.

There is, however still poaching and illegal trade in wildlife, which affects the Hyacinthine Macaw as well as other wildlife. I actually witnessed a suspect transaction in a travel agency in Corumba, when a pair of crying, frightened baby giant otters were delivered to the door and the travel agent was suddenly unable to understand my query about them. It would be very sad if habitat tours for ecotourists were used as a cover for reconnaissance of wildlife for later collection.

Apart from the Hyacinthine Macaw we saw many other wild parrots, including Green winged Macaw (Ara chloroptera), Yellow-collared Macaw (Ara auricollis), Blue-fronted Amazon (Amazona aestiva aestiva), Orange-winged Amazon (Amazona amazonica), Yellow-faced Amazon (Amazona xanthops), Nanday Conure (Nandayus nenday), Canary-winged Parakeets (Brotogeris versicolorus), Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) and Scaly-headed Parrots (Pionus maximiliani). There were also Toco Toucans (Rhamphastos toco), looking just as unreal in their native habitat, and a wide range of aquatic and marshland birds. We also encountered on the dirt roads giant ant-eaters, peccaries, coati, armadillos, capybara, marsh deer, pythons and the ubiquitous cattle.

Our visit was very short, but very eventful and has whetted our appetite to return again soon to see the Hyacinthine Macaws in their natural habitat, learn more about them and gain new insights as aviculturists into the behaviour and life of these magnificent macaws to assist our captive breeding project. We returned more optimistic than before our trip as we could see that if nesting sites could be preserved by not removing the large trees, planting new trees and protecting them from browsing cattle and perhaps even providing nesting boxes, the Hyacinthine Macaws of the Pantanal could actually thrive in the environment of the cattle ranches.

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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)