Spix's Macaw

An article by George.A.SMITH in the Parrot Society Magazine in May 1991 (Volume XXV)

Between 1817 and 1820 the zoologist Dr Johan von Spix (and the botanist von Martius) made an expedition to Brazil. Among the several unique avian specimens that were brought to him by his anonymous collectors was a small blue macaw. Spix, as the German authority on zoological nomenclature (by having published a book on this subject) probably knew that the most likely place to find whether it had been described before was to look into John Latham's works. His bird seemed to tally with the description given for the Hyacinthine Macaw. What Spix did not know was that a painting of Latham's Hyacinthine Macaw (the only one known at that time) was in print. The illustration clearly showed it to be dwarfed by having a very short tail; hence the match in size. Spix did not see his little blue macaw alive so he was unaware that the yellow face it had was the result of post-mortem changes to the skin. His error of recognition allowed him to be able to flatter his patron (the King of Bavaria) by renaming the "true" Hyacinthine (of which he had several) as Maximilian's Macaw. (He also complimented the Queen of Bavaria by naming after her a noisy, fat, yellow-feathered, rather ugly conure).

Only eight years from the time that Spix's beautifully and lavishly illustrated book was published, these mistakes were recognised and Wagler (in his parrot book) gave the macaw its eponym of Spix.

Although a few Spix's macaws entered the bird trade it remained a mysterious bird until comparatively recently. This was expected. In Australia - a country far, far, better endowed with active ornithologists and literate travellers than is Brazil - several parrots were rarely reported save as avicultural material.  These birds as with Spix's Macaw all inhabit arid country. At various times the Australian Night Parrot, Splendid, Bourke's and Princess of Wales' Parakeets have all been said to be extinct. In a few weeks suffering the enervating heat and haze of a difficult terrain it is impossible to ornithologically survey a very large parched yet vegetated area with absolute certainty.

No-one is competent to say how many Spix's Macaws are still living in the wild. There is said to be just one free-one left. We might be somewhat cautious to accept this. The four Australian species mentioned above have references to them being quite exterminated. Consider the Mauritius parakeet Psittacula echo. The rather small island on which it lives is continually subject to survey. At least one resident ornithologist is employed, full-time in conservation. This green, long-tailed parrot, which although 'shy' seems not, by the reports, to be anywhere near as difficult to approach as Spix's macaw. After seven years it was found to have a somewhat larger wild population than had been accredited. 

Illiger's Macaw is supposed to be endangered in the wild. Yet I have seen quite large populations, certainly adding up to thousands, in areas of Brazil several hundred miles to the north-east. of their accepted range. Likewise a population of Hyacinthine Macaws exists to the north of the Amazon River in the state of Amapa. Their presence had been reported almost  a hundred years ago, yet is was not until last year that they were again cited, nor were they uncommon. Recent ornithological examination has turned up several species of macaw, including Coulon's, previously unreported from Bolivia.

Man is the reason for Spix's Macaw decline. He, and his domestic livestock, have made it increasingly difficult for the bird to find food, refuge and nest-sites. The tragedy is aggravated into scandal because the largest known population (it might have been the only surviving population) was plundered into complete destruction by psittaculturalists. Almost everyone of the captives in Europe, Brazil and the Philippines have been feloniously abstracted from this one population. The rumour is that several have been captive-bred in Brazil in the past; for myself I doubt the numbers suggested. The truth is that captive-breeding attempts so far have been appalling. The few reared do not make up for the number of adults that have died and continue to die. Eggs are produced, but ignorance on how to rear chicks from them has prevented numbers from rising.

For myself, I do not believe that conservation for Spix's, or indeed any macaw, can come through captive breeding. All ought to have complete protection in the wild. This can only come if trading in wild-taken birds is made illegal. It does seem a somewhat bizarre prestige that certain people seek to get from being a prison warder. What makes it so paradoxical is that the incarcerated are innocent, they are the robbed (losing liberty) and their gaolers, certainly as in the case of so many Spix's Macaws, are the criminals, breaking the law by purchasing wild-stolen birds. The amount of money spent on ownership would have, if it had been put into wild conservation, helped to maintain a viable wild population. Some of this cash could have gone into research and study. Surely the birds would have benefited by being left where they were in an established colony. Many of the captive pairs were trapped at their nest-holes. They were breeding when caught. had they been left where they were some of their offspring might have survived.

Apart from Joseph Wolf's 1907 painting the illustration accompanying this article is the only known to have been made from live Spix's Macaws. The renowned artists, Jenevora Searight, studied wild and captive examples to make her picture. The bird in the foreground is perched on a branch of the last nesting tree used by the macaw. 

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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)