First among parrots - Hyacinth Macaws in the wild

by Robert S. RIDGELY. Published in Birds International, January/March 1989, Vol. 1, No. 1.

(Website editor: The article below appeared as the cover story for the very first issue of Birds International edited by Joe Forshaw. This story produced and published by two of the ornithological "Greats" of the 20th century inspired Joe Cuddy and me to make our first trip to the Pantanal in Brazil in July 1991 to see Hyacinthine Macaws in the wild. This in turn led to our active involvement in their conservation and ultimately has resulted in the production of this website.)

The other day I spotted this advertisement in our local city paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer: "Hyacinth Macaw for sale. Hand raised. Tame. $8000 or best offer: ' Just seeing it there, such an ordinary little ad for such an extraordinary bird, brought back a flood of memories.

How could it be that such a magnificent bird could be offered in such a mundane manner? And, indeed, should it even be offered at all? What follows is my attempt to answer such questions, for, in this age of dwindling macaw numbers and still-burgeoning demands for the birds, such questions must be addressed. But, further, the following will present some of my experiences over the decade with this, the greatest of the parrots, and my personal favourite. Also, there are some reflections on what must be done in order that others may have that opportunity in years to come.

In the mid 1970s, as a biology graduate student anxious to get back into the field, I was casting about for an appropriate thesis topic. Warren King, a friend who then worked in the small Washington DC office of the International Council for Bird Preservation, happened to mention that the US Fish and Wildlife Service had a small amount of money available to fund a macaw status survey, but that there was no one available (or whom dared?) to do the work.

I had some experience doing similar work in the tropics so, after at least a second's hesitation, I blurted out, "Well, why not me?" On such twists of fate are futures made! Gradually the project took shape and became amplified: I would look into the status of all the mainland neotropical parrots, and substantial additional funding was provided by the World Wildlife Fund (US).

It was an ambitious undertaking, one that would require almost three years to complete - and even then it wasn't really `complete', for in such a vast and rapidly changing area new information continues to be forthcoming, as doubtless it always will. The project took me to innumerable fascinating parts of Central and South America, and I was privileged to see some fabulous and memorable sights. But none can compare with my experiences with the fabled Hyacinth Macaw!

The Hyacinth Macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus is the largest of all parrots: some freshly-moulted specimens are over a metre in length, though about half of this is tail, and thus some other parrots may weigh more. The bird is basically a uniform, often quite glossy, rich ultramarine blue, with a prominent bare rich yellow periothalmic ring and border to the lower mandible. The huge bill is black, and the absence of bare facial skin differentiates the Anodorhynchus genus, in which the Hyacinth is placed, from the better known Ara macaws.

My description in no way prepares the observer for the impact this bird invariably has: its imposing size, in particular the massive size of the bill and large head, and the vibrancy of its blue plumage simply must be seen to be appreciated. Even in captivity this is indeed a striking bird. But what I desperately hoped to be able to do was to study Hyacinths in the wild, and to assess the degree to which their population is threatened.

I knew I could realistically hope to do so only in Brazil, for in the mid 1970s Hyacinth Macaws were known to occur only in that country. However, when my former wife Julie and I arrived in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in early March 1977, one of our local contacts, a doctor and part-time bird dealer named Rolando Romero, informed us that there were recent reports of Hyacinths coming from the far north-eastern part of that country, and it was possible he could arrange for me to visit an estancia where they were believed to occur. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity, and in a few weeks plans had begun to solidify - weeks I was able to use to good advantage to study the Red-fronted Macaw Ara rubrogenys (but that's another story!).

What was arranged was this; we would take the `scheduled' weekly, local flight out from Santa Cruz to the tiny town of San Matias, almost on the Brazilian frontier. There, we were to look up the local estancia owner `Don' Guillermo Udo (the `Don' is a salutation conferring respect) who would fly us to the ranch the next day. We were invited to stay there as long as we wanted, and all we had to do was call back by radio when we were ready to leave. It all sounded easy, deceptively so, as it turned out!

The flight went well and we arrived in San Matias on schedule. After arranging to stay at the town's simple but clean pension, we walked over to Don Udo's house. Don Udo was a bird `lover' especially enamoured of cage birds, and we had a wonderful time examining his varied collection. Over dinner we talked about his ranch. The <Estancia Santa Maria was a property of 25,000 hectares, basically wild and unimproved. A large herd of cattle grazed on its natural grasslands, here at the north-western edge of the pantanal; the little woodland that did occur, mostly on slightly higher areas where drainage was a little better, had not been disturbed.

Wildlife was not molested, apart from the occasional jaguar which started to take too many cattle and we were assured that there were still quite a few `tigres' on the property. And, indeed, there were Hyacinth Macaws which sometimes passed by the ranch buildings, or even landed in nearby trees.

There was one problem: though the weather was hot and sunny, this was still the rainy season, and most land was under a couple of metres of water, making it impossible to get around except on horseback. Furthermore, should heavy rains occur, the airstrip could become unusable, and we could be stranded for some time. We were fair riders so that posed no impediment, and as for the weather we quickly agreed to take our chances.

The next morning we loaded our gear into the small plane and took off for the 80-kilometre flight to the south-west. The country looked exciting, seemingly uninhabited and, now, almost all flooded. Scattered small herds of cattle huddled on the few remaining islets of dry ground, and there were even groups of my first Greater Rheas Rhea americana, ducking and trying to run away at our plane's approach. Diverting eastward over a vast, open grassland near the Brazilian border, we hoped to spot one of that area's Maned Wolves (but no luck), then we flew back west and landed on the airstrip near the main ranch buildings. The few workers still on the ranch at this season hurried over to greet us and carry our gear through the marsh to where we would stay, and in a short while we were comfortably established in an attractive room.

Meanwhile, Don Udo explained to Carlos, the local man in charge, what we were up to, and Carlos assured us we should have no difficulty in finding macaws. After lunch, we left them to discuss ranch business, and walked around to get our bearings and see what was about.

We were effectively `marooned' on our little island of dry ground, the water being too deep to wade in for very far. But we didn't need to go far - birds were everywhere, many of them unfamiliar. Perhaps most memorable were my first wild Monk Parakeets Myiopsitta monachus, a colony of which was established in the palms shading the ranch buildings, here at the northern limit of their range.

There were three kinds of ibis, including the vaguely prehistoric-looking and shaggy-crested Plumbeous Ibis Harpiprion caerulescens which at the time we thought had never before been found in Bolivia. Gigantic Jabirus Jabiru mycteria stalked around looking for prey; they were amazingly tame, walking off slowly when approached and only flushing if pressed closely.

Despite the relative lack of trees, a few spectacular Toco Toucans Ramphastos toco were in evidence, often laboriously flying long distances in the open. I was to realise later that this was typical habitat for the species, though not for toucans in general. Colourful Red-crested and Yellow-billed Cardinals Paroaria coronata and P. capitata abounded, especially the latter which even came into the kitchen to search for food.

Pairs of White-rumped Monjitas Xolmis velata, vaguely kingbird-like tyrant-flycatchers, dropped to the ground in a manner reminiscent of North American Bluebirds Sialia sialis, and there were even pairs of the scarce, dainty Long-tailed Ground-Dove Uropelia campestrispottering about in the corrals. One pair of macaws did fly by, but they were `only' Green-wings Ara chloroptera - glorious, but not the one we so much wanted to find.

Next morning we were up early, the horses saddled and ready to go. We splashed off. It was an odd way to ride, with water at times lapping at the horse's belly or sometimes your boots, and you could proceed only at a slow walk so treacherous was the footing, made irregular by the herds of cattle.

Carlos had told us that he knew where a pair of macaws nested, and though this wasn't the breeding season the birds usually didn't wander too far from the site. There was lots to look at as we rode (or, should I say, stumbled) along. We came upon groups of rheas; unlike most birds here, they were very wary, and repeatedly we were treated to the incongruous sight of rheas running off through the water, heading for another island of high ground.

Small flocks of Muscovy Ducks Cairina moschata flushed when approached too closely, but they never went far. Obviously, hunting pressure was minimal in this wildlife paradise. I strained to hear the far-carrying calls of macaws over the sound of sloshing water, but to no avail!

Finally, we reached a relatively large wooded island, and dismounted. It was a relief to get back on our own feet. It made birdwatching much easier, for horses never seem to hold still long enough for me to use binoculars very effectively. The woods were full of cattle. We were told that they didn't like to stand in water for very long. Nonetheless, a fair number of birds were about: a pair of attractive Rusty-backed Antwrens Formicivora rufa and Fawn-breasted Wrens Thryothorus guarayanus fussed in the thickets; and there was a splendid Pale-crested Woodpecker Celeus lugubris.

We proceeded quietly along a cattle track into the woods. Approaching a curve, Carlos told us to be especially alert. This was the area he hoped the birds would be. And rounding the same curve, I heard it, off to one side, a soft guttural growl. Freezing, terrified that they'd flush, we peered around, and then they called again, a little louder this time and we were able to triangulate the source.

Creeping closer, Carlos suddenly motioned excitedly; we sneaked over, and there they were, three Hyacinth Macaws perched beneath the canopy in a low tree no more than 30 metres away. At last!

We revelled in their vibrant blue colour and massive size, their heads seeming disproportionately large. The birds were astonishingly tame, permitting us to walk about in full view without seeming unduly alarmed. After a few minutes we realised there was also a pair of Green-winged Macaws resting nearby; a short while later the Hyacinths flew over to join them, and for a period all five macaws perched amicably in the same tree, the Green-wings (no small bird) looking dwarfed.

Once in a while a bird would emit a loud gravelly squawk, but for the most part they really weren't very active, obviously having already fed that morning. We decided to withdraw a bit to see what would happen next, but the birds settled down and almost seemed to doze.

Clouds were building up, and soon it was obvious that heavy rain was approaching. In the hope of not getting drenched, we decided to return to the ranch. We got soaked anyway, but no matter - we had found the macaws, for the first definite record outside Brazil. It was one of my grandest field days in South America.

I wish I could say that the rest of our stay on the Estancia Santa Maria was equally successful, but unfortunately that afternoon's rain was merely the precursor of what was to come. Over the next few days we tried to get out as often as we could, but it was difficult. We didn't want to interfere too much with normal activities of the ranch, and every time we managed to arrange an excursion by horse it would rain some more. We managed to see more Hyacinths from time to time, and several times pairs did indeed fly past the ranch buildings (once even pausing in the shade trees), but never nearly as well as during that first memorable encounter.

We radioed for the plane to come and get us, but by then it was much too late, the runway was too waterlogged, and we were effectively stranded. So, for a few frustrating days we never really knew whether the plane was going to come or not, and while waiting we couldn't stray too far for fear of missing it should it appear. As so often is the case in field work in remote places, the end of the trip thus proved an anticlimax, but we had managed to find the macaws and thus it had to be judged a tremendous success.

In ensuing years I was to have the privilege of seeing many more Hyacinth Macaws, in numerous places and often in considerably greater numbers than was the case at the fringe of their range on the Estancia Santa Maria. Their overall range is a broad one, extending as it does over much of interior Brazil south of the Amazon River, and while there are many areas where they are scarce or non-existent, there also are others where numbers remain tolerably high.

The centre of abundance clearly is in the pantanal of the upper Paraguay River basin in western Mato Grosso, Brazil. The Santa Maria is at the western fringe of this vast, seasonally inundated grassland, so presence of the macaws in that area is really not so surprising after all.

Much of the land here is used for cattle grazing, an activity which does not of itself impinge on the status of the macaws, provided ranchers do not molest them. This is often, though not always, the case. As I had witnessed on the Santa Maria, if undisturbed, Hyacinth Macaws are exceptionally tame, almost fearless, and often conspicuous birds which tend to be very sedentary. Ranchers inevitably know whether any are about, and if so precisely where they are.

Almost never are Hyacinths seen flying high overhead on their way to some distant locale, behaviour so typical of the Ara macaws. Flocks even regularly come into paddocks and the areas around ranch buildings where cattle often congregate.

For a long time this mystified me, until a ranch owner finally provided a plausible explanation: the macaws specialise in feeding on the hard fruits of several species of palms, and these fruits are readily eaten also by cattle (which is one reason why the palms often are left in an area which has been partially cleared).

The hard nuts pass unscathed through a beast's digestive tract and are expelled, while the softer mesocarp is digested. The macaws regularly come to the ground beneath these palms to feed on fallen fruit, and will congregate where cattle have left a concentration of their preferred food.

What is critical is the presence of nest sites. Trees in the pantanal generally are not very big, and only a few ever achieve a stature large enough for there to be holes of sufficient capacity for a Hyacinth Macaw's nest. Two of the most frequently used trees are Enterolobium andSterculia, but I have seen a Hyacinth's nest also in a very large dead snag.

Such trees are often felled, and usually are so prominent that the presence of a macaw's nest is obvious to local persons. This is important, because these same local people are well aware that, though doing so is illegal, they can obtain a substantial sum of money if they successfully take a chick from a nest and are able to sell it to a middleman or dealer. Even worse, chicks can be removed from the same nests year after year. Given the price on each Hyacinth's head, this all becomes a prescription for disaster.

Brazil banned the commercial export of live birds in the early 1970s, but the domestic possession of birds remains a passion for many Brazilians, and still appears to be legal. However, apparently it is illegal to have Hyacinth Macaws in private possession in Brazil, but regulation routinely goes unenforced. Though there is some internal market for them, this certainly is not where the greatest demand is generated.

The real demand comes from abroad, from the USA, various European countries and, increasingly, from Japan. Given the illegality of commercial shipments from Brazil, home to the vast majority of Hyacinth Macaws, where are all the birds in trade and in private possession around the world coming from? They certainly are not, despite the claims of some apologists, being captively bred in numbers sufficient to satisfy the demand - would that they could be!

What has been happening is that they are being smuggled out of Brazil. For some years, most were being shipped clandestinely to Bolivia, from which it was still legal to export live birds and for a number of years the primary source of most species of macaws in world trade. Bolivian dealers and government officials could claim that the Hyacinths were Bolivian in origin, as indeed some of them may have been (but surely not the large majority), and it all became `legal'.

It was for this reason that for a while I hesitated to officially report the existence of the Bolivian population, before being finally persuaded that the dealers knew about the birds anyway. Fortunately that avenue has been closed since 1984, when Bolivia instituted a ban on animal exports, doubtless to the consternation of dealers in that country.

Paraguay has been another source of many Hyacinth Macaws in trade (again mainly derived from birds smuggled out of Brazil), but that country too now seems largely to have restricted exports. It might seem, therefore, that to a large extent the problem has been resolved. Sadly, such is not the case, for some smuggling continues, apparently involving mostly shipments directly from Brazil. Further, the damage that already has been done to Hyacinth Macaw populations is severe.

When I made my recommendations in the late 1970s the status of the Hyacinth Macaw did not seem exceedingly grave, and I was content merely to suggest that the species be placed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

My rationale was that the Hyacinth still appeared to be relatively numerous in areas theoretically most exposed to the activities of trappers (i.e. close to Bolivia and Paraguay), and that while it clearly was increasingly uncommon and local in interior north-eastern Brazil (in Piauí, western Bahia, southern Pará, etc.), there still were remote areas where the species presumably occurred in undiminished numbers.

In part, I felt that it was important to stress the rarity and vulnerability of several even more threatened species, such as Bolivia's Red-fronted Macaw. In retrospect, I may have been a little too optimistic and, not surprisingly, ensuing years have seen a further reduction in numbers.

In 1986, the Brazilian government proposed that the Hyacinth Macaw be transferred from Appendix II to Appendix I of CITES, under which virtually all trade would cease. In order to assess the merits of this proposal, the CITES Secretariat concluded that a new survey of the macaw's status was needed. Two conservation groups, Wildlife Conservation International (affiliated with the New York Zoological Society) and TRAFFIC (USA), a key wildlife monitoring unit, were contracted to carry out a field survey in early 1987. This was promptly and effectively accomplished by Charles A. Munn, Jorgen B.Thomsen, and Carlos Yamashita, and their conclusions were grim!

Populations were indeed still greatest in the pantanal of Mato Grosso (with smaller numbers in adjacent Bolivia and even a pair or two in extreme northern Paraguay), but numbers had declined substantially, particularly in the southern sector. Numbers were very much reduced in north-eastern Brazil, apparently even in the most remote areas, by the depredations of bird trappers, so much so that in places pairs had almost ceased nesting in holes in trees in favour of comparatively less accessible crevices in cliff-faces.

Even in southern Pará, where the birds occur in more continuous (though still highly deciduous) forest than is the case in the pantanal, the conclusion was that numbers were substantially depleted, due at least in part to killing by indigenous people who were selling feather headdresses and other artefacts in increasingly large quantities.

The overall estimate was that the wild population of Hyacinth Macaws now numbered no more than between 2500 and 5000 individuals, with the true figure probably close to 3000 birds. Further, the population was divided into at least three reproductively isolated sub-units, which could have genetic implications if there was no longer any contact between them.

The recommendation was that the species be transferred to Appendix I of CITES, and this was done at the July 1987 meeting in Ottawa, Canada. Another recommendation was that the Hyacinth Macaw be listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act, but this has not been done.

What happens now? Of course, the hope is that the total population of Hyacinth Macaws will begin to stabilise. It could even increase, at least locally, particularly if the Brazilian public could be convinced, by either moral or legal suasion, not to hold individual `arara prêtas' (or `black macaws', as the species is called in Portuguese).

What of the issue of privately held Hyacinth Macaws the world over? Under the provision of Appendix I of CITES, legal international commercial trade is not prohibited. Hyacinths now offered for sale, such as the bird in that Philadelphia advertisement, presumably have not been imported since the prohibition and, in any case, the likelihood of that happening should gradually diminish as the years pass.

Would I ever want to own such a bird in my home? Never! I can accept the argument that such captively held birds can be viewed as ambassadors of their species, providing a certain link between their `owners' (one hates to use such a word in this context) and their wild brethren in their wild habitat. Such persons should, one hopes, have a broader world view, and a greater concern for what is happening to that species in its far-off land of origin.

As for me, I much prefer to make the sacrifices (financial and otherwise) to observe them from time to time in the wild, and so long as I know they're out there then I'm content. Long may they fly!

HOW TO SEE HYACINTH MACAWS IN THE WILD

In order to see Hyacinth Macaws in the wild, one must fly to Brazil, and proceed from either Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo to the modern city of Cuiaba, in south-western Mato Grosso; there are numerous daily flights.

From Cuiaba (where rental cars are available), drive south on paved roads to Poconé, and continue on the Trans-Pantana) Highway (dirt-surfaced, but passable at all seasons) toward Porto Jofre. There are several excellent tourist hotels along the way, including a good one at Porto Jofre itself.

Hyacinth Macaws can be sighted anywhere from the IBDF control gate southward (actually, some occur even north of Pocone), with numbers greatest along the southern half of the 143-kilometre route.

The wildlife spectacle in the area is fantastic: waterbirds of many species by the tens of thousands, raptors by the hundreds, and myriads of smaller birds; Capybyras also abound, as do several species of monkeys, and there are Marsh Deer and giant Anteaters.

Numerous tourist packages are available to this region; be aware that local people are not likely to speak anything but Portuguese; Spanish can be understood, marginally. The optimal time for a visit is during the austral winter, especially May-September when temperatures are comparatively mild and there is little rain; summers can be oppressively hot.

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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)