Wild ambition

A conversation with Ryan Watson about his work to create a future in the wild for the Spix's Macaw conducted by Ron Toft. Published in Cage & Aviary Birds on November 9th 2011.

A group of captive-bred Spix’s macaws – a species believed by many people to be extinct in the wild – could be released in Brazil in just a few years time, according to Al-Wabra Wildlife Conservation in Qatar, which holds the world’s biggest collection of these birds.

The idea (it’s not an official plan as yet) is that a small, but as yet unspecified number of female macaws would be set free in the Curaça district of Bahia state in Brazil, which is one of this species’ former haunts. “As far as the long-term prospects of establishing a genetically and demographically self-sustaining population are concerned, I would say the chances of success are probably 50:50 at best, but we won’t know unless we try,” says Ryan Watson, who is not only Al-Wabra’s blue macaw co-ordinator, but also international studbook holder for the Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii). “The chances of successfully releasing the females, in temrs of survival, however, is much better than 50 per cent in my opinion,” he continues. 

Female macaws would be released first because they outnumber males almost 2:1 in captivity. Ryan says: “ If they coped well, we would then have the option to release a number of young macaws, including males, to form the nucleus of a wild breeding population.”

Ryan, who hand-reared 90 Echo parakeet chicks for release into the wild in Mauritius, the vast majority of which survived, says , “I’m convinced that a population of Spix’s Macaws living in the wild under natural conditions would do better than captive birds. There is some concern as to how well released birds would adjust and whether they would be predated and/or poached.”

“To be honest, I’m not overly worried about such issues. The moment you have people in an area, be they research biologists or conservationists, poachers are rarely seen. Parrot poachers tend to be quite cowardly and disappear when there are people around.”

He also points out: “ The longer birds remain in captivity, the more institutionalized they become. What’s more their brains never develop to the same extent as wild birds because of the lack of stimuli. That’s why it’s best practice to release young birds while their brains are still capable of reaching their full potential.”

In the early stages, young birds would be far more curious than older ones. They would be keen to experiment with different foods and possess a natural awareness of predators. Ryan continues:” With hand-reared Echo Parakeets, we released them into the wild when they were only 65 to 90 days old. They not only survived, but flourished.” 

Ryan says the pioneering Spix’s macaws could be released sometime before 2015 – possibly in 2014. Before then, however, the methods involved would have to be tested with Blue-winged Macaws (Primolius maracana). It is hoped that in time these and other captive-bred Spix’s macaws set free in Brazil would reproduce, raise young and lay the foundations for a viable, self-sustaining wild population. There are just 73 Spix’s Macaws in captivity, of which 54 are kept at Al-Wabra Wildlife Preservation.”

“Having by far the biggest collection of Spix’s means we are able to experiment with a wider variety of pair combinations.,” says Ryan. “Unfortunately the Spix’s macaw probably has more going against it in captivity than any other species I can think of. “

“Although we  have achieved breeding success, there have been many mortalities along the way, primarily due to an insidious viral disease known as Proventriculus dilatation disease (PDD).Only 27 offspring have hatched from 260 eggs. However, on a positive note, we do have a 100 percent success rate at rearing chicks which hatch.” ”

“One of the biggest problems is that Spix’s macaws the world over are very closely related. No fewer than 69 of the 73 birds can be traced back to just two wild birds, which were siblings. Only about 10 per cent of all eggs are actually viable, as a result of inbreeding.”

DNA analysis of captive birds is enabling biologists to pair birds that are genetically compatible. “The data matrix provided by geneticists means we can rank every possible pair combination from A to E. The target is to have as many A,B or C pairings as possible and not to have any D or E pairings. With D and E pairings the viability of eggs, even if they are fertile, is severely compromised,” says Ryan. Because there are no new wild birds to enrich the stock, “we’ve no alternative but to work with what we’ve got and just try to do our best.” Early embryonic death is a common problem among captive-bred Spix’s macaws. Although most female birds are physiologically normal, lots of males have misshapen and/or small testes. Ryan states:” This is a species that hasn’t adjusted well to captivity. If it had there would be hundreds of individuals in aviaries around the world.”

“There are lots of behavioural problems, such as males becoming very aggressive towards females during the breeding season, and feather plucking in response to stress. This makes us think there is also a hormonal imbalance contributing to the problem.”

A psychopharmalogical drug was used on an experimental basis in 2010 to try to calm down two pairs of birds. Ryan says:” One pair went from producing 10 non-viable (probably non-fertile) eggs in 2009 to producing four eggs in 2010, all of which were fertile and two of which were viable and hatched. The results are very encouraging and we shall be doing more work with that medication.”

Ryan said that when he joined Al Wabra in 2005 he “never expected to end up being responsible for making all breeding recommendations to the international captive-breeding programme for this iconic species.”

He continues:” When I attended conferences before and after my Echo Parakeet years, I was just one of the crowd. But since I’ve been involved with Spix’s macaws, there’s never a moment’s peace at conferences!. So many people want to talk to me about the work here at Al-Wabra and the Spix’s Macaw programme in general, such is the degree of interest around the world in the captive breeding of Spix’s Macaws and plans to re-establish them in the wild where they truly belong.”

Concludes Ryan:” We’ve still a long way to go, but the future is potentially very exciting for the Spix’s Macaw – especially when you have someone like Sheikh Saoud Al-Thani committed to the success of the programme.” 

End of report

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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)