‘Extinct’ parrots make a flying comeback in Brazil

Twenty years ago, the future of the Spix’s macaw could not have looked bleaker. The last member of this distinctive parrot species disappeared from the wild, leaving only a few dozen birds in collectors’ cages across the globe. The prospects for Cyanopsitta spixii were grim, to say the least.

But thanks to a remarkable international rescue project, Spix’s macaws – with their grey heads and vivid blue plumage – have made a stunning comeback. A flock now soars freely over its old homeland in Brazil after being released there a month ago. Later this year, conservationists plan to release more birds, and hope the parrots will start breeding in the wild next spring.

A macaw wildlife refuge has been established in the north-eastern state of Bahia in Brazil

“The project is going extremely well,” said biologist Tom White, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and a technical adviser to the rescue project. “It’s almost a month since we released the birds and all of them have survived.

“They are acting as a flock; they are staying in the vicinity of their release and they are beginning to sample local vegetation. It’s going as well as it possibly could.”

The Spix’s macaw – named in honour of the German biologist Johann Baptist Ritter von Spix, who first collected a specimen in 1819 – became the victim of a double environmental whammy that began in the 19th century. As farming spread across South America, the parrot’s homeland – in an area of shrubland and thorn forest known as the Caatinga in north-east Brazil – was overgrazed by goats and other livestock. The land was severely eroded, and macaw numbers dropped as their habitat was destroyed.

“That loss in numbers had a very unfortunate secondary effect,” said White. “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.”

The future for the species looked dismal until the bird’s fortunes were revived by, of all things, an animated film. Rio, the story of a domesticated male Spix’s macaw called Blu, who is taken to Rio de Janeiro to mate with a free-spirited female, Jewel, was released in 2011. The film, and its sequel, Rio 2, earned almost $1bn. Crucially, the films revealed the threat facing the species to a global audience.

The 2011 animation Rio, the story of a domesticated Spix’s macaw, revealed the predicament of the species to a global audience
The 2011 animation Rio, the story of a domesticated Spix’s macaw, revealed the predicament of the species to a global audience. Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Later, in 2018, Michel Temer, then president of Brazil, signed a decree that established a macaw wildlife refuge in the north-eastern state of Bahia, while a breeding programme, using parrots from private collections, was established at various centres across the world. A key player in this collaboration was the German-based organisation the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots.

The growing sophistication of modern genetics also played an important role in saving the Spix’s macaw, said White.

“When you are trying to build up numbers of animals from a very small surviving population, inbreeding can be a real problem. However, the techniques used to check the genetic status of these birds were very, very sophisticated and allowed breeders to match birds very carefully.

“Artificial insemination has also made it easier to produce offspring from birds.”

As a result, several hundred Spix’s macaws have now been bred in captivity, and eight of these were taken in June to Bahia for release. And they had company: along with the Spix’s macaws, eight Illiger’s macaws were also let loose on 11 June.

White said: “The Spix’s macaws that we now possess are the end result of generations of captive breeding, and that will have taken the edge off some of their instinctive survival skills.

“However, by mixing them with Illiger’s macaws – who were basically just wild birds brought briefly into captivity – the Spix’s benefit by associating with a native species that is sharp and alert, and can show them where they get food and alert them to potential predators.”

The birds, each tagged with radio transmitters, are now being monitored carefully. “We will release another 12 Spix’s macaws in December if everything goes well,” added White.

“These birds will all be of reproductive age. We have also ensured there are several nest cavities, some natural and artificial, in the area to encourage the birds to begin mating next year and eventually establish breeding territories in the area.

“It’s ambitious but so far things are going well.”


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