Brazil is the best place to see the largest member of the parrot family, the Cobalt blue Hyacinth Macaw.
About 6,500 of the spectacular birds are found in three widely separated, shrinking areas of ecological health in Brazil, eastern Bolivia and northeast Paraguay. Where they are found, so too are hundreds of other bird species of tropical, moist lowland forests, palm savannas and woodlands.
By Rex Graham
Birding tour companies and regional birding guides lead trips to see the macaw and the diversity of other bird species into Brazil’s Pantanal. It is the world’s largest tropical wetland with many rich and distinct ecosystems.
Observing the Hyacinth Macaw offers a glimpse of its struggle to maintain itself in what ecologists call a “conservation puzzle.”
Critically important tree
Computer modeling can’t yet explain the bewildering impacts of a wide range of influences, including socioeconomic and law-enforcement factors.
In addition, egg- and chick-stealing poachers and toucans are important factors along with competition among other Hyacinth Macaws themselves for the limited number of nesting sites.
Mammals and honey bees also seek the same natural and excavated cavities in 60-plus-year-old members of one tree species, the Manduvi tree. It is one of the tallest in Brazil’s beautiful Pantanal. The tree itself is declining due to deforestation and development.
“Provisioning of nesting boxes is thus a conservation strategy that is being used for this species,” Brazilian scientists and a researcher at Stanford University reported in the journal Biological Conservation.
They said increased numbers of cattle, which eat Manduvi seedlings, “make Hyacinth Macaws especially vulnerable to extinction” because old trees aren’t being replaced in those areas.
The authors of the paper mentioned “illegal trapping,” but didn’t include it as a piece of the conservation puzzle facing the macaw. Each Hyacinth Macaw is sold in Brazil’s largely unrestrained cage-bird markets for is as much as $7,300 each.
About 36% of the world’s 336 parrot species are threatened with extinction. However, most conservation biologists studying parrots tend to focus on habitat loss. If they mention illegal taking of wildlife, they rarely explore the topic in depth.
A groundbreaking study published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology by Ronald Clarke, a Rutgers University criminologist, and Rolf de By, a geo-information scientist at the University of Twente in The Netherlands, reported that parrots are “significantly more threatened” than other (non-poached) birds sharing the same habitats.
“Poaching is a strong threat to the conservation of neotropical parrots—perhaps stronger than habitat loss,” Clarke and de By wrote in their paper.
Indeed, nest boxes could make matters worse for Hyacinth Macaws. They could become magnets for macaw poachers.
Nature reserves with old-growth forests also attract poachers. It is an unintended consequence of conservation not linked to law enforcement. One study of thriving public cage-bird markets reported endangered parrots selling for many times higher prices than non-endangered parrots.
The Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 banned the import of wild birds. The CITES agreement also greatly restricts international trade in parrots. (CITES is short for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.)
“While these measures curtailed the international trade in wild parrots, recent studies have found that substantial numbers of parrots are still poached for domestic markets,” Clarke and de By wrote.
“Poaching has contributed materially to the decline of neotropical parrots in the wild, with the implication that conservationists must pay serious attention to poaching if this decline is to be halted,” they said.
Just as poaching of elephants, rhinos and other big game has hurt ecotourism in Africa, parrot poaching could eventually hurt ecotourism in Brazil and other countries with little or no anti-poaching enforcement.
Another wild card in the extinction equation of the Hyacinth Macaw is the Toco Toucan. At least 14 bird species eat the fruit of Manduvi trees, but only the Toco Toucan disperses its seeds far away. The seed-dispersal service is key to the regeneration of the nest trees.
Unfortunately, the toucans also eat Hyacinth Macaw eggs when they visit Manduvi trees. The plentiful toucan species “accounts for about 53% of egg predation each year,” Robin Chazdon wrote in Second Growth: The Promise of Tropical Forest Regeneration in an Age of Deforestation (2014, University of Chicago Press).
The post-deforestation premise of the book is that natural and human-aided forest regeneration processes are vital, dynamic forces of biodiversity.
However, pristine forest habitats take centuries to fully regenerate.
The Hyacinth Macaws may not have that much time. I believe that the more we watch, photograph, and study Hyacinth Macaws, the better for the species, all birds, all wildlife and all humans.