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Home » 2009 - Issue 2, Conservation, In the Wild

The Scarlet Macaw - is Aviculture the Answer?

By Robert Alison


Measures being taken to halt the declining number of  wild Scarlet Macaws in the neotropics

The spectacular Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) is one of several prominent macaws and large parrots in steep decline in the neotropics.  Habitat loss and nest robbing have reduced their numbers to critical lows, and some local populations have disappeared entirely.  Aviculture might be the key to saving some of those that remain.

At a recent meeting of Guacamayas Sin Fronteras (Macaws Without Borders), 32 psittacid experts confirmed how glum the situation has become. They urged that A. macao cyanoptera be classed as endangered.

The American Federation of Aviculture endorses efforts to release captive-reared macaws into the wild to boost troubled local populations.  A preliminary release on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica has been so successful that the AFA has concluded that other such initiatives would be appropriate conservation measures. The Tiskita Foundation of Costa Rica has initiated similar introduction programs.

Captive-breeding of Scarlet Macaws has been very successful at Aviarios Manana in southern Guatemala. That program has generated so many macaws that officials are running out of release locations. According to program coordinator, Scott McKnight, Guatemalan habitats are so fragmented that only in the northern Peten Department are there possible release sites. Captive production has been so ample that breeding pairs were not permitted to nest in some years for fear of generating too much surplus release stock.

The Tambopata Macaw Project, coordinated at Duke University (Durham, North Carolina) focuses on Scarlet Macaw chick survival at several release sites in Peru and Costa Rica.  Ongoing studies indicate captive-reared macaws have high survival rates after release into the wild;  about 74 percent for first-year birds and 96 percent in subsequent years.

Overall, the Scarlet Macaw ranges from Mexico to Peru, but its distribution is patchy. Cooperative Costa Rica-Guatemala-Belize management initiatives are underway.

In Guatemala, Scarlet Macaw conservation is a priority.  The Scarlet Macaw Trial has been established by Conservation International as an interpretive project to educate ecotourists. Preliminary studies in Costa Rica and Peru indicate that ecotourists generally do not impact negatively on these birds.

The Scarlet Macaw population in Costa Rica occurs primarily in Cordova National Park, with about 1000 birds and about 350 in Carara Biological Reserve.  Significant research in Costa Rica aims to conserve the remaining wild stock, with particular emphasis on habitat protection and eliminating nest poaching.  At Carara, it is believed that up to 95 percent of all wild chicks are poached, despite rigorous law enforcement. Poachers who are caught are subject to fines of up to $450.00 per offense.  Experimental anti-poaching structures have been erected high up in gallinazo trees, but officials say there is no macaw nest that is invulnerable to poaching.

Wild Scarlet Macaws in the Tarcoles River area of Costa Rica are remarkably approachable.  In the tiny village of Tarcoles, pairs of macaws are visible, especially in the dry season when they forage in local trees for fruit and nuts.

The Earth Institute of Columbia University is spearheading efforts to document Scarlet Macaw ecology and to improve local breeding success.

In Belize, this macaw is a highly threatened species. Breeding occurs in only a few isolated areas. The Upper Raspaculo River is a main nesting area, but pending development, there could be a major threat to the birds.

Ongoing studies confirm that macaws forage over very large areas, often moving up to 100 kilometres between roosting and feeding locations.  Key individual trees are crucial elements of habitats.  In some areas, less than 2 percent of the original forest remains intact, and many critical foraging trees have been cut down.  A Tri-Nation coalition is aiming to deal with that situation.

Breeding macaws are very selective. They tend to focus on a few individual trees with appropriate nesting cavities located on branchless trunks, 20-40 metres above the ground. If such trees are removed, they seem reluctant to pioneer into new areas.

Robert Alison is a professional ecologist, having gained an MSc (University of Toronto) and a PhD (University of Toronto, Zoology). He has been a wildlife ecotour leader for Elderhostel for the past 16 years, and has studied Australian parrots for over 20 years. Robert writes for Encyclopaedia Britannica, several newspapers and a number of national and international magazines. He has been a consultant for the Humane Society of the United States, and is currently a consultant for the Canadian Wildlife Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Robert serves on several committees dealing with Native North American issues.

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