The Great Blue Macaws

by Tony PITTMAN. Published in Just Parrots, 1995/6, Issue 7

"For the great blue macaws,
the great passion of my life
for granting me such wonderful experiences
and so that they may remain free
brightening the heavens above Brazil" 
Neiva Guedes, 1993

This is the opening dedication to the fascinating, informative study on the reproductive biology of the Hyacinthine Macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) by the Brazilian scientist, Neiva Maria Robaldo Guedes. After encountering a group of Hyacinthine Macaws for the first time in November 1989 in her home state of Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil Neiva was seized by an immediate desire to find out more about these magnificent parrots. She quickly found that very little was known about them and in particular their reproductive biology and decided to undertake field research in 1991 with the help and support of experienced ornithologists such as Dr. Lee Harper from the University of St. Lawrence in the USA, who taught her the essential climbing skills for such a project.

Financial support for the first two years was provided by the US branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), then by WWF Brazil and Conservation International. Since 1993 the project has been maintained by the Science and Technology Council of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul and the Brazilian Boticario Foundation. Toyota Brazil also contributed by the loan of a four wheel drive vehicle for use in the field. Additional financial support is being provided by Elly de Vries and her husband, Richard Welch, of Los Angeles as well as Joe Cuddy and myself more recently through the Hyacinthine Macaw Survival Fund.

The first time we met Neiva we were not only immensely impressed by her professionalism and dedication, but also by her lovely, extrovert personality. Although she speaks very little English and our Portuguese is still very rudimentary we got on very well immediately. We communicate quite happily now in " Spanuguese " occasionally supplemented with short scribbled notes since Portuguese is surprisingly easy to read for a Spanish-speaker although baffling to the untrained ear.

The study was carried out in an area of approximately 250,000 hectares (625,000 acres) known as Nhecolandia in the southwest of the Pantanal, the huge flood plain famous for its wildlife and the last remaining major wetland area in the world, which is now sadly seriously threatened by the enormously ambitious intergovernmental Hidrovia project.

The first results showed that 95% of the 94 nests investigated were in one species of tree, the manduvi (Sterculia sp.), which has a soft core and is therefore susceptible to the formation of cavities. It is a large tree growing to some 15 metres (50 ft) with an average diameter of some 60 cm ( 2ft). 66.7% of the nests were located in the primary trunk with the average height of the nest being 7.90 m (26 ft) above the ground. The average depth was 34.9 cm (13.75 ins) with an opening averaging 32.2 cm high (12.5 ins) and 16.5 cm (6.5 ins) wide.

One to three eggs are laid, two on average. These are incubated by the female, who spends some 70% of the time in the nest and is then fed by the male. The incubation period varies between 28 and 30 days. About 40% of the eggs are predated by jays, toucans, caracaras, coatis, tyras and skunks. The hatch rate of the surviving eggs is 90%.

The hatchlings weigh on average 31,6 g and measure 82.7 mm in length the fledging period is 107 days, but are still fed by the adults after leaving the nest. The survival rate for the young varies between 75% and 83%. The majority stay with their parents for 18 months, the latter only breeding again after separation from their young.

At present there are plenty of food trees. The acuri palm, the main food source, grows everywhere and fruits all year. However there is a problem with availability of suitable nesting trees, which are being logged by ranchers and other local people or deteriorating naturally without replacement. There is also increased competition for nesting sites with bees, woodpeckers, small animals and even Green-winged Macaws (Ara chloroptera).

Neiva is now investing much time and effort in educating local people on logging practices and also experimenting with artificial nestboxes, although so far the latter have not proved successful with Hyacinthine Macaws.

We visited Neiva at her base camp at the Pousada Arara Azul, a comfortable lodge with welcome air-conditioning some 40 km (25 miles) north of the main highway between Campo Grande, the capital of the state and the border city of Corumba. With some 17,000 hectares (42,500 acres) of land the Pousada has a Hyacinthine Macaw population of between 40 and 60 birds. There are some 22 nest sites, of which 8 are used by Green-winged Macaws. Of the 14 used by Hyacinthine Macaws 7 were used in 1994, for example, producing 8 young.

Neiva inspects nests with young every two weeks and all other nest sites at least once a month. She climbs the trees and removes the young briefly for weighing and measuring. They are also rung for identification purposes. So far some 130 young have been rung in the last four to five years. 5 young between 3 and 4 months were fitted with a transmitter and are now being monitored. A local veterinarian, a rancher's son, was also involved in taking blood samples from some 50 young and these are being analysed to provide information on blood lines in the local wild population in Nhecolandia estimated at some 300 macaws.

Whilst we there we went on a tour of nest sites and visited some of the ranches experiencing first hand how Neiva operates both with the macaws and the local people, who obviously like and respect her. A rancher has donated a small plot of land and we are hoping to raise funds to build a proper base for Neiva with scientific facilities. At present she works with a lap-top and has to make a round trip of some 700 km (440 miles) to her parents' home in Campo Grande to evaluate the data. We are also looking into the possibility of employing and training some local young people to assist Neiva in her work and put the project on a proper long-term footing.

In June this year Thomas Arndt, the well-known author and publisher of the prestigious magazine " Papageien " and I arranged for a small group of German aviculturists to visit the Pousada Arara Azul to gain hands-on experience of conservation in practice. They spent several days there touring the area seeing a wide range of wildlife including many parrot species and, of course, the Hyacinthine Macaws, a group of whom live close to the main pousada building. They assisted in the construction of artificial nestboxes and their positioning on large trees. We may repeat this successful trial run in May/June1996 when the weather is relatively mild with the proceeds being donated to the Projeto Arara Azul.

The project is very exciting. Every day new knowledge is being gained about Hyacinthine Macaws and measures taken to ensure their continued existence. In Nhecolandia trapping is much less of a problem since Neiva has started work there. The local people are developing a sense of pride in their wildlife. Two very young macaws were rescued recently from a trapper and placed by Neiva in the nests of breeding Hyacinthine Macaws. We are delighted to report that they were accepted by their new foster parents and raised to independence. This type of knowledge will be vital for the survival of the species in the wild, particularly as it holds out the possibility of increasing the wild population by carefully considered and monitored intervention.

Joe Cuddy and I had hoped to start a re-release programme for confiscated macaws, but it appears that Hyacinthine Macaws have such a high fidelity to location that this is scarcely feasible. However, we would suggest they could be kept at liberty as " back-yard " livestock in a suitable location in the Pantanal and their young or even eggs introduced to the nests of suitable wild macaws.

The climatic conditions in the Pantanal can be very tough, particularly during the start of the breeding season in December and January, when it can be almost suffocatingly hot and humid with millions of persistent mosquitoes and other tormenting insect life. The rain is very heavy with water flooding the area up to 4 m. Then it is only possible to get around on horseback or by tractor on certain roads. Even the Toyota is unusable. It is however then that much of Neiva's most important work is done.

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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)