Macaws are iconic birds of low- and mid-elevation Neotropical forests. Their earsplitting calls, bright colors, and strong purposeful flight catch the attention of every visitor to these forests. Unfortunately the larger species of macaws are among the first birds to disappear when “civilization” arrives. Macaws are hunted for food and captured for the lucrative pet trade, and since each pair usually only raises one chick per year, their populations cannot support even minor losses. In addition, their food sources (seeds and fruits mostly) are often thinly scattered and seasonal, so they need large extensions of good forest in order to live. Most nest in large dead tree trunks, so they cannot breed in secondary forest. Furthermore, their nesting sites are also ideal for invasive African killer bees to make their hives, causing problems even in remote areas.
These vulnerabilities have led to multiple extinctions. The endemic macaws of the smaller Caribbean Islands vanished so soon after the arrival of the Spanish that no specimens exist today. The Guadeloupe (or Lesser Antillean) Macaw Ara guadeloupensis (similar to the Scarlet Macaw but with a solid red tail), the Dominican Green-and-yellow Macaw Ara atwoodii (colors only vaguely known), the Jamaican Red Macaw Ara gossei (similar to the Cuban Red Macaw), the Jamaican Green-and-yellow (or Red-headed) Macaw Ara erythrocephala (a unique species very different from any other), and possibly several others all disappeared by the late 1700s or early 1800 without a trace; these are known only from verbal descriptions and, in some cases, paintings. The Cuban Red Macaw Ara tricolor lasted longer but had disappeared by the late 1800s. No endemic macaws survive on any islands today.
Some macaws still survive on the mainland of Central and South America, but they are endangered wherever there are people. The Scarlet Macaw Ara macao has been nearly eliminated from Central America, except for a healthy population on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula; it also still has healthy populations in remote lowland forests in South America. The biggest macaw, the Hyacinth Macaw Anadorhynchus hyacinthinus, is now reduced to between three and six thousand individuals, after more than 10000 of them were trapped for the pet trade in the 1980s. The deep blue Lear’s Macaw Anadorhynchus leari had been reduced to about 700 individuals surviving in two small areas in Brazil. (This is actually good news because the bird was down to 70 individuals in the 1980s. The population has begun to recover thanks to intense conservation work. ) Less than 200 Blue-throated Macaws Ara glaucogularis survive in their Bolivian palm forest habitat. The blue Glaucous Macaw Anadorhynchus glaucus disappeared in the early 1900s, and the last wild individual of blue-and gray Spix’s Macaw Cyanopsitta spixii disappeared in 2000.
In our country, Ecuador, there are five species of large macaws. The Great Green Macaw Ara ambigua lives west of the Andes in Ecuador and Colombia, with tiny remnant populations in Central America north to Honduras. It is endangered throughout this range. The other four large macaws of Ecuador live east of the Andes, in the Amazon basin or its foothills. When I first came to the Amazon in 1990, I often saw large flocks of Scarlet and Blue-and-yellow Macaws (Ara macao and A. ararauna), and sometimes saw the larger Green-winged Macaw Ara chloropterus, particularly near clay “salt licks” near the Rio Napo. Since then, petroleum exploration and colonization has opened up this wilderness, and the Green-winged Macaws are now rarely seen. Scarlet Macaws are also much less common than in 1990. Blue-and-yellow Macaws have also declined but are still present in many areas, at least as visitors.
The mostly-green Military Macaw Ara militaris consists of an isolated subspecies in eastern Mexico, another isolated subspecies in Bolivia and neighboring Argentina, and a third subspecies living in a narrow strip at the base of the eastern Andes from Venezuela to Peru. It is the only large Ecuadorian macaw that lives in subtropical mountain forests. In Ecuador I have seen them about 50km north of our area, in the Guacamayos Ridge near Antisana National Park, and also in the far south in the Cordillera del Condor near the Peruvian border. There is also a nesting population in Sangay National Park, according to EcoMinga director Nigel Simpson. It is a bird which would naturally have been common and conspicuous in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed where we work, but in my twenty years here I had never seen or heard it. It had probably been eliminated by hunting, habitat destruction, and trapping for the pet trade.
So against this grim historic backdrop of macaw declines and extinctions, with a few scattered reversals, you can imagine how thrilled I was when I opened my email last week and saw pictures of Military Macaws (top of post) sent to me by our caretaker Luis Recalde, taken by him in our Rio Anzu Reserve. There were at least three birds. The local people said they had seen Military Macaws in other years as well, at this same time of year. These photos confirm that the macaws they had seen really were the Military Macaw, and not the much smaller and much more common Chestnut-fronted Macaw, which has similar colors and which I had previously seen in the area.
Of course, three birds do not make a population. This is only a single visiting group, whose breeding ground remains unknown. These birds think nothing of flying twenty or thirty miles, so our small Rio Anzu Reserve (90 ha) makes only a small contribution to their survival. But our reserve, and the patches of mature forest around it, appear to provide some key seasonal element of their diet. We are joined by other conservation foundations in the area (Sumak Kawsay, Amazonia Rescue, Merazonia), the Ministry of the Environment, and the local state university (Universidad Estatal Amazonica) in a larger plan to conserve these foothill forests and perhaps recover a resident population of this magnificent bird.
Thanks to Ecuadorian birding guide Roger Ahlman for letting us use his photos of the Blue-and-yellow Macaw and Scarlet Macaw.