The Spix’s little blue macaw — extinct in the wild for 22 years — now flies free again in its natural habitat in Brazil, thanks to decades of research and effort by hundreds of scientists, conservation biologists, veterinarians, aviculturists and indigenous peoples
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The Spix’s little blue macaw, Cyanopsitta spixii, went extinct in the wild when the species’ lone wild representative suddenly disappeared in October of 2019 (more here, also; ref & ref). Despite the presence of several very small populations that had been secreted away in cages around the world, the future looked bleak for this highly desired, incredibly rare parrot.
However, things may be improving for this species, thanks to a global collaboration between scientists, conservation biologists, veterinarians, aviculturists and local Indigenous peoples. After decades of planning and work, eight adult captive-bred little blue macaws were released back into their former range in Brazil on 11 June 2022, and another 12 individuals are being prepared for release in December 2022. These parrots are the first wave in a captive breeding and reintroduction program that is set to take place over the next 20 years.
A dazzling blue parrot
In real life, this parrot is actually quite small for a macaw, weighing only 300 grams (11 ounces). In addition to being notably smaller than the more familiar large macaw species, little blue macaws have significant physical differences that distinguish them from all other macaws, so they were classified into their own genus, Cyanopsitta — ‘blue parrot’.
Although they aren’t the most brilliantly colorful parrots, little blue macaws are highly desired as pets because people really like looking at blue birds. And blue they are: they have slender dark blue tails that are longer than their bodies, brilliant dark blue wings and upperparts, turquoise-blue underparts, a pale grey-blue head and neck, a black decurved beak, dark grey feet and a dark grey patch of bare skin located between their pale straw-colored eyes and upper mandible. Adult males and females are identical in appearance, although females are somewhat smaller. Juveniles can be visually identified by the contrasting pale pink stripe atop their black upper mandible and by the patch of pale bare skin between their uniformly dark eyes and beaks.
Spix’s little blue macaws reach sexual maturity at the age of seven years old although, strangely, captive-bred specimens experience delayed sexual maturity, where the youngest pairs to lay fertile eggs are typically ten years of age.
Have Spix’s little blue macaws always been rare?
Spix’s little blue macaw was originally discovered in 1638 in the State of Pernambuco, by German naturalist Georg Marcgrave, and was later named in honor of another German, Johann Baptist von Spix, who conducted an extensive expedition of the region and shot the first specimen in 1819. In his original description, published in 1824, von Spix noted that the species was “very rare” (as cited here: ref) when compared to other parrot species he was seeing in the region. Considering that this parrot is relatively large and quite conspicuous, this is good evidence that its population was already small and scattered at the start of the nineteenth century.
It has been proposed that Spix’s little blue macaws’ rarity stems the limited size of its range, which was thought to be 50 km (30 mile) wide and 150-200 km (93-125 miles) long along the banks the São Francisco river between the cities of Juazeiro and Abaré, with the south side of its range located in Bahia state and the north side in Pernambuco state (as cited here: ref). This region is part of the Rio São Francisco drainage basin and is located within a semi-arid tropical shrubland and thorn forest, known as the caatinga, that covers around 10% of Brazil (olive green patch on Figure 1).
The caatinga is a unique ecosystem found nowhere else in the world. In the short and intense rainy season, the caatinga is green and lush but this quickly disappears during the dry season because it doesn’t rain for approximately nine months of every year. During the dry season, vegetation replaces its green finery with shades of white, hence its name, ‘caatinga’, which comes from the Indigenous Tupi language and translates as ‘white forest’ or ‘white vegetation’.
“The caatinga is an arid, semi-desert region. Its rainfall occurs over very short periods of time in the year, so you’ll have three to four months with rain — thunderstorms and very heavy rain — then it will go months without rain”, said Cromwell Purchase, a veterinarian who is the Scientific and Field Project Coordinator for the conservation and reintroduction project in Brazil.
As a result of these extreme changes in precipitation, the caatinga is very fragile and vulnerable to desertification, particularly from livestock grazing as well as land clearing.
“About three hundred years ago, farming started in the region. As the number of people in the region grew, so the livestock also increased”, Dr Purchase said. “Goats and sheep are the main livestock there. Livestock, especially goats, destroyed everything — they eat absolutely everything — and that has caused a major problem with the habitat for the Spix’s macaws because they are niche species.”
Other parrot species, particularly blue-fronted amazons and blue-winged macaws, also live in the caatinga, but they are generalists aso they live across a wider range of habitats and thus, they managed to survive the habitat devastation caused by people and their livestock.
“Spix’s macaws specifically live in the creek systems of the caatinga, which are very few and far between”, Dr Purchase explained. “The problem with these creek systems is that as soon as you have erosion, that’s where all the water rushes through and takes away everything.”
Without the native vegetation to hold the soil in place and to retain scarce water in the soil, this area has been undergoing extensive erosion and desertification ever since people and their livestock moved in. This situation is being made more dire by the accelerating effects of climate change, which has intensified desertification throughout large areas of the caatinga and has permanently reduced the potential reclaimable habitat (ref).
There are large trees in the caatinga, but they only grow in the creek systems and in gallery forest because that’s where the water is, even in the dry season. (Gallery forests grow along rivers or wetlands and push into landscapes that otherwise only have sparse numbers of trees, such as savannas, grasslands, or deserts.)
The caraibeira tree, Tabebuia aurea, is a relatively small seasonally deciduous tree that is critically important to Spix’s little blue macaws. These trees grow very slowly and most are 200–300 years old. Thanks to destruction by goats and human land-clearing practices, there has not been any regenerative growth of these trees for the last 50 years. Wild little blue macaws depended upon these trees for nest hollows as well as for seeds and nuts and for shade on blazing hot days.
But habitat destruction was not the only problem facing wild little blue macaws. In 1957, Africanized honeybees escaped a Brazilian research facility and spread quickly. These exotic and invasive insects occupy the same tree cavities that Spix’s little blue macaws nest in, and ended up competing with the parrots for this scarce resource. Further, Africanized honeybees are extremely aggressive and readily attack both humans and animals.
In addition to habitat destruction and invasive bees, wild little blue macaws experienced a gradual but inexorable decline due to capture for the illegal wildlife and pet trade. For example, illegal trapping led to a rapid population decline so that, by 1986, the entire wild population consisted of just three birds. Trappers then returned to poach two more parrots so by 1990, only one bird, a lone ageing male, remained. Ten years later, he died and along with him, his entire species was gone: extinct in the wild.
It’s interesting to note that there was a freak sighting of one free-flying individual in 2016 that was captured on a smartphone video that got the world talking about this species again — was it an escaped pet? (More here).
“Immediately after the sighting, we went to the area to scan the entire habitat and found nothing”, Dr Purchase told me in email.
“We’re unsure of whether it was a captive bird that escaped, or if it was a hoax”, Dr Purchase speculated. “The call of the bird in the footage wasn’t the call of a Spix’s Macaw”, Dr Purchase continued in email. “To me, it sounds like a Lear’s Macaw. Unfortunately, the footage wasn’t good enough to identify the bird correctly and it was never seen again.”
And yet .. not all hope was lost. Several tiny populations of these parrots still survived in captivity in Brazil, the Middle East and Europe, and were estimated at the time to number somewhere around 55 individuals. In the 1990s — even before this species went extinct in the wild — the Brazilian government had already launched an effort to encourage reproduction of these parrots and to negotiate for the species’ repatriation. Could these widely dispersed captive birds form the basis of a massive recovery effort? Would secretive, possessive owners willingly give up their precious companion birds to a conservation program?
The timing couldn’t have been better because two computer animated adventure films, Rio (2011) and Rio 2 (2014), suddenly exploded onto the scene. These films were inspired by a captive male Spix’s little blue macaw, named Presley, who was a human-imprinted pet discovered in the state of Colorado in 2002. The Rio films, which earned a combined $1 billion, accomplished the impossible by introducing the general public to the Spix’s little blue macaw whilst also highlighting the growing severity of the global extinction crisis. The first Rio film was released eleven years after the last free-flying Spix’s little blue macaw was spotted in the wild, and shortly before the species was officially declared Extinct in the Wild.
Further, to ensure that any of the repatriated macaws had a home to return to, then-President of Brazil, Michel Temer, signed a decree during World Environment Day on 5 June 2018 that established the Blue Macaw Wildlife Refuge and the Blue Macaw Environmental Protection Area. Together, these refuges encompass 120,000 square hectares (463 square miles) in the municipalities of Juazeiro and Curaçá in Bahia, Brazil. This was first optimistic step in an ambitious restoration effort that will also help protect a great diversity of plants, fish, animals and birds — and human communities.
Everything seemed to be falling into place, but the clock was ticking. If there was to be a serious reintroduction effort for Spix’s little blue macaws, it had to begin soon, before the entire captive population had died of old age — their life span is between 20-35 years — or had become so inbred that they were incapable of breeding and surviving in the wild or in captivity.
Disease and Inbreeding: the two great enemies of conservation
Keeping animals in captivity poses problems because they can become exposed to each other’s diseases. In the case of Spix’s little blue macaws, that disease was nasty and incurable: proventricular dilatation disease. This virus was first recognized in 1978 and given a name that would strike terror in the hearts of any aviculturist or pet owner: macaw wasting syndrome. It was later identified as a novel member of a group of bornaviruses that cause brain disease in horses and sheep. The parrot bornavirus infects the nerves of the gastrointestinal tract and causes them to slowly waste away. Eventually, its victim dies of starvation.
But fortunately, a DNA test was developed and all Spix’s little blue macaws were tested. Those that were infected were separated from the breeding population, which eventually eliminated this threat. The Spix’s little blue macaw population currently numbers 261 healthy parrots, but this leads us to the second big problem: they all are descendants of just seven founders, and this has created a genetic bottleneck for the species.
I’ve written about these inbreeding problems before (here, here, here, here and here) and how this creates a genetic bottleneck due to a severe restriction of genetic diversity. A lack of genetic diversity decreases fertility and reduces hatching success, results in behavioral and cognitive problems such as the loss of song, decreases lifespans, increases health problems as well as susceptibility to diseases, and leads to other unexpected effects. The worst aspect is that after a population’s genetic diversity has been lost, there is no easy or quick way to regain it. That said, some species have managed to survive a genetic bottleneck, such as kakapos (more here).
“The Spix’s macaws, in particular, are not great at getting through that bottleneck, but we do the best we can by pairing the birds as far as possible with the best genetic combinations, using microsatellite genetic analysis”, Dr Purchase told me in email.
To address the inbreeding problem, Dr Purchase and his team have been collaborating with a number of scientists around the world.
“We received data and research from Sao Paolo University, combined with genetic profiling from Cornell University to get [microsatellite genetic analyses]. Of course, if we could have more, we would take it”, Dr Purchase added in email.
But parrots are notoriously choosy when selecting a mate, and this can easily derail any conservation effort’s first goal: to ‘grow the population’. One technique that the Spix’s macaw team adopted to ‘grow the population’ was artificial insemination, and they also used this technique to simultaneously increase representation of rare genetics in future offspring.
“We use artificial insemination in this program to help build a sustainable healthy population of Spix’s Macaws. We didn’t develop the science behind the program, but we utilised it, and developed it to make it suitable for Spix’s Macaws”, Dr Purchase told me in email. “The technology is now suitable for species of birds that haven’t been bred before.”
After Presley, the former pet Spix’s little blue macaw, was repatriated to Brazil, did he ever produce any offspring?
“Presley was imprinted on massively by humans before he went to Brazil”, Dr Purchase replied in email. “The problem is that he was too heavily imprinted, meaning that when he was paired with a female, he wasn’t able to reproduce.”
After he died at the age of 34 years old, were Presley’s testes removed and frozen in the hope he might father some offspring in the future?
“Semen was never extracted from him, but his testes were stored for use later on”, Dr Purchase replied in email. “His genetics are stored for future use as the scientific innovation in this field improves.”
We know that parrots are picky about whom they form a pair bond with, but do parrots bond for life? Doesn’t this create a problem with their genetics since all their offspring are, well, close relatives?
“In actual fact, most birds don’t bond for life”, Dr Purchase said. “We thought about this and realized it doesn’t make sense for birds to pair up and keep producing offspring with the same genetics for life.”
“A couple years back, research in parrots and passerines and quite a few of species of birds found they divorce, just like humans, and marry up with someone else” [ref, ref & ref] Dr Purchase elaborated. “Even hyacinth macaws — which is sort of the parrot of the parrot world — will bond for a couple years and then one season, they’ll just split up and pick new partners, which, genetically, makes sense.”
In the case of humans, who live a long time and, in most circumstances, don’t have many children, it doesn’t matter if a person stays with the same person their entire life and only have children with that one person.
“But parrots lay two to five eggs eggs and passerines will lay up to six or seven eggs every year, so if that one pair keeps going for eight years, you’ve got a massive number of offspring from the same genetic line. So it doesn’t make sense that they stay together forever.”
But breeding birds in captivity, growing the population and retaining as much genetic diversity in the population as possible are only the first steps on a long and difficult road to getting these parrots back into the wild. I say this because most parrot reintroductions have not gone well because newly released parrots must learn how to thrive in the wild from their parents and flock mates — and this is a complicated process that takes years for a wild-born parrot to master.
Are parrot reintroduction programs doomed?
Probably the best known example of a parrot reintroduction effort was the attempt to return the thick-billed parrot, Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha, to its former range in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains. This Endangered parrot, which still exists in small numbers in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range, was the United States’ other native parrot — the Extinct Carolina parakeet, Conuropsis carolinensis, is the most familiar of North American parrot species, possibly because it was only found along the east coast of the United States (read more here and here).
Historically, the thick-billed parrot’s range included alpine regions of Mexico as well as Arizona, New Mexico and likely even the far western reaches of Texas. These parrots live in mature temperate zone conifer forests at elevations of 1200–3600 meters (4,000-12,000 feet) throughout their range, where they nest in abandoned woodpecker cavities and primarily consume pinecone nuts. After European colonizers moved in, these parrots were enthusiastically shot into extinction in the United States. The last thick-billed parrots were seen in Arizona in 1938.
Between 1986 and 1993, 88 thick-billed parrots that had been confiscated by the USFWS were released into their former range in Arizona as an attempted reintroduction. Most of these parrots had been trapped illegally in the wilds of Mexico and smuggled into the United States so presumably, they knew how to live in the wild. But this controversial reintroduction effort failed — spectacularly. Although extremely intelligent, the confiscated parrots had lost their culture: the parrots did not know to forage in their new land and had forgotten (or never learned) how to flock to avoid predators. Within two months, one-third of them had been killed by hawks or by free-roaming cats — or they simply starved to death. The situation didn’t improve over time. Tragically, the last of these reintroduced thick-billed parrots was seen in 1995.
Based on this unpleasant experience, conservation biologists became convinced that parrot reintroductions are doomed to failure — parrots are just too behaviorally and intellectually complex! They have a long childhood and need their wild parents and other wild teachers to instruct them on how to live in the wild!
Despite this pessimism, there are brilliant flashes of hope. For example, the Critically Endangered Puerto Rican parrot, Amazona vittata, is one current example of an intentional reintroduction effort that appears to be holding its own despite a variety of seemingly insurmountable challenges (more here and here).
And of course, not to be overlooked, there are many examples of accidental introductions of parrots. As a result, an abundance of parrot species are naturalized in at least 23 states in the USA (more here) and a dozen or so species have been breeding well for decades in major cities throughout much of the world (more here and here). Even the Mexican red-crowned parrot, Amazona viridigenalis (another accidental introduction), an Endangered species, is thriving in urban areas of southern California (more here and here).
So it would appear that reintroducing parrots into the wild presents long-term commitments and special challenges for research scientists, conservation biologists, avian behaviorists and aviculturists, but knowing what these challenges are and how to address them means better outcomes for future reintroduction efforts for parrots and other birds, especially corvids.
Wild parrots as teachers
Releasing Spix’s little blue macaws into the wild after the species has been Extinct in the Wild for more than 22 years means there are no birds alive today who can teach the new arrivals how to be a proper wild parrot. There are no protective parents, friendly older siblings or other relatives to show them the best places to forage and find water, where to shelter from the midday sun, how to flock and — possibly most important — how to avoid different sorts of predators.
To address this situation, a massive facility was constructed in Bahia, at a cost of $1.4 million. This facility functions as a parrot school where young Spix’s macaws learn about wild parrot culture as well as building their flight muscles.
“Before the birds arrived in Brazil on March 3rd 2020, they were prepared in flocking cages to help build up their muscle mass. We needed to encourage them to interact with one another, so they were kept in these flocking cages for a matter of months”, Dr Purchase told me in email.
“Once they arrived in Brazil, they entered the quarantine process to ensure they were carrying no diseases. We had already ensured they were safe to enter Brazil by testing them before leaving [the main breeding facility in] Germany, and they were tested again before being moved into another set of flocking cages.”
The core group of Spix’s little blue macaws that were chosen to be released first were selected based on those which looked most likely to survive in the wild: the strongest fliers, with strongest ties to the group, who seemed healthier, and appeared more capable of identifying predators.
Eight Illiger’s blue-winged macaws, Primolius maracana, that had been captured in the area, were introduced into the flocking flights alongside the core group of eight Spix’s little blue macaws so these parrots could bond in preparation for the first release. Illiger’s blue-winged macaws are another small macaw species that still live in the area and that have similar habits to Spix’s macaws and did loosely flock with them but live in a much wider variety of environments. It’s hoped they will continue to flock after release so the blue-winged macaws can act as teachers to help educate the naive little blue macaws.
But releasing eight parrots is really a tiny number and, for this reason, could doom the project to failure. Why are there so few Spix’s little blue macaws in this first release?
“The reason we’re releasing so few is that this is a first!” Dr Purchase replied to me in email. “All other projects have wild birds to integrate populations into; with the Spix’s Macaws, we don’t have that.”
“We have to face this with some caution. Because of this, the group has been split into two, with another release happening later this year. We chose eight because it’s a number we can use statistics on, and it’s not too big a number if there are any losses. If this wasn’t such a novel occurrence, we probably would have released all 20 in one go.”
“The actual release is 16 birds: 8 Spix’s and 8 lliger’s”, Dr Purchase elaborated. “For the past 6 months, their necks have been collared for them to get used to wearing the transmitters. They have been checked today (9th June), equipped with their transmitters and are ready for the release on Saturday (11th June).”
The released macaws are marked with leg rings and will be tracked by radio transmitters for at least three months. The team will use this as an opportunity to observe the behavior of the newly introduced macaws in the wild — the places they visit, what they eat, and which habitats they are exploring.
“The first two releases contain adult birds. They are not too old, as the longer they are in captivity, the less likely they are to adapt to new environments”, Dr Purchase told me in email. “After this year, all the releases beyond this point will include one-year-olds, straight after the breeding season.”
This is a soft release, or mild release — where the parrots can come and go as they please. Doors on the side of the large flocking flights are opened and the birds simply release themselves by walking or flying out the door. These doors will be kept open during the day and closed at night to protect any macaws returning to captivity for the night from being killed by predators.
“We have feeding stations both inside and outside the aviary so they are not limited to finding food”, Dr Purchase told me. “We know that as time goes by and we transition into the dry season, food will be scarce, which is why we will have the food stations available; if they don’t learn quickly enough, they can have sustenance to help keep themselves maintained.”
Supplementary food will be offered for a year, so they can visit the enclosure and will hopefully remain nearby instead of flying long distances in search of food. There are other measures in place to keep the newly released parrots from roaming too far away and getting lost, too. For example, twenty of the Spix’s little blue macaws have already been forming pair bonds, so some of these developing pairs have been split up.
“In doing so, we’re creating a social magnet at the release site. This stops the birds from immediately flying into the middle of nowhere. We want birds to stay and build territories and — only as they multiply — to expand their territories. Hence, this is why the breeding facility is there; to keep them in that area.”
In the two years that the Spix’s little blue macaws have been in Brazil, three more macaws have been born, increasing the population now in Curaçá to 55 birds. No estimates have been made for the numbers that will be released after 2023, but the idea is to keep some of these macaws in captivity at this facility, where they will serve as a reserve population to ensure the survival of the species, and also to serve as a source of new individuals for upcoming releases, and to replace the expected losses amongst the released parrots.
The macaws were successfully released on Saturday, 11 June 2022, in the municipality of Curaçá, the northernmost city in the Brazilian state of Bahia. These macaws included five females and three males. An additional 12 captive-bred Spix’s little blue macaws are scheduled to be released in December 2022 (ref).
The Spix’s project is remarkable and unique because it is a massive collaboration between hundreds of people who are working to reintroduce a species back into the wild that is currently extinct, and has been extinct in the wild for over two decades. There’s very few reintroduction programs around the world that have done something like that, and none have done this with parrots. If this experiment is successful, the Spix’s little blue macaw will be the first Extinct in the Wild parrot species returned to the wild by humans.
“Finally, the Spix’s voice is being brought back to Caatinga.”
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