Neiva Guedes and the Great Blue Macaws

by Tony PITTMAN. Published in the Parrot Society Magazine, 1996, Vol. XXX

I met Neiva Guedes for the first time in April 1995 during a two-week fact finding tour of Brazilian projects with Thomas Arndt for the German conservation organisation " Fonds fuer bedrohte Papageien ". I had first heard about her dedicated work with Hyacinthine Macaws in the Pantanal when I went to the International Aviculturists' Convention in Orlando in January of the same year and had contacted her immediately on my return to the U.K to arrange a visit.

Thomas Arndt and I were very impressed by Neiva's dedication and we decided to make the lodge in the southern Pantanal where she is based- the Pousada Arara Azul - the destination for a small group of German aviculturists, who wanted some hands-on experience of conservation in the field. They visited the Pousada for a few days in early June and enjoyed their experience very much. In early July Joe Cuddy and I went to the Pousada to spend several days with Neiva in the field visiting various groups of Hyacinthine Macaws and their nesting sites throughout the area she works in. We were also accompanied by Elly de Vries from Los Angeles, who has been sponsoring Neiva's work for some time.

Neiva, who was born and raised in Campo Grande, the capital city of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, some 350 km (220 miles) to the east of the Pousada, has been working virtually single-handed with the macaws for over four years and published her first results in October 1993. Her love affair with the great blue macaw began in November 1989 when she first encountered a group of Hyacinthine Macaws. With the help of scientists like Dr. Lee Harper from the University of St. Lawrence in the USA, who taught her the necessary climbing skills, she began her study of Hyacinthine Macaw breeding behaviour.

The main objectives were to locate, measure, mark and monitor nest sites, study the reproductive biology, identify critical habitat for food and nesting as well as formulate strategies for the conservation of the species.

The field work was started with the financial support of the American section of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which maintained the project for the first two years. After that financial support was provided by WWF Brazil and Conservation International. Since 1993 funding has come from CECITEC, the Science and Technology Council for the state of Mato Grosso do Sul and the Boticaro Foundation for the Protection of Nature,set up by a Brazilian business similar to the Body Shop. Toyota Brazil lent a four wheel drive vehicle. More recently Elly de Vries and her husband, LA corporate lawyer Richard Welch, have been fund-raising in the USA.

Joe Cuddy and I have now joined with Elly and Richard in sponsoring Neiva's work. We had been looking for several years for a suitable project to support and the Projeto Arara Azul met all the criteria we had set - long term, ongoing and locally managed. The money raised by the sale of greetings card through Hallmark Cards has already gone to the project and we are now busy in the preparation of a fund-raising campaign as well as providing back-up support.

The study was carried out in the region of the southwest Pantanal near the Bolivian border called Nhecolandia on land occupied by eleven ranches covering some 250,000 hectares (625,000 acres). The first results showed that 95% of the 94 nest sites monitored were located in the manduvi tree (Sterculia striata), a large tree with a soft core susceptible to the formation of hollows. The macaws preferred trees in more open locations or on the edge of dense vegetation.

The clutch laid varied between one and three, averaging two. The incubation period was between 28 and 30 days. Only the female brooded and spent 70% of her time in the nest. About 40% of the eggs were taken by predators. The list of suspected predators included birds such as jays, toucans and caracaras (a member of the hawk family) and mammals such as coatis, tayras and skunks. 90% of the surviving eggs hatched.

The nestlings weighed on average 31.6 g and measured 82.7 mm (3.25 ins) in length. They fledged at 107 days and remained with their parents for up to 18 months after leaving the nest. The survival rate of the offspring varied between 75 and 83%. The average reproductive success rate in two consecutive years was 1.27 nestlings per pair.

The main food source of the Hyacinthine Macaw is the acuri palm nut from the Attalea or Scheelea phalerata palm, which grows everywhere. A rancher told me that it grows like a weed, producing copious quantities of palm nuts when still quite small. Thus the main problem is in the availability of suitable nesting sites. When travelling around with Neiva we came across several trees, which had been successfully used by Hyacinthine Macaws for nesting, but which had become completely hollow or the roof had rotted away so that the nestling risked drowning when heavy rain occurred. We believe the life of these nest sites could be extended by some judicious carpentry.

The group of German aviculturists built some artificial nest boxes for hanging in appropriate locations. To our surprise and delight one of these has since been used by a pair of Hyacinthine Macaws, who have laid two eggs in it. Apart from logging and natural degradation, the macaws have to compete with other fauna for nest sites. Bees are not yet a serious problem, but we are at present looking into the possibility of finding and using natural substances to deter bees, which will not harm or distress macaws.

Green-winged Macaws (Ara chloroptera) compete with Hyacinthine Macaws for nest sites. The Pousada Arara Azul itself has only 17,000 hectares (42,500 acres) of land attached to it. There are 22 nest sites, of which 8 are used regularly by Green-winged Macaws. 7 of the remaining 14 were used, for example, by Hyacinthine Macaws in 1994 and produced 8 young. There are some 40 to 60 Hyacinthine Macaws on the Pousada's land, a small group of whom live near the main building and can be seen every day on the ground in the adjacent meadow in the dry season feeding off palm nuts put out by the ranch hands. I even managed to get within 5 metres (16 ft) of them to take photographs and video film.

Neiva checks all the nest sites every month and every fortnight when they have young in them. She enjoys an excellent working relationship with the local landowners, their employees as well as the forestry police. This enables her to keep track of poaching activities. She even rescued two young from a trapper and replaced them in the nests of macaws already rearing young. They were accepted, but it seems this must happen soon after they are trapped.

This success suggests to us that it might be possible to place captive bred young in a nest or even eggs from a local breeding unit. A few years ago we had believed re-release might be a possible option for confiscated Hyacinthine Macaws and wanted to have the possibility explored with regard to some of the confiscated macaws in Asuncion Zoo. We are now however, convinced that the high fidelity of Hyacinthine Macaws renders this option non-viable.

Neiva is doing wonderful work in the Pantanal, but needs a proper base rather than any room that happens not to be let at the Pousada. With some $ 15,000 contributed at a fund-raising event in Los Angeles in June 1995 by Elly and Richard plus additional funds from our Hyacinthine Macaw Survival Trust and Papageien magazine Neiva will be able to purchase an old schoolhouse on the Fazenda Alegria, one of the main ranches in the conservation area. There should be sufficient money to install solar panels, build an extension and put up the very necessary mosquito screening. Space will be set aside in the new facility for a much needed laboratory and an incubator for emergency use. Basic accommodation for eco-tourists may follow.

The existence of a permanent working base will increase awareness of the Project among the local people and allow Neiva and her assistants to work more effectively as well as store the necessary supplies and equipment for the Project. We are hoping to recruit one or two local young people for training in husbandry techniques in the wild and the performance of essential tasks such as the repair of old nest sites as well as the planting and protection of new trees. One or two research students would obviously be welcome to help with data evaluation, but a long term project could and should not be dependent on such short term commitment.

I have just returned from a short trip from the Pantanal (ed. Jan 1996) to join a small team assisting Neiva in monitoring this year's young. During this period we visited 14 nest sites, three of which were being used by Green-winged Macaws. Two of the Green-winged Macaw nests had two young each, some 30-40 days old, and the third had two eggs and a day-old chick. Of the remaining eleven, three were empty, another was the artificial nestbox mentioned above with two eggs and the rest(7) had young between 30 and 95 days. One nest had two young.

All young were weighed, measured, given rings if without, examined for parasites and defects as well as blood samples taken for sexing and genetic information purposes.

It was a tremendous thrill to take part in this - after all this is what conservation is about - and I am already looking forward to the next visit.

Guedes Neiva Maria Robaldo - Biologia Reprodutiva da Arara Azul (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) no Pantanal-MS, Brasil. A Masters degree thesis presented to Sao Paulo University - October 1993.

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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)