The Lear’s Macaw - A new parrot drama?

by Thomas ARNDT. Published in WP-magazine, Germany Issue 4/95 (October/November/December)

When the famous German-Brazilian ornithologist Helmut Sick at last discovered the Lear’s Macaw on 31st December, 1978 after years of searching in a remote part of northeastern Brazil, it was soon clear after a few days research work that this rare bird had a problem. Sick only counted 60 specimens of the macaw that ornithologists had been searching for in vain for 120 years. It was not only that the local people occasionally hunted it nor that trappers visited the area from time to time. The main food source - the little nut of the licuri palm - had become scarce. In addition it was soon discovered that a few birds had deformities in their plumage and bills because of genetic problems through in-breeding in such a small population.

The original distribution area of the Lear’s Macaw appears to have been larger since old reports indicated not only northeastern Bahia, but also the neighbouring state of Pernambuco. The population must have been still healthy 60 years ago. A few old peasants remember large flocks, which regularly flew over them. Today you need to know exactly where to go before you are likely to catch sight of the birds.

There are two basic opportunities. Either you search for them in their feeding areas or their roosting places. The latter are in 30 to 60 metre (100 to 200 feet) high sandstone cliffs in canyons and difficult to access. There the macaws roost and breed in hollows and deep crevices, which are sometimes only 50 cm (20 ins) apart, but always in the upper third of the cliffs. Up to 4 birds - mostly two adults and their two young - can be found in one hollow. Only a few roost outside. These are the sentinel macaws, who first ensure there is no danger for the flock before giving the signal for departure. The remainder of the macaws leave their roosting hollows for the feeding areas between 4.30 and 6.00 a.m, still before dawn.

They arrive at the feeding areas between 5.00 and 7.00 a.m after a flight of 12 to 32 km (71/2 to 20 miles) and leave between 4.00 and 6.00 p.m. There they are easy to observe as the licuri palms almost always stand in pasture between isolated tall trees. Lear’s Macaws have two " meal times ". The first between 6.00 and 9.00 a.m, the second between 2.00 and 4.00 p.m. During the midday period they mainly rest in the shade of foliage. They fly to up to 5 palms, preferring nuts, which are nearly ripe. They forage some of the nuts on the ground and in the cattle dung. The cattle also feed on the palm fruits, but digest only the outer part and excrete the hard nuts to the delight of the macaws. This saves them the effort of extracting the nuts.

The two main populations have different situations in their respective areas. While the feeding palms of the larger group is located in eight areas between 20 and 32 km (12.5 to 20 miles) from the roosting places, the second population only has to fly 12 km (7.5 miles) they are not only there sooner, but there are more than 1,000 licuri palms in their 400 hectar (1,000 acres) feeding area, which bear sufficient fruit all year. The other group, on the other hand, may find as many as 600 palms and as little as 150 palms in their feeding areas, which do not provide fruit all year. Therefore one of the measures to be taken to conserve the Lear’s Macaws is to plant new palms. The first have apparently been prepared at a nursery on the coast of Bahia and are waiting to be planted out in the macaw area. The American biologist, Charles Munn, and his Brazilian colleague, Carlos Yamashita, have started this action and it will bear fruit in a few years time.

The breeding period of the Lear’s Macaw begins in September and October, when copulation has been observed frequently. The eggs are laid in December in the cliff hollows and hatch in January. This is the main time for the ripening of the licuri palm fruits, which are available in sufficient quantities until April and May, when the young leave the nest. Within a few days the young accompany their parents to the pasture, on which feeding palms stand.

When we visited the Lear’s Macaw area in June of this year (1995) we discovered two groups of 5 and 5 birds at 3.00 p.m on such a pasture. We were alerted to their presence by a single raucous call and ran in the direction of the sound. Soon we sighted the first group perching on a bare tree, two others were feeding in a palm. The second group was in the top of a leafy tree. We probably had four pairs with three young before us. They had of course seen us long before we got there, which we noticed by the increasing number of calls. Although we approached very slowly, they flew off before we had got to within 200 metres (250 yards) of them. However they landed again in two nearby trees and enabled us to take some photographs from a distance. We were able to observe them for a while through binoculars. They perched quietly and calmly on their high branches, occasionally preening their plumage. Shortly after 4.00 p.m they left the area to return directly to their roosting canyons.

Helmut Sick had observed them for the first time in a canyon. The way there is very difficult and in theory the macaws should be safe there. But a few Brazilian trappers have ensured that this is unfortunately not the case. First of all they watch to discover which hollows the macaws disappear into in the evening. Then during the night they let down nets from the rim of the canyon over the entrance to the hollows. When the macaws leave their roosting place in the early morning, they get caught up in the mesh and can then be drawn up. Up to 30 birds have been trapped in this manner in the last two to three years. It was this large number that alerted the researchers to the existence of two further populations. They discovered after more research that the total population was probably between 120 and 150 birds. However the trappers are continuing their activities.

During our stay in Brazil we saw on of their victims, which is now in the research station of the Spix’s Macaw project near the town of Curaça. It was a Lear’s Macaw confiscated on 7th May in Petrolina from the home of a dealer called Jose Nerys de Souza - better known to collectors of rarities by the nickname of Paraíba. The employees of IBAMA, the Brazilian wildlife government agency, had had him under suspicion for a while for dealing illegally in parrots. When they learned he was supposed to have a Lear’s Macaw in his house, they sent an involved woman physician to him on the pretext of inspecting his house for combatting mosquitoes. After she actually saw the bird in a small filthy cage, the authorities struck two days later. Four IBAMA employees searched the house of Paraíba with the police and confiscated the Lear’s Macaw as well as other birds, including a Blue-fronted Amazon. The Lear’s Macaw was fortunate. When we saw it, it had recovered somewhat, but was still in a dreadful state. Its plumage had been eaten by mites, the trappers had clipped the wings and it showed signs of hospitalisation. It had a wound on its head, that was not quite healed, which had probably been inflicted when it was drawn up the cliff in the net. As soon as it has recovered and the feathers have regrown, it is intended to release it again into the wild. (Website Ed: Unfortunately the macaw did not recover. It died soon after it had been rescued)

In comparison to many other members of its species, this Lear’s Macaw was fortunate. Most birds die soon after capture or more especially during the later transportation and "storage" in hiding places. Where they end up and who the middle men are can only be presumed. Probably the USA and certainly Europe, where two Lear’s Macaws were recently confiscated in Italy.

Paraíba is at least now in prison awaiting trial, which will probably take place in one year. He must expect to be sentenced to up to three years in detention, but it is more probable he will get several years "prisão domiciliar", a Brazilian variation of probation. He will have to report twice a week to the police and may not leave the city during the day or his house at night. This will enable him to work regularly and continue to feed his family. However, whether he learns from the experience is questionable.

One of his colleagues - Luis Carlos Ferreira Lima, already notorious as one of the most successful trappers of Spix’s Macaws under the name of Carlinhos -did not make use of this opportunity. He was sentenced to seven years "prisão domiciliar" for wildlife smuggling and illegal trapping when a Lear’s macaw head was found in his freezer. At the beginning of June of this year he went for trial. Four others are due, all for illegal trade in wildlife, mainly parrots.

Carlinhos will not leave jail for the foreseeable future, but the Brazilian conservationists do not expect the trapping to stop. Two other dealers from Piaui will sooner or later take up where he left off and there will be collectors of rare birds ready to pay any price for a Lear’s Macaw. The only way to protect Lear’s Macaw from unscrupulous trappers is to guard the breeding and roosting places, but the Brazilian Government and conservationist organisations in Brazil do not have the resources for this. For the time being the Lear’s Macaw will have to rely on the generosity of bird-lovers, who are interested in the conservation of parrots. Your help is required quickly to ensure the last Lear’s Macaws are guarded properly.

If you would like to help:

Together with the " Fond fur bedrohte Papageien" and the Zoological Society for Species and Population Conservation based in Munich we are supporting a project to guard the last remaining Lear’s Macaws. Your donation will go in full towards the project and we shall naturally report on the Lear’s Macaws and the project.

Please send your donation by bank transfer to:

"Fonds für bedrohte Papageien"

Volksbank Leingarten-Schwaigern, Germany

(Sort code 620 632 63) Account No. 88 945 405

Marked: Lear’s Macaw

Your donation may be tax deductible. The Zoological Society can issue you with a receipt if required.

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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)