Saving Species - Spix's Macaw Recovery Project

by John STOODLEY published in Caged Bird Hobbyist in April 1996 (Pages 56-7).

The Spix's macaw, Cyanopsitta spixii, first attracted Loro Parque's attention in 1987. There were just 19 known individuals in captivity and one wild bird remaining in its natural habitat in the São Francisco Valley, Curaça, Brazil. Thanks to the initiative taken by Rosemary Low who was the curator of birds at Loro Parque Foundation at that time, a meeting was organized and held at the park on August 17, 1987, to try to bring together holders of the Spix's macaw to try to save the species from extinction. The gathering was attended by Wolfgang Kiessling, director of Loro Parque Foundation, Rosemary Low, Nigel Collar, representative of the International Council for Bird Preservation, Thomas Arndt, Germany, Ulysses Seal, representative of Captive Breeding Specialists Group, Pedro Scherer Neto, Carlos Keller, Luis Pedreira Gonzaga, all three from Brazil and Paolo Mambelli, Italy.

A follow-up meeting was held in 1989 concurrent to the CITES (Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species) meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland. This key meeting resulted in the formation of the Spix's Macaw Recovery Committee by the Brazilian government. In February 1991, this committee made the decision to accept as legal and not to confiscate, or seek to confiscate, specimens of Spix's macaws if the holders agreed to participate in the permanent committee's work to manage the remaining captive population.

Shortly after the Recovery Committee was formed, Loro Parque Foundation coordinated and financed the cost to have Avian Research Associates Ltd., United Kingdom, perform chromosome analysis on the captive Spix's macaws to determine their sex. The DNA analysis of the birds made it possible to suitably pair birds to increase breeding success, and several transfers of birds took place with this aim in mind.

The first of these exchanges was in 1990 when a male Spix's macaw owned by Vogelpark Walsrode in Germany was sent to Nelson Kawall, a Brazilian aviculturist in São Paulo, to pair with his female. Unfortunately, Kawall's female died in 1994.In 1991 São Paulo Zoo of Brazil sent a male Spix's macaw to Mauricio Ferreira dos Santos. Also in the same year, Ferreira dos Santos provided the individual Spix's macaw that was installed in Curaça, Brazil, as a prospective mate for the remaining wild specimen.

Thanks to the formation of the Spix's Macaw Recovery Committee, a bird from the collection of Dr.Josef Hammerli, a Swiss aviculturist who was previously an unknown holder of Spix's macaws, was exchanged with Antonio de Dios of the Philippines in 1992 to make up an unrelated pair. Dr. Hammerli was the first aviculturist to produce young Spix's macaws in 1984, however, Antonio de Dios has had the most successful breeding results at Birds International. This collection has achieved a second generation breeding, a real breakthrough for the future survival of this species.

The pair of Spix's macaws at Loro Parque Foundation produced an egg in 1989 that was subsequently broken. It was not until 1992 that this pair achieved success. Two chicks were reared but the first chick, which was being reared by a pair of Illiger's macaws, Ara maracana, suffered a leg injury. Although several operations were performed and the chick appeared to be progressing well, it died some months later. Its sibling was successfully reared.

In 1993 Loro Parque Foundation received a devastating blow to their breeding program when their breeding female Spix's macaw died leaving a lone male. At the December 1994 CITES meeting in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., the Spix's Macaw Recovery Committee decided to transfer a male and female macaw from São Paulo Zoo to Loro Parque Foundation to pair with their single adult male and his three-year old female offspring.

The only other losses since the formation of the Recovery Committee was a female of Josef Hammerli that died in May 1990, and a three-year-old captive-bred female that was lost in December of that year.

During the 1994 meeting of the committee, a smaller working group was formed to finalize the potential pairing and exchanges of macaws before the end of 1994 in preparation for the next breeding season. In addition, the Committee proposed a comprehensive biological review of the husbandry requirements of the Spix's macaw covering all aspects of the captive population maintenance: housing, reproductive management, individual records management, nutrition, health and veterinary care and a post-mortem protocol.

At the conclusion of the meeting seven new pairs of Spix's macaws were formed utilizing the new genetic and demographic data. This brought the number of pairs to 10; forming other pairs was limited due to the lack of females in the population. Breeding facilities continue to be maintained in Brazil, Spain, Switzerland and the Philippines.

Due to efforts of the Spix's Macaw Recovery Committee, the captive population has increased to 30 birds and a special effort is being made by the committee to encourage the entrance of possible additional specimens into the recovery program. The primary goal of the captive program is to increase the production of captive-bred birds to secure the species in captivity, as well as to provide the necessary stock for potential reintroduction in the wild.

One of committee's goals was the recovery of the Spix's macaw in the wild. Starting in 1993 a team of professionals, lead by the Brazilian biologist, Marcos Da Ré, carried out research in the area of the last remaining wild Spix's macaw. Loro Parque Foundation provided the total funding for this project that included salaries, accommodations, subsistence allowances, materials, and subsequently a four-wheel-drive vehicle to facilitate travel in the area of Curaça. As a result of this research, the committee decided to launch the reintroduction program with short and long term goals.

The reintroduction of any animal from a captive situation to a natural environment is a long and complicated process involving many considerations such as space restrictions, feeding, shelter, predators, veterinary care, etc. Without knowing the fundamental aspects of the species any reintroduction attempt would be a waste of time and effort.

In August 1994, after the construction of a huge cage in the region of the remaining wild specimen, a captive Spix's macaw was placed in the cage. It was believed that the wild macaw was a male at least eight years old. However, this information was questioned at the Florida meeting, so further DNA tests were carried out on eight of his feathers to determine if the wild bird was in fact a male.

A proposal was made to fit the female bird scheduled for release with a radio transmitter for tracking. Despite the obvious advantages that would have been gained in monitoring the bird after release, this proposal was rejected. It was felt that the use of a transmitter would be detrimental to the bird's chances of survival in the wild.

The behavior of the wild bird towards the intended caged mate was carefully monitored as was her response to him. Finally, on March 17, 1995, the female was released into the wild. According to the last updates from Brazil, the two macaws were seen flying together accompanied by a female Illiger's macaw, Ara maracana, with whom the wild male Spix's macaw was previously paired. Fortunately the Illiger's macaw has not harmed the female Spix's macaw, and it appears that the male and female Spix's are compatible.

One aspect of the Spix's Macaw Recovery Program was the involvement of the local population in the conservation effort. The current project has fostered a grass roots movement within the community to support the Spix's macaw and to become involved in environmental issues. It is important that this initiative continues and that the local people see how they can directly benefit from such conservation programs.

A number of other related projects have been initiated with this aim in mind including the restoration of a 100-year-old theater as an Environmental Centre in the area of Curaça that will be used for community events. Loro Parque Foundation paid $25,000 towards the renovation work. They also covered a major part of the costs involved in setting up the Ararintha-Azul Environmental Centre as outlined in a report from Marcos Da-Ré. Loro Parque Foundation also financially assisted with the costs to maintain a continuation of the monitoring project in the field for another year.

Another practical conservation measure supported by the committee was the construction of traditional fencing to manage livestock in the area. This would allow the regeneration of araibeira trees and other vegetation utilized by the Spix's macaw.

In the last decade, the small blue macaw has become one of the symbols of the international conservation movement. It has probably attracted more attention than any other endangered species in recent history. Loro Parque Foundation is proud to be the principal donor to such a worthwhile project. To date they have contributed a total of $209,780 U.S. dollars to the Spix's Macaw Recovery Project.

Latest News

  • Tuesday 9th July 2024

    There is a short interesting article in the July 2024 issue of the German magazine "Papageien" about the setting up of a nature conservation centre for Spix’s Macaws  in the São Paulo zoo. Under the guidance of biologist Fernanda ... Read More »


 " 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)