Sat. Oct 1st, 2022

The first Lear’s indigo macaw to ever hatch in the wild to captive-bred parents is raising scientists’ hopes this may be the first step to rejuvenating a functionally extinct population of the species in Brazil

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The Lear’s indigo macaw, Anodorhynchus leari, has always been mysterious. Although this spectacular cerulean parrot with its long pointy tail was first described in 1856, its natural range remained unknown until 1978, when it was finally discovered in the wild. At the time of discovery, its population was estimated to number just 60 individuals, so Lear’s indigo macaws were immediately added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, as Critically Endangered.

This listing served to galvanize a conservation partnership between public aviaries and zoos and the Brazilian government to save this incredibly rare macaw. As a result of this intensive effort, the situation may be improving: a Lear’s indigo macaw hatched in the wild in late June 2022. This is the first time a chick has ever hatched in the wild to a pair of free-flying captive-bred adult Lear’s indigo macaws. The young macaw’s parents were hatched at Loro Parque Fundación, a public aviary and conservation organization in Spain, and were part of a small flock of these parrots donated to a local release program in Brazil in 2018.

The poet and the parrot

There is evidence that the enigmatic Lear’s indigo macaw was living — incognito — under our very noses for decades. This parrot was named for English artist, illustrator, musician, author and poet, Edward Lear (1812 – 1888), who was the first person to (unknowingly) document this parrot in captivity. Mr Lear was best known for his amusing limericks and nonsense poems, such as The Owl and the Pussycat, and for his meticulous art.

When he was just 19 years old, Mr Lear, who had a special fondness for parrots, published his very first book, Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots, in 1832. This influential book is a collection of very accurate drawings and paintings that Mr Lear modelled on live parrots held by zoos, aviaries and private collectors. One particular portrait in this book depicted a macaw species that was misidentified as a hyacinth macaw, Anodorhynchus hyacinthus (Figure 1). The hyacinth macaw is a larger and much darker blue species with yellow skin patches around its beak and eyes that are distinct from those of its smaller, mysterious sister species.

Decades of debate ensued amongst eagle-eyed ornithologists about whether this painting actually represented a species that was new-to-science, or if it was an odd individual hyacinth macaw, or just a poorly painted one. Adding fuel to the fires of controversy, French ornithologist, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a nephew of the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, identified it as a new species when he published a formal scientific description in 1856 based on Mr Lear’s painting. In this description, he commemorated the artist-poet in the macaw’s specific name, leari. Nevertheless, most authorities still refused to accept this parrot as a valid species — no one was certain they’d ever seen one! No one knew where it lived in the wild! And this is where things stood until 1978, when German-Brazilian ornithologist Helmut Sick finally solved the riddle when he uncovered its wild population.

A blue macaw in the white forest

As it turned out, Lear’s indigo macaw lives in the caatinga. This is a semi-arid biome in northeastern and central Brazil. Its name, “caatinga”, translates from the local Indigenous Tupi language as “white forest” or “white vegetation”, which was inspired by the appearance that the locally-adapted vegetation assumes during most of the year.

The caatinga is quite large. It is one of six main types of biomes within Brazil and comprises almost 10% of Brazil’s territory (Figure 2). Found nowhere else on the planet, the caatinga is unique to Brazil.

Although the caatinga is typically hot and usually is extremely dry, it does experience an annual rainy season that is roughly three months long. These seasonally heavy rainfalls trigger a brief exuberance of growth and flowering before the plants shed their leaves to reduce dehydration during the ensuing dry season. Thus, the caatinga supports its own special aggregation of subtropical vegetation consisting of small thorny trees and brush, cacti, bromeliads and arid-adapted grasses (Figure 3). As you might expect, this abundance of drought-tolerant vegetation supports more than 1000 species of fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals — as well as 26 million people.

Currently, we know of just two small isolated populations of Lear’s indigo macaws; one in Raso da Catarina and the other in Boqueirão da Onça, which is located approximately 230 km (143 miles) away. Raso da Catarina is one of eight distinct ecoregions within the larger caatinga biome and it is located in the Brazilian states of Bahia and Pernambuco. It is characterized by its dramatic seasonal climate that features severe drought for ten to eleven months of the year. Raso da Catarina is a heavily eroded sandstone plateau that dates back to the Cretaceous (ref), that features many canyons and rocks carved by erosion into huge obelisks.

Raso da Catarina is considered to be a “key site” by the Alliance for Zero Extinction, a global collaboration of biodiversity conservation organizations working to preserve the last remaining refuges of Endangered or Critically Endangered species. Raso da Catarina is likewise recognized as a priority area of extremely high importance for conserving the caatinga biome by Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment.

So far, five federal and state conservation parks have been established in Raso da Catarina that support birding, ecotourism, scientific research, and conservation activities.

One Lear’s indigo macaw population is recovering

The Lear’s indigo macaw is formally recognized as an Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) species due to their extremely limited geographic distribution. Thanks to intensive conservation efforts in the Raso da Catarina, its population in this region has increased to the point where the species was officially downlisted to Endangered in 2011. In 2019, the Lear’s indigo macaw population was estimated to consist of 1470 individuals distributed across seven districts in Bahia (Figure 4). Most of them live near the Canudos Biological Station, whilst a smaller flock lives about 50 miles away.

The Canudos Biological Station is a small private field station that was constructed in 1993 by the Biodiversitas Foundation that maintains an area of 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) in the region. This field station was located and built deliberately in the heart of the largest remaining population of Lear’s indigo macaws to monitor them (Figure 5), to protect their feeding and roosting areas, and to support the scientists who study them. The Canudos Biological Station is additionally devoted to managing all the local biodiversity, especially by planting licuri palms to attract and support the local wildlife that rely upon them. It also provides lodging to birders and ecotourists.

Nuts of the licuri palm, Syagrus coronata, are a critically important food for Lear’s indigo macaws, comprising around 95% of the diet consumed by them (Figure 6). Each Lear’s indigo macaw may eat up to 350 licuri nuts per day, using its specially adapted beak to crack open the hard shells.

The licuri palm is a small, slow-growing evergreen plant that is endemic to the caatinga, where it is distributed in patches throughout the landscape. Its blossoms are bright yellow, and the plants bear fruit throughout most of the year. When licuri palm fruits are scarce, other fruits and seeds, agave flowers, and cultivated crops, particularly maize, Zea mays, supplement this macaw’s diet.

This intense dependence upon licuri nuts is actually an interdependence that is mutually beneficial: like all parrots, Lear’s indigo macaws are messy eaters, wasting almost half of their food (more here). They also can fly long distances whilst carrying bunches of licuri fruits either in their feet or beaks. This “air transport” provides dropped licuri nuts with new locations to grow, sometimes quite far from its parent plant (more here).

But this intense interdependence also contributes to Lear’s indigo macaws’ limited geographic distribution. Once common throughout the caatinga, licuri palms are often cut down or burned by local farmers to make way for fields or pasture, and domestic livestock, especially goats, eat the young palms down to the ground, effectively killing them — thereby limiting the geographic range occupied by these parrots and their palms.

The other population is ‘functionally extinct’

In contrast to the macaws living in the Raso da Catarina, and especially those lucky parrots living near the Canudos Biological Station, the second population of Lear’s indigo macaws at Boqueirão da Onça is not doing well at all. That population collapsed to just two nonbreeding adults mainly due to poaching for the illegal wildlife trade. Other threats come from habitat loss to farm fields and pasture, overgrazing and trampling of young licuri palms, nest competition with Africanized honeybees, and electrocution or collisions with power lines. Thus, this population is currently considered to be functionally extinct.

“The fact that the last two individuals cannot guarantee the growth of this population would result in a local extinction”, Erica Pacífico told me in email. Dr Pacífico is the coordinator of the Lear’s Macaw Release Project in Boqueirão da Onça. “In other words, if new individuals were not released, the Lear’s Macaw would cease to exist in Boqueirão da Onça.”

But there are glimmers of hope for this functionally extinct population. In 2017, a large pre-release training and conditioning aviary was constructed in Boqueirão da Onça specifically for conditioning captive-bred Lear’s indigo macaws and teaching them how to survive in the wild, for rehabilitating individuals from the Raso da Catarina population that are recovering from injuries sustained in the wild, for preparing macaws confiscated from the pet trade for their return to the wild, and for strengthening flight muscles that are essential for long-distance flights for all of these soon-to-be-released macaws (Figure 7).

This project is the result of a collaboration between Loro Parque and the government of Brazil where Loro Parque agreed to develop and optimise specific protocols for keeping and breeding this species in captivity as well as for releasing them into the wild, and then share those protocols with zoos and breeding centers around the world that are also working with this species. For example, one such protocol that Loro Parque pioneered especially for breeding Lear’s indigo macaws in captivity was to provide artificial rock faces that imitate the steep cliffs where these parrots breed in their natural habitat (Figure 8).

In addition to helping Lear’s indigo macaws, another species that has recently benefited from many of the newly developed soft-release release protocols for parrots is the Extinct-In-The-Wild Spix’s little blue macaw, Cyanopsitta spixii, which is currently being released into its former range in another part of the caatinga (more here and here).

Nineteen captive-bred Lear’s indigo macaws have been donated to this reintroduction program by Loro Parque Fundación so far. In 2018, the first group of six captive-bred Lear’s indigo macaws were introduced into the pre-release training flight at Boqueirão da Onça. Because the captive-bred macaws had lost their wild culture that is essential for their survival in the caatinga, this was a soft-release, where the parrots spent many months learning about their natural foods. Additionally, because the macaws fly between 60-80 km (40-50 mi) daily to feed on licuri palm nuts, it was essential that they build up their strength and endurance prior to release.

The macaws were also taught about the predators they would face after release. Dummies that resemble snakes, birds of prey — and even humans — that pose threats to the macaws, accompanied by recordings of their characteristic sounds, were included in this pre-release training process.

“After a four month-period of acclimatization and training in the pre-release enclosure (recognition of natural food, response to potential predators, human aversion, and flight training), the macaws were released in the wild in 2019”, Dr Pacífico told me in email.

A few days prior to release, a stainless steel leg band and a uniquely numbered metal necklace tag were given to each macaw and they were microchipped and GPS-tagged, thereby enabling the team to monitor their movements continuously from a distance as well as to identify each individual at close range (Figure 9).

“The macaws are tagged with a ring, microchip and numbered metal [tag] or GPS [tracker], so we can study their daily movements and find out more information about the areas of historical use by the species in the locality, such as roosts, breeding sites and feeding areas”, Dr Pacífico told me in email.

GPS tagging and microchipping (as well as the presence of the field station nearby) probably reduces the temptation to steal these rare macaws from the wild and sell them to foreign collectors or pet owners.

During the pre-release training period, the researchers were pleased to see the last two free-ranging macaws in the area visited the release aviary daily, getting to know the young captive macaws and raising hopes that they will tutor their naïve kin in the ways of the wild.

When the macaws were released, the doors to the aviary remain open so they can come and go as they please for as long as necessary, and fresh licuri fruits are provided to prevent the newly-released parrots from being forced to wander too far in search of food (Figure 10).

Since the initial release in 2019, two additional releases of Lear’s indigo macaws have occurred in 2021 and 2022 in Boqueirão da Onça so far.

“More than forty birds have been born in the Loro Parque Fundación’s breeding centre”, Dr Pacífico elaborated. “Nineteen have already been sent to Brazil, and eight of those have been successfully introduced into the wild.”

These released macaws included several captive-bred individuals bred by the Fundação Zoológico de São Paulo and they were accompanied by several wild macaws that had recovered from physical injuries.

Local communities strongly support this conservation effort

The success of this conservation effort depends upon the local communities.

“In addition to the collaborative monitoring done by citizen science and the protection of the macaws, the community also gets involved in the macaw’s pre-release training activities”, Dr Pacífico told me in email. “They allow the researchers to access their properties to monitor the macaws, and make themselves available to help whenever needed.”

Rejuvenating this population of Lear’s indigo macaws will benefit the local wildlife and plants, as well as the local communities — which rely upon the licuri palms as a food source or for producing their traditional handcrafts.

“The presence of the macaws in Boqueirão da Onça will also provide the rescue of the cultural memory of the local community, since many children and teenagers in the region have never heard about the species”, Dr Pacífico explained. “This cultural rescue will enable a new generation of people to be more aware of the human-environment relationship.”

“We are very grateful to everyone”, Dr Pacífico added.

Aviaries and zoos can play a critical role in conserving Endangered species

The best news is that two of the captive-bred macaws from the initial 2019 release cohort provided by Loro Parque are now a bonded pair.

“The macaws paired in the wild in 2020, after the soft-release process”, Dr Pacífico added. “The female is now 10 years old, and the male is 7 years old.”

“The macaws nested in a natural cave in the historic roosting site”, Dr Pacífico added. This indicates that providing captive macaws with sandstone cliffs in aviaries and zoos was a sound strategy, according to Dr Pacífico.

“The pairs breed once a year, laying up three eggs, although only two of them usually survive”, Dr Pacífico told me in email. “However, the macaws still face pressure from illegal wildlife trade, with their eggs and chicks being removed from the nests every year.”

This juvenile wild-born macaw is the first hatch record in the area in almost 30 years, Dr Pacífico noted, and is a hopeful sign that it may yet be possible to recover this population. The fledgling is still dependent upon its parents for food and will remain with them for one year, and it has already integrated into the free-flying flock of released macaws and accompanies them on their visits to local feeding areas.

The protection and ongoing recovery of Lear’s indigo macaw has been a long and arduous process that started 16 years ago, in 2006, when the Brazilian Government transferred two pairs to Loro Parque Fundación with the goal that the aviary could figure out how to breed them, thereby taking the first step towards saving this Critically Endangered species that was in a very dire situation. Indeed, rescuing the Lear’s indigo macaw from impending extinction is one of Loro Parque Fundación’s major conservation success stories, but it is one of ten conservation successes they’ve had so far.

“It also reinforces the key role of zoos as protectors of endangered wildlife, as they provide the animals with a safety net, which they often lack in the wild”, Dr Pacífico pointed out in email. “These actions are part of an integrated project with birds bred ex situ [outside of their natural habitat] and in situ [in their natural habitat] in which Loro Parque Fundación collaborates with more than 10 institutions around the world.”


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