Some new information on the Glaucous Macaw

by Tony PITTMAN. Published in the Parrot Society Magazine, 1997, Vol. XXXI.

Parrot Society members may recall that Joe Cuddy and I undertook an almost epic journey to Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil in July 1992 to search for the Glaucous Macaw (Anodorhynchus glaucus), which resulted in a detailed report in the November 1992 issue of the magazine. At the end of this report I concluded that the macaw was extinct and had probably been so since the early years of this century.

Despite the arguments I put forward, rumours and speculation within aviculture have persisted about the continued existence of the Glaucous Macaw with various locations being suggested for its occurrence in Paraguay and Argentina. Then earlier this year I heard that two Japanese ornithologists had reported hearing a macaw in the eastern part of Corrientes province. I contacted Judy Hutton, who has lived for 30 years on a ranch near Mburucuya, some 150 km southwest of the city of Corrientes, and whom I met at a convention in Asuncion, Paraguay in August 1995. She faxed me that she believed the report to be without foundation.

As I wished to renew contacts in the southern cone of South America, I decided to revisit the area covered in 1992 in early July. I flew to Buenos Aires in Argentina, visited friends there involved in wildlife conservation as well as visiting the Natural History Museum to arrange photographing the skin of the  outside in sunlight rather than in the basement rooms where it is kept. I then caught the overnight bus to Corrientes, where I stayed for two days. I then caught another bus to Asuncion in Paraguay to investigate reports in the southwest of that country near the small city of Pilar.

In Asuncion I unexpectedly became a member of an impromptu expedition team with two researchers from a government agency and Jorge Escobar, an well-known Paraguayan ornithologist. We travelled south on the main highway to Encarnacion, a major city in southeastern Paraguay, through the town of Paraguari to San Juan Bautista, where we left the paved road to travel 144 km (90 miles) southwest along a rutted dirt road to Pilar. During the wet season this road becomes impassable and Pilar is cut off from the rest of the country for months with its only contacts with the outside world being by water with the Argentinian cities of Corrientes and Resistencia nearly 150 km further south along the Rio Paraguay.

In Pilar we met up with Gustavo Granada, a lecturer at the small university there, who accompanied us to a research station on a ranch he owned in the area between the Paraguay and Parana rivers. He knew this area well and was keen to show us forests of " yatay " palms (Butia yatay), which I believed to be the main food source of the Glaucous Macaw and the disappearance of which led to its extinction.

However I was surprised to find short palms - 3 to 4 metres high - compared to the very tall specimens I had seen in Argentina. Jorge suggested they might be stunted because of the very poor soil there. They also fruited for a very short period, which was puzzling at the time. However since my return I have discovered they were of a palm species closely related to the yatay called Butia paraguayensis.

As I felt we were travelling around the area without achieving much, I asked if there were any really old inhabitants locally I could talk to. We then drove to the village of Lomas, where I was introduced to Ceferino Santa Cruz, a 95 year old cotton farmer. He only spoke the local Indian language of Guarani, so Jorge and Gustavo interviewed him in that language and translated his replies into Spanish.

He related that he was born in the village in 1902 and that his father had moved to the area in 1875 after the devastating war of the Triple Alliance, in which 90% of the Paraguayan adult male population were killed. He had never seen the blue macaw ( " Guaa hovy " in Guarani ), although he had seen the red one (Ara chloroptera). However his father had told him about it. He claimed that his father told him that it fed off the fresh green fruits of the cocos palm (Acrocomia totai) on the tree. It did not feed on fruits fallen on the ground as these were too hard.

After hearing this fascinating anecdotal evidence we returned to Pilar, where we were to have dinner with Andres Contreras, who has received funding from the European Union to set up a study centre in Pilar dedicated to " Man and nature in Paraguay ". His parents were to join us and as his father, Professor Julio Contreras, who lives in Corrientes in Argentina, is one of that country’s leading ornithologists, I was really looking forward to the dinner party.

He told me that he had travelled extensively in the province for 15 years compiling an atlas of the birds of Corrientes and could therefore agree with my conclusion that the Glaucous Macaw no longer existed there. In addition he was able to tell me about the last three sightings of the macaw in the wild he knew of. These were as follows:-

1. His uncle had last seen one near the city of Corrientes in 1919, the year of his marriage.

2. An employee of the uncle, who died recently at the age of 90 years, said he saw Glaucous Macaws in the forest of Riachuelo, south of the city of Corrientes until around 1930.

3. A neighbour told him that a pair of Glaucous macaws nested in a huge, ancientEnterolobium contortisiliquum tree just north of the city of Corrientes until 1932. They then disappeared.

Professor Contreras concluded by relating that the local people hunted and shot the macaws much as country people in the U.K shoot rooks. I was amazed that this admittedly anecdotal information based on first hand reports appeared to indicate that the Glaucous Macaws managed to survive into the early 1930s and close to the main city of Corrientes.

The Jesuit father, Sanchez Labrador, had reported in 1767 that the Glaucous Macaw was not common even then. Very little has appeared in literature of any kind about the macaw since then, although both local people and visitors to the area must surely have been aware of its presence.

On my return to Asuncion I was able to obtain a copy of the 1968 reprint of Sanchez Labrador’s famous work " Peces y aves del Paraguay Natural " (Fishes and birds of Paraguay) originally published in 1767. In this work he relates a very interesting story about a tame macaw on a mission station and I conclude with a translation of this account.

" They tame very well and do surprising things. There was a very tame blue macaw in a village called la Concepcion de Nuestra Senora inhabited by Guarani Indians. Whenever a missionary arrived from another mission, the macaw would go to his lodging. If it found the door shut, it would climb up between the lintel and the door with the help of its bill and feet until it reached the latch. It then made a noise as if knocking and often opened the door before it could be opened from inside. It would climb on the chair in which the missionary was sitting, utter " guaa " three or four times, make alluring movements with its head until it was spoken to as if thanking him for the visit and attention. Then it would climb down and go into the courtyard very contented. If it did anything untoward to other tame birds, the missionary would call it. It would then approach submissively and listen attentively to his accusation, the punishment for which was supposed to be a beating. When it heard this, it lay on its back and positioned its feet as if making the sign of the cross and the missionary pretended to beat it with a belt. It lay there quietly until it heard the words " once en doce " (eleven of twelve), which meant the twelfth, then it turned over, stood up and climbed up the robe to the hand of the missionary, who had pronounced the punishment, to be stroked and spoken to kindly before leaving very satisfied. "

This account shows how similar the behaviour of the Glaucous Macaw must have been in captivity to its larger relative, the Hyacinthine Macaw.

Finally I should like to thank Claudio Bertonatti, Dr. Navas and his assistant Joanna in Buenos Aires, Judy Hutton in Mburucuya, Lucy Acquino-Shuster for the loan of the vehicle in Paraguay, Margarita Mieres, Cristina Morales and Jorge Escobar for their excellent company on the expedition, Gustavo Granada, Andres Contreras and his parents, Julio and Amalia Contreras in Pilar, Ceferino Santa Cruz in Lomas as well as Dietlind Kubein Nentwig, my colleague in Madrid, who advised on aspects of the Sanchez Labrador text.

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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)