Conservation Corner

Janice D. Boyd



The Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) is arguably one of the most beautiful birds in the world, and certainly one of the most successful members of the parrot family. Historically it could be found ranging from Mexico through Central America down into the Amazon Basin of South America to Argentina. Because of their beauty and intelligence they have been in demand as pets and as religious symbols for Native Americans for thousands of years.

But beauty and intelligence, as well as the relentless expansion of human populations into their ancestral lands, have led to their decline in the wild. Taking of their nestlings for the burgeoning pet trade decimated their young. Felling of the forests for timber and to make way for people, crops, and livestock decimated the flocks themselves. Where they once were commonly seen clinging on fruiting trees like huge red, blue, and yellow flowers, there is now only an occasional Rrrraaak heard or a flying pair seen. Is there hope for this beautiful symbol of the natural world? Fortunately, despite the challenges, dedicated conservationists and bird lovers from many countries are working to preserve this species and the environment in which they live.

Scarlet Macaws are large birds, some measuring almost a meter long, half of that being their long pointed red tails. They can weigh a kilogram or more. Recent genetic studies have confirmed that the scarlet macaws found in northern Central America, now called Ara macao cyanoptera, are a different subspecies from those found in southern Central America and South America, the southern population maintaining the historical name Ara macao macao. Ara macao cyanoptera can be found in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua and is a bright orange-red bird with yellow and blue feathers on its wings, with bare white skin patches on its face. The South American Scarlet Macaw is also red with white face patches but it often has a narrow green bar between the yellow and blue on the wings. It is generally smaller than the Central American subspecies. But these are just the extremes; to most people they look pretty much the same, and in places such as Costa Rica and Panama the macaws belong genetically to the South American variety but they look very much like the birds further north.

Male and female Scarlet Macaws look similar to most people, although there are very subtle differences that experts can use to determine the gender of a specific bird, especially if they are observed in a pair. Macaws and most other birds don't just see in red, green, and blue as people do. They are "tetrachromats"-they see in four colors: red, green, blue and ultraviolet. So two birds that look identical in our "trichromatic" vision may look very different to another bird who can also see different shades of ultraviolet. Some studies on budgies, the common household parakeet, have shown that male and female budgies are easily distinguished in the ultraviolet spectrum.

Scarlet Macaws in captivity typically reach reproductive maturity at about four years of age, but in the wild they probably mature physiologically a few years later, perhaps at six or seven years. It may then take a pair several years of practice before they learn how to raise chicks successfully in the dangerous and highly variable wild environment. Successful pairs usually form long-lasting pair bonds, but it is not clear that macaws "mate for life," as some authors suggest. For one thing, life in the wild is dangerous, even though macaws typically feed high in the forest canopy in small groups and with multiple eyes on the lookout for predators. Large raptors such as black and white hawk eagles and harpy eagles are known to kill macaws. The false vampire bat may kill macaws at night while they are roosting, and a Capuchin or White-faced Monkey may catch the occasional unwary macaw. This can mean that a mate may well fall victim to a predator or to an accident.

Based on re-bonding observed in captivity, scientists now believe that the surviving macaw quickly tries to find another mate. In some cases a breeding pair may decide they don't want to stay together anymore and split up and look for other mates. This happens especially with young pairs that are not successful in raising chicks even after several years of trying. The T ambopata Research Project rescued and raised two chicks that originally paired with wild mates. After several years, they both" divorced" their wild mates and formed a pair together. Is a "common background" helpful for successful pairing in macaws?

During the non-breeding season scarlet macaws congregate in fairly large mixed-age flocks, but during the breeding season the mature adults pair off and become territorial, defending their nests in tree cavities where they lay one to four white eggs. The female incubates, leaving the eggs for short periods to feed or be fed by her mate. After about 28 days the eggs hatch and both parents share the duties of feeding the chicks. Generally only one or two chicks survive to fledge (fly from the nest), even though more may hatch.



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