The Quest for the Blue Bird - An interview with Professor Helmut Sick

by Roland SEITRE. Published in Terre Sauvage, April, 1990.

Professor Helmut Sick, who famously rediscovered the Lear's Macaw in the wild in 1978 was interviewed by Roland Seitre about his work and the quest for the mysterious macaw. The following text appeared in the April 1990 issue of " Terre sauvage " and has been translated from the French by Tony Pittman for this website. Professor Sick , who first went to Brazil in 1939 before the outbreak of the Second World War and remained there for the rest of his long life, died suddenly at the end of 1991 in Rio de Janeiro.

Professor Sick, why Brazil?

Chance decided this. I was a junior assistant at Berlin University, when the Head of Department, Professor Stresemann, organised an expedition to Brazil. I came with a colleague to verify whether a ground cuckoo and a rare species of curassow Crax blumenbachii, about which very little was known and which still has to be confirmed, still existed in the Atlantic forest region of the state of Espiritu Santo, 500 km north east of Rio. The trip was to last three months. It was 1939, September or October time. We were in the virgin forest when we learned that war had been declared. I stayed there. At first for the duration of hostilities, then for good. Brazil is a fabulous place for a scientist - an immense country, astonishing in the diversity of its fauna and flora. There are at least 1,600 species of birds.

Did you like the life you started out on?

Certainly! In my first post-war expedition, I joined the official expedition to Roncador-Xingu-Tapajos as a naturalist. It was the first to penetrate to the heart of the country. We first travelled down the Amazon, through an immense region of rivers, swamps and lush vegetation, where the green of the jungle dominated the view. Then we came to the cerrado, where in contrast to the Amazon there was a mosaic of dry forest, savanna and palm groves. At that time it was quite an adventure. And for me a tremendous research opportunity. Science motivated me and not the adventurous exploit, it may seem to have been today. After Roncador, we explored the Xingu and Tapajos river systems.

Did you come across blue macaws?

Yes. At that time Hyacinthine Macaws were quite common. Today these beautiful and peaceful birds are encountered more and more rarely. Only safe among themselves, the last surviving birds continue to frequent the forest here and there and nest in holes in the trees. As we have discovered, they also nest in rocky cliffs. Both macaws and parrots prefer hollows in trees. Only the very small species occasionally hollow out nest-holes in termite hills. But unfortunately like the macaws, these birds are hunted for the pot or captured for the pet trade. The worst problem is destruction of their habitat. Thousands of acres of forest is being burnt. There are only a few thousand pairs of this macaw left and it's considered to be fortunate compared to the other blue macaws.

What was known about the Lear's Macaw? 

Only that it resembled the Hyacinthine Macaw with its beautiful dark-blue plumage. Nothing else was known about it except it came from Brazil, perhaps more precisely Belem, the great port on the Amazon. From 1954 I had a real interest in a question, which was one of the great ornithological mysteries of the century. It is unbelievable that a bird of that size with a 1.2 m (4 feet) wing span could go unnoticed by the many scientific expeditions, which had already criss-crossed Brazil. It was somewhat surprising that an ornithologist concluded in 1965 that the Lear's Macaw was only a hybrid of two other species. I believed the opposite and this assertion only increased my eagerness to prove its existence.

How did you succeed where others failed?

I managed to rediscover it. Yes, found and lost it again as one says so often. Nobody knew where it was to be found. But knowing the routes followed by all the expeditions and the types of environment found in Brazil, I felt that the only region where the bird could remain concealed would be in the north east. In the sertao, dry and arid, few people or none at all. but this area is immense and we lacked any precise information. In 1964 I at last started exploring, but without success. In 1966 a geologist told me that he had discovered "black" macaws nesting in cliffs near the Rio Sao Francisco and for the third time we explored Piaui, Maranhao and Bahia - again without success. We were searching in an area larger than the whole of France ( 550,000 sq km or 215,000 sq. miles). But the " black" macaws were probably Hyacinthine Macaws. We did, however, accumulate information. An aviculturist from Teresopolis, near Rio, owned a magnificent specimen, which, according to him, came from the Rio Negro area, north of the Amazon. He claimed to be waiting for others from the same source. It was Oliverio Pinto, the celebrated Brazilian ornithologist, who in 1950 found a tame Lear's Macaw on a farm at Pernambuco. This had been bought in Bahia. We also learned at Joazeiro in Bahia that some "black" macaws coming from the north and south were sometimes sold there. These could have well been Lear's macaws.

How many expeditions have you led in total?

Five. They were long and exhausting. We began in the Rio da Catarina region. The area seemed interesting. A great white patch on the map of north east Brazil. Far away from any civilisation. Undescribed. No settlements, no roads, no rivers. The region was only known for its traumatic past. Ravaged by wars in the last century, the refuge of fanatical revolutionaries and bandits. The biggest problem for us was the lack of water. During the last expedition in 1978, we arrived in the sertao at the height of summer in suffocating drought conditions. We were looking around for birds and talking to all the people we met. The peasants of the sertao, the Sertanejos, speak an uneducated Portuguese with a strong accent. But it sufficed for exchanging simple information. Travelling along tracks and unmade roads we had on 29th December - I remember the date exactly - succeeded in finding the first irrefutable evidence of the presence of the Lear's Macaw. A hunter had told us he had killed a blue bird for the pot several months earlier. He showed us some feathers, which he had kept. They were undeniably from the tail of a Lear's Macaw. Somewhat elated we suddenly found the necessary courage to comb the region metre by metre. My jeep gave up the ghost on the primitive roads. We sank in the sand up to the axles and had to dig hard, then slide branches, choosing the ones with the fewest thorns, under the wheels to get the vehicle out of the ruts. Then we continued on horseback. Finally we had our first sighting of Lear's Macaws on December 3lst. Free and very much alive. We were the first people aware of their true identity to observe them in the wild.

Your quest was successful?

Yes, but despite my haste to publish our discovery, I was in two minds. Today their population consists of some 60 individuals. At the time there was scarcely a few score birds. Our discovery not only provided evidence of their existence and how precarious the species was, but made them dangerously vulnerable to poachers. That's the reverse side of the coin. Today the future of the species is less than assured, despite the devotion of the reserve wardens and the reduction in hunting. The birds continue to disappear. We believe that the distribution area was once much more extensive. According to information we were able to gather from local people, forty years ago the birds crossed the Rio Sao Francisco to feed in Pernambuco.

The region where the Lear's Macaw lives has changed. There are towns and roads. How do you explain it going unnoticed for so long by those searching for it?

That part of the sertao is particularly inhospitable. It is difficult to cross because of the scrubland vegetation, which characterizes the caatinga. It is dense and thorny. Cactus, bushes and palms have sharp thorns five centimetres (two inches) long. Nevertheless, before the introduction of firearms, there was plenty of wildlife. Black tailed marmosets, deer, peccaries, agoutis, jaguarundis and even jaguar. The ranchers searching for stock and their mounts have to be protected with overall leather covering. Many people in this region have lost an eye. We were often at the limit of our strength. Temperatures can reach 45 degrees in the shade. But that does not explain it all. The macaws only fly just high enough in the sky in the early morning and evening between their night roosts and feeding areas to be spotted. They were not to be found easily.

Where are the feeding areas?

They fly to the small licuri palm (Syagrus coronata), the seeds of which they particularly enjoy. They are a type of tiny coconut, which in such an arid region satisfies their need for water. They ground feed, which is particularly dangerous for them. They split them cleanly in two with one bite of their powerful beak to get at the kernels. Normally the licuri palms are scattered among the thorny bushes forming the caatinga, but the ranchers have cut this down to open up pasture for their cattle leaving just the palms. The latter, vital for the survival of the macaws, provide shade for the cattle and horses and eventually nuts for the people in times of food shortage. The isolated palms in the pasture make the birds vulnerable to hunters. Strangely whenever the macaw is disturbed, it does not always fly away to escape, but tends to fly calling into the range of the guns of the men below. Worse still, its cries attract other small groups, who come to see the cause of the protests, which are audible for some considerable distance.

You told us that these macaws nest in the cliffs?

Absolutely. They nest in a series of canyons worn by erosion in the red sandstone. They spend the night in holes or secure places in the cliff walls at a height of sixty metres. Before sunrise they head for the caatinga and as night falls, they return to roost with cries audible for several kilometres. They utter contact cries to regroup. On approach to the night roosting area a scout flies over the sites before landing to ensure all is well. If anything unusual is detected, even a tent set up for the night and too visible, they delay their return until all seems to be in order. During the breeding season, they nest in narrow crevices, but because these are so inaccessible it was never possible to determine precisely how many young were raised by the parents. No one knows at present. Flights of two to five birds are encountered moving around to feed and it could be possible that they are a pair accompanied by their young or even juveniles from previous years.

Did you expect to find other birds?

Certainly. But I am a bit past it. There remain plenty of other problems to resolve. Former students are very active in researching the territory. There is so much to do in Brazil. And then, despite everything, there is still some hope of finding the Glaucous Macaw. One of my students is researching them.

End of interview

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