The world's rarest parrot gets a flexible friend

A report by David WAUGH published in Parrots, April/May 1997 issue (Pages 6-7).

International collaboration is helping the effort to recover the world's rarest parrot, the Spix's Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii), from the brink of extinction. Dr David Waugh explains...

Biologists at the project site in Brazil faced a real problem - how to see eggs at the bottom of deep, convoluted and very dark Macaw nest-holes. Principal financial supporter of the project, the Loro Parque Fundación of Tenerife in Spain, knew of the ideal solution - a flexible endoscope. By transmitting a strong light through optical fibres, this hi-tech instrument is normally used in human medicine for internal examination where the consultant needs to view inaccessible areas.

Naturally, the Loro Parque Fundación did not have one to hand, but help was on its way from the Royal Liverpool and Broad Green University Hospitals in England. They donated not just one but two flexible endoscopes. These older generation instruments, now entirely obsolete for use in human medicine, were selected as being the ideal solution to the Macaw dilemma.

But there was a further snag. You cannot simply plug in an endoscope in the middle of the Brazil wilderness! This challenge was taken up by the Hospitals Department of Clinical Engineering which made each instrument completely portable by modifying the light source to work from rechargeable batteries. Other contributors to this environmentally-friendly system were Celltech Ltd., UK who donated the sealed rechargeable Yuasa batteries and battery charger and Lumitex Inc. of Cleveland, USA who donated the high-powered woven light sources.

Putting it to the test

With each system packed neatly into its own padded carrying case, macaw aficionado Mr John Price of the Wirral delivered them to the Loro Parque Fundación, which then transported one of them to Brazil to coincide with the October 1996 meeting of the Spix's Macaw Recovery Committee, overseen by the Brazilian Government wildlife agency, IBAMA. On the 26th October, under the fierce Brazilian sun, the Spix's Macaw Project team members tested the effectiveness of the flexible endoscope.

Macaws nest in the largest trees in the region - caraibeira trees - which grow along the frequently dry water-courses. One of these with a 15 metres high nest-hole was selected, and ropes installed to assist project advisor, Dr Carlos Yamashita, up to the level of the nest-hole. After hoisting up the endoscope system as well, DrYamashita was able to clearly see the bottom of the nest cavity. Success at last!

Management plan

Only one Spix's Macaw, a male, now exists in the wild, although there are 39 captive birds registered in the international studbook for this species. The wild male Spix's Macaw is paired with a female Illiger's Macaw, Ara maracana, and this mixed pair is closely monitored by the project biologists.

They know that the female Illiger's Macaw lays eggs, albeit infertile, and incubates them normally. This situation therefore presents a good future option to establish more Spix's Macaws in the wild, by means of transferring eggs from breeding pairs in the globally managed captive population to the wild nest. Although the technology exists to transport the eggs from abroad, there are already captive birds in Brazil and could in future be more in the home country, based on the management plan.

A pilot project will be conducted with Illiger's Macaws, but to transfer eggs you first need to be able to see them and hence the indispensable role of the portable modified endoscopes.

International collaboration

The education and community awareness programme in the region has been going strong for five years and the locals are proud of "their" Spix's macaw - sufficiently to resist the trappers who come in from outside the region.

Together with the support of the Brazilian people, this development reinforces the excellent international collaboration to save the world's rarest parrot.

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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)