Spix's Macaw is last to fly free
Brazil's animal trade under fire
At sunset every night in the thorny wilderness outside this small northeastern town, people wait anxiously until the caraibeira trees beside a dry creek bed erupt in parrot calls that sound like a child's laughter.
Then everyone sighs with relief as a long-tailed, deep-blue form streaks by. It's another appearance by the Spix's Macaw (
Cyanopsitta spixii), the last of its species to fly free. Only about three dozen of the birds survive in private collections; many of the rest succumbed to human or animal predators.
``Every time I see him, it's unique,'' said biologist Yara de Melo Barros, who has studied the macaw since 1996. ``The risk of his dying is so great that every time he appears, it's like a victory.''
This year, there's new hope in a campaign to make the little blue macaw, as it's known here, less of a loner. The effort is a striking example of international cooperation against the forces of extinction, embodied in the multibillion-dollar global business of animal trafficking. And it's inspired by the Romeo-and-Juliet cross-species romance between the handsome Spix's and a bright green Illiger Macaw, which ornithologists hope will be able to raise Spix's fledglings born in captivity.
The gray-headed, yellow-eyed little blue macaw has always lived only in this drought-parched region known as the caatinga. Its ranks were never great, and as increased goat-herding has nibbled away at its habitat, they have steadily diminished.
In the wild-animal trade, the third most lucrative illegal global business after drugs and guns, the Spix's was prized as much for its rarity as for its beauty, a top-level trophy among the 16 macaw species in Latin America, more than half of which are endangered. In the late 1980s, there were reports of the Spix's selling for tens of thousands of dollars in Europe.
By 1990, many ornithologists were convinced the little blue macaw had disappeared. Then an expedition spotted it right where the species had always been seen, a few miles along a rough dirt road outside this town 1,300 miles north of Rio de Janeiro.
The celebrated sighting created a sense of urgency that there was still a chance for the macaw to teach others of its kind its particular secrets of surviving: what seeds to eat, what animals to avoid, where to find food during drought.
The Permanent Committee for the Recovery of the Spix's Macaw - formed the previous year by ornithologists and Spix's owners in Spain, the Philippines, Switzerland and Brazil to breed the rare birds in captivity - took on the new mission of finding the last wild Spix's a mate.
They knew they had to act fast. Biologists figure the blue macaw is about 14 years old, and while its breed has lived twice as long in captivity, those birds don't face the dangers and demands of the wild.
But there were wrinkles in their efforts. The little blue macaw already had a steady companion: a slightly smaller Illiger's Macaw, known here as a maracana.
The last Spix's became known for his exceptional chivalry. He would pick up his companion every morning in her favorite ``dormitory tree,'' fly with her to scrounge for seeds and, come sunset, drop her off back home before flying to his protected bachelor pad in the middle of a cactus.
During the breeding season, from December to March, the Spix's and the Illiger nested together, but as far as scientists could tell, the odd couple's eggs were always infertile.
Still, there was a question of whether the little blue macaw would turn from his longtime companion to a bird of his feather.
A female Spix's was chosen based on her chances of surviving in the wild. She had been caught as an adult, but hadn't eaten local seeds or flown long distances in years. After intensive training, she was deemed fit to be released in March 1995. They soon found each other and began to fly together, escorted by the maracana.
Meanwhile, the committee went to work whipping up local support, hoping to discourage drought-punished goatherds from hunting down the lone macaw to sell to traffickers.
Besides spreading his sympathetic story, staff members built a Little Macaw rural schoolhouse, paid an agronomist to train farmers and fenced goat pastures.
Portraits and poems
The goodwill campaign has been a great success. Local children and even some of their parents draw the bird's portrait and write poems in its praise.
The experiment with the female Spix's proved a disappointment, however. She disappeared after just seven weeks. Only last month did de Melo hear of her fate. A farmer had seen her dead on the ground in 1995, the likely victim of an electrical transmission wire. ``He didn't say anything for years because he feared the project would end,'' de Melo said.
Now committee members are cautiously hopeful about a breakthrough in a field experiment.
Last December, de Melo had replaced the infertile eggs in the nest shared by the blue macaw and the maracana with wild Illiger's Macaw fledglings. The pair accepted them, feeding them and teaching them to fly. Three months later, the young maracanas left the nest on their own.
Now the committee is contemplating putting fledgling Spix's macaws born in captivity into the maracana's nest, a risk previously unthinkable in view of their limited numbers. The details will be worked out at a meeting next month in Houston, with the plan to be carried out after the breeding season starts in December.
De Melo, who is leaving Curaça in January, dreams of returning someday to see families of little blue macaws flying wild through the caatinga.
Wednesday 17th February 2021
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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)