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A lonely blue Spix macaw plies Brazil's backwoods

The Spix macaw, a two-foot-long bird with dark blue plumage, gray-blue head, and yellow eyes, was thought to be extinct in the wild until nine years ago when one was discovered by a Birdlife International expedition. He is believed to be at least 13 years old.

While he is the last in the wild, he is not alone. Currently, there are just 44 Spix macaws worldwide that have been domesticated after either having been smuggled out of Brazil by traffickers or born in captivity.

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There are four more captive in Brazil - two of them in the So Paulo zoo - and 40 others in the Philippines, Switzerland, and the Canary Islands.

Spix macaws have always lived in the environs near Cura, a backlands town of 6,000 inhabitants located along the south bank of the So Francisco River.

In this denuded landscape, the sole survivor engages in a daily survival routine, foraging for food among cactus, sage, and prickly, stunted trees known as caatinga.

Each day, he flies off at daybreak to a treetop nest to pick up his female companion of eight years, a green Illiger macaw. They spend the entire day searching for food, flying an average of 40 kilometers (25 miles) a day.

"When it comes to finding food, he has more patience than any human being I know," says Jorge Souza Rosa, the "bodyguard" who has monitored the bird's movements by foot, jeep, and bicycle since 1991.

When the avian couple return at sunset, the Spix waits until his mate enters her nest in a caraibeira tree before flying to his bachelor digs inside a cactus bush.

"He is the perfect husband, both loyal and courteous," says Yara de Melo Barros, field coordinator for the Blue Macaw Project.

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To date, the Spix and the Illiger have produced infertile eggs. So in 1995, biologists decided to mate the male Spix with a female of the same species.

Since the female Spix had been raised in captivity, scientists put her through an intensive seven-month boot camp to build up flying stamina and adapt her to a new diet of seeds from local trees before releasing her into the wild. And although the female was eventually accepted by the Spix and the Illiger as an equal partner, she vanished just seven weeks later.

Her whereabouts remained a mystery until a goat herder recently told Melo Barros that he had witnessed her death, but kept the secret for four years for fear the project would end. The female Spix, he said, had collided with an electricity wire.

Most recently, biologists placed nine Illiger chicks in the nest to see if the Spix and the Illiger would make adequate parents. The couple immediately began feeding the baby macaws and teaching them how to fly and find food.

In March, the young Illigers set off on their own and are currently being monitored by radio collars. Melo Barros says the successful experiment proves that the next step is to place Spix chicks in the nest.

"Even if the last wild Spix dies tomorrow and can no longer teach survival skills to domesticated macaws, the project will continue," she said. "We will use the Illigers he trained as guides."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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