The origin of the Lear’s Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari) discovered. A letter from Prof. Helmut SICK

Published in "Gefiederte Welt (Issue 9/79).

Introduction by publisher of " Gefiederte Welt"

" Once more I have received a sensational report from an old friend from my student days, who went to Brazil shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War and remained there becoming today a highly respected member of the Academy of Sciences, Professor at the University of Rio and the Natural History Museum there. After many unique discoveries in the bird life of his adopted homeland he has succeeded in discovering the until now completely unknown origin of the Lear’s Macaw. He achieved this exhausted with a double hernia and suffering other physical complaints in his 69th year. He reported his find in a personal letter to his family, which he has allowed me to publish for our readership after the first official report had been published in the French journal "ALAUDA 1/1979 by Jacques Vielliard, his friend and travelling companion. Despite the personal nature of this report I believe the discovery to be so important and scientifically significant that I am grateful to the author for his permission to publish.

In the second edition of Parrots of the World by J.M Forshaw and W.Cooper the exact distribution area of the Lear’s Macaw is given as unknown, but probably in northeastern Brazil in the states of Pernambuco and Bahia. Under General Notes it says " the Lear’s Macaw is a mysterious bird known only from specimens held in captivity. Voous (1965) suggests that it could be a hybrid between Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus and A.glaucus, but this I cannot accept. In my opinion leari is closely related to glaucus and indeed they may be isolates of one species, but both are clearly distinct from hyacinthinus. A.hyacinthinus is a larger bird with a unique pattern of bare skin around the base of the lower mandible. For more than a century, European and American zoos received occasional specimens of Lear’s Macaw in consignments of Hyacinthine Macaws. Most of this shipments came from Pará, probably from the port of Belém, but the location from which the rare smaller macaw came could not be established. About 1950 Pinto visited the Santo Antão Municipality in Pernambuco and was shown a captive Lear’s Macaw, that had come from Joazeiro, a town on the left bank of the São Francisco river, which separates Pernambuco and Bahia.(Pinto 1950) It is probable that the species occurs in this region. Sick (1969) points out the species must be regarded as rare, although there is the possibility that further populations may be discovered."

I have succeeded in solving the greatest mystery in the ornithology of South America (not only of Brazil) - the discovery of the origin of the Lear’s Macaw, a magnificent large blue macaw (total length 74 cm), which until now was only known from specimens in captivity. I had already searched twice, but this time I found the right location, Raso da Caterina in northern Bahia, the last place still remaining according to my calculations where this bird could be concealed.

Scientists have been wracking their brains about this problem since 1858. As it was not possible to find the bird in the wild, one of the world’s most eminent ornithologists - from Holland - recently postulated the theory that the species did not exist and that the specimens occasionally appearing in the animal trade were hybrids of two long recognised species. ( I flew especially from San Francisco to San Diego in September 1977 to see a pair in the famous bird section of the zoo there. Walsrode also has or had Lear’s Macaws). Although this appeared very feasible, I did not doubt for one moment that this was not the case. It was the idea of a museum man, who does not know living birds. I have brought back a magnificent, carefully prepared specimen, which is the first one to have come straight out of the wild into a museum (Rio). We saw up to 21 birds flying together and came to the roosting and nesting places in inaccessible cliffs of a canyon-like eroded dry river valley. It is the only macaw species to occur there.

The journey was not straight forward, even for healthy young people (my assistants are 20 and 21 years old). Three days before departure I noticed that I was developing a hernia. It soon got worse. We could not obtain a support and an elastic bandage in my first aid kit was useless. It also made the heat even more unbearable. Wherever possible I pressed it in with my hand while walking, holding a weapon and other things with my other hand. Endless riding on pack animals, not on a saddle, but on a wooden frame for attaching loads to and without stirrups, so that one’s legs hanging without support over the sharp edges went " to sleep " and the blood vessels of the upper thigh became squashed. It was a miracle that my prostate did not play up, which was my greatest concern. On the very first day I suffered a malaria attack as well. My assistants frequently had fever, diarrhoea, sunburn and injuries because of plants etc, allergies and so on. The journey was a fabulous adventure for them.- even I enjoyed this aspect, but for me it was surely more deadly serious.

After a long night march (our guide had got lost) in deep, loose sand through the trackless thornbush caatinga, I was so exhausted that I thought it could all finally be over. But the great success had already been achieved. Apparently I still had the last vestiges of the heritage of the legendary ancestor in our coat of arms, who stands upright with cut-off arms, by chasing after the rarest bird on the planet with my bowels hanging out. Our beautiful signet ring has again accompanied me for several years.

We had ruined my Toyota-Mercedes diesel with four wheel drive, the most robust vehicle there is in Brazil, in the trackless Raso da Caterina. It does not matter. That’s why I bought it and the great result has been achieved. In the end we had to abandon the Toyota and travel further on the trailer of a tractor (I had borrowed it from a government post on the edge of the area). We then rode or walked. The tractor got stuck too often and we had to dig it out with great effort.

The Raso da Caterina is one of the most inaccessible areas of Brazil, notorious for the Canudos war (1897, we found a German military pistol, Brazil obtained all its war material from Germany, even Krupp cannon was dragged into the caatinga, where it proved to be completely useless) and the unsuccessful hunt for the bandit Lampiao (at the beginning of the thirties a Brazilian film " O Cangaeiro " about this subject matter was given a top award in Berlin). In the Canudos war a small group of religious fanatics revolted against the Republic and more than 1,000 soldiers, elite troops from Rio, Sao Paulo etc. died, that is, most succumbed to thirst. We had 60 litres (Ed: 12 gallons)of water, which meant we had to be very sparing (with the guides 4-5 persons).

The first report on the discovery of the Lear’s Macaw will appear in ALAUDA (France), whose publisher, Jacques Vielliard, who accompanied me on my first trip to search for leari and is now again in Brazil, will assist me in achieving the quickest publication possible.

After completing the macaw programme (11/2 months) I realised that I was not capable of carrying out the second part of the journey (a further 11/2 months) working on another extremely rare bird in Alagoa, the neighbouring state to Bahia. We had reached Recife in Pernambuco. I seriously considered having the operation in Belém, in the estuary of the Amazon and not in Rio. However sense won and I flew to Rio, as much as I dreaded it.

The diagnosis is double hernia and I shall be operated on in a few days. So I shall continue to vegetate here.

P.S " Raso " during the hottest hours my companions could no longer walk around. We searched for some shade and lay down in the sand or on the rocks - they did not want to move.

On my birthday (I was 69 on 10th January) I sat in one of the macaw canyons and observed the birds arriving to roost, at least 15 through the new telescope, provided to me a few days before my departure by the Brazilian scientific service and imported after years of struggle from Zeiss in East Germany. The viewfinder encompassed a pair of the splendid birds (without the long tail). They were surrounded by a dense cloud of insects and sometimes scratched themselves on the head. It was certainly the most memorable birthday of my life.

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    Interesting articles on the keeping, breeding and development of the Lear’s macaw at ACTP Germany

    I have translated the article, which appeared in two parts in the German magazine Papageien at the beginning of 2021. The translation, which appears in Content under "The Lear’s Macaw in Aviculture" was not straight forward because of the su ... 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)