News on the Spix's Macaws at Loro Parque by Miguel Bueno, Curator of Birds, Loro Parque

Published on the Blue Macaws website on 23rd May, 2000

Of all the psittacines, the Spix's macaw is the most endangered within its natural habitat. In fact, there is only one known remaining individual to be found in its range in the northern Bahía region in Brazil. Spix's macaws were described more than a century and a half ago but apparently were never know to be common. In fact they were thought to be extinct before 3 bird were discovered in 1980. Unfortunately 2 of the 3 appeared to have been captured in 1987. A single male is now the exclusive representative of this species in the wild.

The name, Cyanopsitta spixii, refers to the macaw's blue plumage (Cyanopsitta) and its specific name is in honour of the famous German naturalist von Spix who described it in 1824. This monotypic species is found only in forests of Tabebuia caraiba, a typical dry bush habitat in the Bahía region, that makes up part of its main habitat, the "caatinga".

Naturalists believe that their numbers have always been low and their limited distribution has made them very vulnerable to habitat loss. The Tabebuia forests are essential for nesting. In addition, their capture for illegal commercial trade has resulted in their virtual extinction. A study undertaken in the early 1990's identified 27 individuals in captivity, in the hands of different institutes and breeders. Of these 27, 14 were bred from parents whose lineage was uncertain.

The birds held at Loro Parque

In 1990 the CITES authority, Loro Parque Fundación, TRAFFIC and ICBP (Intenational Council for Bird Preservation, now Birdlife) joined together to form a cooperative of holder of birds in captivity, in order to create, along with their own governmental organisations, a Permanent Committee for the Recovery of the Spix Macaw (CPRAA). From the beginning, Loro Parque Fundación has been the principal sponsor of this project.

The original pair belonging to Loro Parque consisted of a male that was approximately 13 years old and a female that was supposed to be 17 years old. The pair bred once in 1992 producing one chick, a female. The original female of the pair then died in November of the same year, leaving 2 birds - father and daughter.

Under the supervision of the CPRAA, 2 adults (male 12 years old and female 23 years old) were subsequently transferred to Loro Parque Fundacion in the summer of 1995, in order to establish 2 pairs of Spix's Macaw. The transfer of the two birds from Fundação Parque Zoologico São Paulo to Loro Parque Fundación, arranged in 1995 under the auspices of the CPRAA, was the first time that the Brazilian government allowed the export of Spix's macaws from Brazil to a foreign breeding facility. Loro Parque Fundación is fully aware of its responsibility and strives to provide the best possible management to the birds under its care. Father and daughter were matched with the new individuals in order to enhance genetic diversity within the captive population. For the first four years they were kept in a breeding center in suspended cages, surrounded by lush vegetation and other pairs of birds, mainly macaws of the Ara genus. The 4 birds remain the property of the Brazilian Government including the 2 that had belonged to Loro Parque Fundación, due to an agreement of cessation on property. Because these birds are founders and are vital genetic resources, these birds are now considered amongst the most important individuals of the known population.

After 4 years without breeding success the birds and their husbandry were re-evaluated and changes were instituted. Each bird received a thorough physical exam including endoscopy to evaluate their reproductive systems.

The male from LP and the Brazilian female (pair Nº 1), were nervous if someone other than their usual keeper approached their cage as evidenced by their loud and repeated squawking together with what appeared to be aggressive behaviour. The bird was found to be mature with developing ovarian follicles. She appeared to have an obstruction at the entrance of the oviduct, possibly caused by the remains of previous ovulations. Endoscopy of all 4 birds also revealed signs of stress which were not apparent from behavior.

In contrast, pair No. 2, the Brazilian male and LP female, both expressed curiosity whenever someone visited, and would approach the front of the cage. A laproscopic exam of the young female revealed that although she was 7 years old no signs of sexual activity were evident.

In October 1998 the birds were moved to new breeding facilities and dietary changes were initiated. This was a critical time as the planned move could either stimulate or inhibit breeding activity. Their failure to breed in their existing cages indicated that it was apparently not the ideal site for this species possibly because of low-level stress, not detected at first.

The new aviaries

The aviaries selected for relocation of the Spix's macaws were similar to those inhabitated by the pair that bred for the first time in LP in 1992.These aviaries were selected because of they were isolated from the main installations providing isolation from other birds and they could also be visually isolated from human disturbance. They were provided with peace and quiet, which would hopefully result in successful breeding. This move was considered a definitive one so the design of the aviaries was very important. The aviaries are12m (40ft)long , 2m (6 ft) wide and 3m (10ft) high using volcanic gravel as substrate and concrete block sides covered with climbing plants. This was a radical difference from the previous housing. The front of the aviary was covered with dense shade cloth limiting vision of keepers. The resulting facilities were isolated from any external stimuli and were large enough to create its own environment. A window 1m (3 ft) wide by 60cm (2ft) high was installed between the two adjoining flights. The window, which could be opened, allowed visual and auditory contact between the two pairs, which hopefully would act as a stimulus. The front of each aviary was constructed of welded wire with an area for their feeding trays. The roof consisted of double layered wire netting that completely covered the whole installation. The 2 meters of front and back ends of the aviaries were covered with sheets of corrugated roofing. This ensured shade, shelter and intimacy.

Each aviary contained 4 perches made from pine logs that extended from one wall to the other at heights of 1,5m and 2 meters, the lower ones in the middle and the higher ones at the ends. They were spaced to ensure maximum points of rest in the cage. Perches were placed close the nests, in order to stimulate interest and as points of inspection. Fresh pine and eucalyptus branches, placed on supports attached to the wall were offered regularly.

Both aviaries are monitored by closed circuit television using a panoramic camera that allows observation of the whole area from the front of the aviary at the highest vantage point.

The new facilities are equipped with sprinklers, and various types of nests, some of which are fitted with infra-red cameras. There are now 5 nests, as opposed to 3 previously and a variety of nests are provided. A large palm trunk was introduced and the orientation and position of nests has been varied. The cage furnishings are identical in both cages giving both pairs the same number and types of nesting sites, ensuring that if a particular nest was selected, a clear preference could be determined.

Rectangular wooden boxes with a circular entrance hole 10 cm (4 ins) in diameter were placed at the back of each aviary. Each nest has a flap-up door for nest inspection. One horizontal box measuring 80cm (3 ft) in length, 30cm (1 ft) in height and 30 cm in width was installed at the back of the aviary, as far as possible from human contact. A camera was attached at the back of the box to allow perfect vision of the interior. This type of nest did not arouse any interest in either of the pairs.

A Fan palm trunk, (Washingtonia robusta), 2 meters (6 ft) in height was installed two meters away but also at the back. The upper part was cut at about 20cm (8 ins), so that it could be removed for nest inspection and also acts as a cover. Just below the cover a square opening was cut and the pulp was bored out to form a cavity. This nest was ignored by the first pair, but pair 2 showed great interest, to such an extent that it was thought they might breed there.

The third nest, which was occupied by the female in pair 1, is a box similar to the previous one but situated vertically and placed in the center of the aviary, protected from the rain by a plastic cover. It hangs from the highest point and has a perch where the bird can sit before entering. A ladder was mounted inside the nest and an infrared camera was installed so that the nest can also be monitored at night.

The fourth nest is a smaller hollowed out palm trunk. It is situated at the front of the aviary near the feeder. The fifth nest is a large eucalyptus trunk, 1.6m high with various natural openings where the birds can enter and make their own cavities. It was placed in the center of the aviary. These trunks were only used for perching and were of little interest to the birds. We believe they were rejected because they were placed too low.

Changing the Diet

A number of items were added to the diet to provide more variety. At the beginning of February mixtures of germinating seeds, were added to the staple diet of fresh fruit and vegetables and seeds. We fed them all types of seeds that were soaked and germinating for 36 hours so that their metabolism could be stimulated by extra nutrients that come from the germinating process. Their normal supply of seeds is enriched, with pinenuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, chopped Brazil nuts and coconut. The incubating female would occasionally wait for the keeper in the mornings so she could devour this new nut mixture before returning to her nest.

The modified behaviour

The reduction of human contact seemed to have a positive effect on the bird's behavior. Their contact with human beings was restricted to just the few brief minutes daily when the keeper changed their food bowls. They had no contact with any other species of birds. This change was considered fundamental and no concessions were made. The improvement in their environment; the added vegetation, increasing the artificial rain periods and their new diet also played a part in modifying their behaviour and stimulating them to interact more with each other.

Observations of the progress of both pairs during initial weeks was very interesting. Both reacted contrary to the first expectations. Initial inspections of the aviaries by the birds were sporadic with no special interest shown, rather the birds looked for external contact and would systematically hang onto the wire on the front of the cage. Plastic sheets were hung across the inside of front of the aviary to stop this behavior. The change was dramatic. Now the birds could not have any outside contact and they were therefore forced to explore the interior of the aviary. They enjoyed the long periods of artificial rain and the local climatic conditions were also very favorable to breeding. There were weeks of low pressure alternating frequently with cloudy or rainy days.

The first eggs

By the middle of March pair 1 was showing interest in one of the nests- the vertical one in the center. The male showed an unusual and intense interest, spending long intervals inside trying to chew material off the walls with his beak to such an extent that he was provided with strips of pine bark whereby he went to work without stopping. The pair appeared to have bonded very well, they were frequently observed flying together the length of the aviary, vocalizing and preening each others plumage. At the approach of a human they would both fly immediately and directly back to the nest; a sure sign of wanting to breed. During the last week of March, the pair became quieter and the female spent more time inside the nest working on the material provided. If someone approached the aviary the birds were very quiet.

On March 29th the monitor showed the female incubating the first egg. From that moment on the other monitors inside the nest and the panoramic-view camera started to record.

The mode of recording was time lapse so that one 3 hour tape could record 24 hours. Four days later- April 2nd, a second egg was discovered, and on the 5th- a third one. The female began incubation when the first egg was laid and would only emerge occasionally, particularly in the morning when she would sit beside the male close to the nest, or she would feed in a frenzy. Then she would re-enter and continue incubating. She alternated periods of rest, especially during the night when she would sleep on the eggs, with periods of activity where she would rotate the eggs, turn them in circles or continue working on the nest material. The male entered the nest at first to feed her. He entered frequently, preening the female's plumage, bringing her food and resting beside her. During the night he always stayed outside the nest.

A decision was made to exchange eggs from the Spix's pair with those of a similar pair of macaws, Ara maracana, a species found in the same habitat as the Spix's Macaw. The decision to remove one egg was made because the video showed that the female was showing signs of nervousness. She was incubating the eggs under her crop and not the abdomen. The male was also going into the nest more frequently, not allowing the female to incubate properly, and leaving the eggs to the side. She also pecked at the eggs with her beak and moved them by this means. This last behaviour might have been natural or normal but given the fact that we did not know it was considered a risk. We also wanted an experienced breeding pair that would be guaranteed - at least partly- to rear the possibly hatched chicks. Also, we wanted to provide the opportunity for the Spix´s to rear a youngster from the egg, a learning process that was considered of great importance as it involved behavioural patterns that probably she had never experienced. That could happen with one of her own chicks if the eggs were fertile, or by fostering other species youngsters, if the eggs were not fertile. This also guaranteed that their behaviour could be recorded and studied.

Techniques for removal and transport of the eggs to a different nest were carefully studied. They included:
Confirmation of the existence of an egg of Ara maracana, laid at approximately the same time. A young pair laid an egg on March 31st. Because they were inexperienced breeding birds it was not considered appropriate to do the transfer from the Spix´s nest. They had not bred before and this was in fact the first time they laid. Another breeding pair had laid 3 eggs on the April 5th, all apparently infertile. The maracana pair were incubating well and they were in the first third of the incubation period. There were no signs of fertility in any of the eggs.

Reducing the number of eggs in the nest was considered because normally after one clutch of eggs has been laid the probability is high that she will lay another if their number is reduced. The technique of removing one egg immediately after it has been laid, which has been carried out with success in other species and appears to stimulate further egg production. In certain species of the genus Amazona, the continuous removal of one egg from the clutch stimulates the laying of another - confirming the theory that there must be a minimum number of eggs present for the female to halt the process and consider it complete. We wanted to test this theory.

On the morning of April 6th, an inspection of the Spix's nest was made. Two of the eggs were infertile and we were unable to determine the fertility of the third. We decided to exchange the 2 most recently laid, one infertile and one which might be fertile leaving the other one behind so as not to run any risks. These two eggs were placed immediately in the A.maracana nest, at the same time removing two of theirs. Three days later after inspecting the nests it was confirmed that the Spix's eggs were infertile. The female Spix remained in the nest as expected, but she appeared nervous and after 2 days the remaining egg was found broken after the female had spent a long period outside the nest. The camera showed the egg half buried by nest material and it was removed to prevent the nest from being contaminated. From then on the female still spent much time in the nest and appeared more relaxed. Finally we could observe the pair copulating occasionally when she came out during the day. It was thought that the rain together with cloudy weather conditions had stimulated a subsequent reproductive cycle.

The size of the eggs were as follows: 38.1mm x 31.1mm, 39.9mm x 29.9mm, 42.1mm x 30.4mm.

The second clutch

We fortunately got a second clutch of two eggs laid on April 24th and 29th. The female was observed incubating in a more horizontal position the second time, as if she had learned how to incubate properly. Unfortunately these eggs were also infertile. They were subsequently exchanged for fertile Ara maracana eggs of approximately the same age on the morning of May 10th.

The size of the eggs were as follows: 39.1mm x 29.5mm, 38.0mm x 31.0mm

Upon removal from the nest, the eggs were carefully inspected for signs of fertility. The apical pole of each egg, which is where the primary germinating cells are located, was examined to discover if there were any positive signs, without success.

The total incubation period for the female was 24 days, combining her eggs and the Illiger's Macaw eggs. The eggs transferred to her nest were already incubated 5 days. Both chicks hatched without problems on May 13th and 17th. They were fed by the parents. The whole process was recorded on video using infra-red cameras 24hours a day. At the time of writing both chicks were showing pin feathers and enjoying excellent health.

Regarding pair 2; when they were first transferred to the new installations pair bonding was not observed. The male constantly showed more interest in pair 1, and often observed them through the connecting window. Accustomed to searching for contact with those outside the cage he would hang onto the front of the cage. When this was no longer possible, he would hang from the closest part to the roof. The female did not seek his company and would imitate pair 1 when they would vocalize. However, after a few weeks they settled down and were observed staying together during feeding and flying. Displays of breeding activity were observed with both birds partially opening their wings, stretching their wings and swinging up and down while their pupils contracted and dilated. As in pair 1 their vocalizations diminished and became less repetitive, but their calls were longer stranger and more piercing in character. They had frequent and long copulation sessions taking place in the morning and evening. The female occupied the palm trunk nest, which both had been preparing for the last 2 weeks. Unfortunately no eggs were laid by this second pair.

In conclusion we can confirm that the synergy of these factors resulted in the desired effects at the right moment. The change itself as well as providing better environmental conditions and more intimate surroundings were the required elements necessary to induce reproduction activities.

This season is considered successful because a new Spix's pair has started to lay eggs and demonstrated the capability to rear young. These birds are genetically vitally important for future breeding of this species. It is important that outside interference is limited and that they should be given the maximum opportunity to interact with their partners as efficiently as possible.

Bibliography:

Abramson, J., Speer, B.L. & Thomsen, J.B. (1995) The large macaws, Raintree Publications
Alderton, D. (1991) The Atlas of Parrots T.F.H. Publications
Arndt,T. (1990-1996): Lexicon der Papageien Arndt Verlag, Bretten
Collar, N., Andrew,P. (1992) Threatened birds of the Americas (ICBP-UICN Red Data Book) Smithonian Institution Press Washington
Del Hoyo,J., Elliot,A.,& Sargatal, J. Eds (1997) Handbook of the Birds of the World Vol.4 Lynx Editions Barcelona

Juniper, T. & Parr,M. (1998) Guide to the Parrots of the World Pica Press

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