Spix’s Little Blue Macaws Fly Free Again After Decades In Cages

An update on how the Extinct-In-The-Wild Spix’s little blue macaws are doing now that they’ve returned home to northeastern Brazil where eight are flying free

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If you’re like me, you’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of captive-bred Spix’s little blue macaws, Cyanopsitta spixii, back into their ancestral home in Brazil. These parrots are amongst the very rarest birds in the world, with a captive population that hovers around 250 or so. Although this species has been formally listed as Extinct-in-the-Wild for the past 22 years, there now are eight captive-bred Spix’s little blue macaws flying around in the wild. These eight individuals were recently released on 11 June 2022 into the caatinga (more here) and another 12 are scheduled to be released in December. Since then, everyone has been asking me: how are they doing?

I finally got an update from the team in Brazil and I have great news for you: they are all alive! The parrots are flocking together, flying strongly, and evading aerial predators with breathtaking aerial maneuvers. They return daily to the large aviary at the Spix’s Macaw Release Center where they stayed for many months whilst being prepared for their entry into the wild. These macaws also regularly visit the breeding center to check on their captive siblings and flockmates to see how they are doing.

On-the-ground naturalists and observers are closely monitoring the newly-released macaws and are following them through the caatinga using GPS tracking devices that were given to each parrot two days prior to its release. These observers are watching the macaws as they learn how to live in their ancestral homelands from a group of eight Illiger’s blue-winged macaws, Primolius maracana. The blue-winged macaws were wild-caught in the area specifically so they could accompany the captive-bred Spix’s little blue macaws on their journey from captivity into the wild and to act as their teachers.

Illiger’s blue-winged macaws are quite common around the release site. For example, 23 of these macaws were recently spotted hanging out together near the pre-release training flight. The newly-released Spix’s little blue macaws observe their wild blue-winged cousins closely, imitate their behaviors and follow them around as they forage.

“They are acting as a flock; they are staying in the vicinity of their release and they are beginning to sample local vegetation”, Thomas White told The Current guest host Duncan McCue. Dr White is a wildlife biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service who heads the Puerto Rican parrot recovery program and is a technical adviser for this release project.

If these Spix’s little blue macaws were wild-born, they would spend the first year of their lives being cared for by their parents and learning by example from their parents and flockmates how to live as a wild parrot. But after living in cages for decades, captive-bred Spix’s little blue macaws do not have any wild conspecifics with essential cultural knowledge of how to live in the wild: where to forage for food or to find water as the seasons change, how to avoid (or evade) aerial and terrestrial predators, nor how to communicate with their flock. So these young captive-bred macaws are basically enrolled in a “crash course” in how to be a proper wild parrot with their eight wild blue-winged cousins as instructors.

Learning what is edible, how to eat it, when it is in season and where to find it is — especially from the air — one of the first skills a captive-bred parrot must master if they are to thrive in the wild. Unlike urban-dwelling parrots, which consume mostly pre-packaged seed mixes provided by garden birdfeeders, these macaws are starting off from scratch.

“Eating wild food is crucial”, veterinarian Cromwell Purchase said in a statement. Dr Purchase is the director of ACTP in Brazil and is the manager of the Spix’s Macaw Release Center.

At this time, the macaws’ human observers report that the newly released parrots are actively seeking out at least four different plants and are eating their fruits, seeds or blossoms. Although the macaws were fed a variety of wild foods and branches with edible fruit and seeds were placed in their aviaries during their training for release, the birds are still learning a lot about foraging in the wild. Additionally, their human observers have also watched the macaws eating tree blossoms, which were never offered to them before.

“We are impressed and overwhelmed by the incredible success story we are witnessing, with the Illiger’s macaw as a teacher species for the naive Spix’s macaws”, Dr Purchase said.

This will be a long-term effort that is currently predicted to last decades. Releases of the macaws will continue for at least 20 years, and basic support in the form of food, water and veterinary care, will be ongoing for decades as well.

What drove this iconic parrot to extinction in the wild? Its distinctive blue color made it a popular target for poachers and private collectors around the world. In addition to illegal trade, the locals added insult to injury by destroying the macaws’ unique habitat with their livestock, especially goats. The goats ate all the vegetation and this led to erosion of the waterways that the macaws rely upon. The combination of these factors caused the Spix’s little blue macaw population to decline steadily into the 1980s and 1990s until just one wild bird remained.

“That loss in numbers had a very unfortunate secondary effect,” Dr White said. “As soon as an animal becomes endangered, collectors want to have one. And that is what happened to the Spix’s macaw. They became rare and, as a result, unscrupulous individuals decided to try to take the few that remained in the wild for their private collections.”

Ten years later, this last remaining wild Spix’s little blue macaw disappeared and the species was officially declared Extinct-In-The-Wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The captive population had dwindled too, and numbered an estimated 55 individuals. Undaunted, the Spix’s macaw conservation team located and obtained as many of the remaining captive macaws as they could from private collectors and zoos around the world, eventually moving them to a breeding facility in Germany, and worked intensively on breeding a healthy captive population. With a founder population of just 12 individuals, the situation looked dire for these macaws because their gene pool was simply too small to maintain a genetically healthy population.

Nonetheless, it was hoped that this captive population could provide enough youngsters to support a release effort in the macaw’s native lands in Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia. Bolstering this effort, then-president of Brazil, Michel Temer, signed a decree establishing a macaw wildlife refuge in the caatinga in 2018, and an on-the-ground breeding effort was also initiated with the goal of releasing the blue parrots into the wild.

Although these newly-released parrots are young, they are all of breeding age. There are already several cavities — both natural and artificial — in the area that are suitable for nesting, and it is hoped that the newly released Spix’s little blue macaws will begin breeding next spring.

“In a nutshell, this first release has been successful beyond our wildest dreams”, Dr Purchase said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better wild start for the species.”

Read More:

Spix’s Little Blue Macaws Are Returning To The Wild In Brazil | GrrlScientist, via Forbes. An extensive background of these parrots, and the many conservation challenges that were addressed to get them back into the wild. Also includes a lot of lovely photographs.


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