Captive-reared scarlet macaws get a second chance at life in the wild

  • Newly shared video shows the release of 26 young scarlet macaws (Ara macao) into the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala.
  • These birds are part of an ongoing effort by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP) to increase scarlet macaw populations in the reserve, where an estimated 300 individuals remain in the wild.
  • The 26 birds released by WCS and CONAP were “low weight” chicks, or third or fourth laid eggs collected from nests in the wild and raised in the protection of the lab. Typically, these smaller chicks and late eggs would not survive in the wild.
  • For these young birds, the team hopes to learn if they can survive and join the wild population on its migration to Mexico; a better understanding of their habits and habitats could help to target conservation efforts.

Newly shared images show a cohort of 26 young scarlet macaws (Ara macao) released into the forest, part of ongoing efforts to buoy their populations in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve.

“All of us were very excited the day of the release, including the macaw chicks,” Rony García-Anleu of Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) scarlet macaw monitoring and recovery program in Guatemala told Mongabay.

“The flight cage was open at 10 a.m., and by 2 p.m. there were already several macaws flying high above our camp,” García-Anleu said about the release in late August. “I can’t explain the excitement we all felt to see macaws that we raised since they were little chicks or incubated in our camp, having a second chance to live free in the jungle.”

These birds are part of a program by WCS and Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP) to increase scarlet macaw populations in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a nature reserve which covers nearly one-fifth of the nation’s land area, and where an estimated 300 individual scarlet macaws remain in the wild.

Scarlet macaws in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Photo by USAID Guatemala via Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The iconic scarlet macaw, known for its bright rainbow plumage, is threatened by habitat loss and degradation primarily by fires used to clear land for agriculture. Poaching by wildlife traffickers for the illegal parrot trade is also a major threat, especially to the population in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.  Scarlet macaws are listed on CITES Appendix I, which prohibits international trade of the species and all subspecies, but they remain a popular pet.

The 26 birds released by WCS and CONAP were “low weight” chicks, or third or fourth laid eggs collected from nests in the wild and raised in the protection of the lab. Typically, these smaller chicks and late eggs would not survive in the wild.

“Once a very young chick has started to lose weight is extremely difficult to recover it. ‘Low weight’ is one of the many signs of chick starvation but is one of the most obvious, so it is a good indicator that the chick is not doing well and is about to enter the one-way speed road to death,” Gabriela Vigo, co-director of The Macaw Society and a postdoctoral fellow at Texas A&M University, told Mongabay. Though not affiliated with WCS directly, Vigo said The Macaw Society has given scientific advice to García-Anleu and his team for the past 10 years and has also learned from their experience.

Vigo studied the method of collecting third or fourth eggs and “low weight” chicks during her doctoral research. She found that in Tambopata, Peru, starvation was the leading cause of chick death. The first chick to hatch was always raised, but 27% of second, 81% all third and 100% of all fourth chicks were left to starve by their parents and died. Collecting these eggs and chicks from the wild and rearing them in the lab can give them a stronger chance of survival.

In the WCS lab in Guatemala, four field technicians took turns caring for the eggs and chicks 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The field techs, Pedro Díaz, Juan Cuz, José Luis Tzalam and Vitalino Mejia, expressed in written comments to Mongabay that it was a difficult but rewarding job.

“We had to make a lot of sacrifices,” said Díaz, the principal field assistant. “We had to endure little sleep, to be aware of them at night … as well as watch out for those being born so that nothing would happen to them and that they would not lack food.” But, he said, “with the effort of all, they flew.”

The 26 scarlet macaws reared by the WCS Guatemala Program are released but can come. Photo courtesy of WCS.
The 26 scarlet macaws reared by the WCS Guatemala Program are released. Photo courtesy of WCS.

“It is incredible how much this group has achieved on such a low budget,” Vigo said. “Incubating eggs and raising macaw hatchlings is not just labor intensive but also very expensive … Besides, every single hatchling needs to be fed every 2 hours, at least for the first 3 to 4 days of life. Imagine that multiplied by 26 chicks … in a COVID-19 year!”

Once the chicks matured in the lab, they were put into flight cages, and in late August 2020,  the cages were left open so the birds could fly free at will in what is known as a “soft release.” The researchers will continue to offer food and water in the flight cage for a while, but will eventually stop, as the animals need to find resources on their own. If the birds don’t learn, their survival probabilities are low.

Once released, the biggest threat to these 26 birds will be finding food, García-Anleu said. In the wild, chicks remain with their parents for about a year to learn the lay of the land. Chicks raised in captivity face imminent problems without a guide showing them what fruits and seeds to eat, potential predators to avoid, how to socialize, and other skills.

Scarlet macaws are monogamous, forming a mating pair for life. The birds often fly solo or with their mate. In some areas, macaws gather at clay licks, cliffs made of a salty clay they can lick for nutrients. The rainbow birds also eat bugs, snails and larvae and supplement their diet with flowers and nectar.

A scarlet macaw reared by the WCS Guatemala Program is ready to fly into the forest. Photo courtesy of WCS.
A scarlet macaw reared at the WCS Guatemala camp is ready to fly into the forest. Photo courtesy of WCS.

“They have to learn the ropes alone, which would be difficult even for an intelligent bird like they are,” Christopher Vaughan, a wildlife scientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who studies scarlet macaws, told Mongabay in an email.

Lab-reared fledglings fare better when they are released in a big group, in an area with other macaws, Vigo said. This allows them to follow and mimic the wild birds and each other. Fortunately for this large cohort of birds, the soft release took place “in the epicenter” of a wild nesting area, García-Anleu said, and at the same time as the wild fledglings are starting to join and form groups.

The researchers placed radio collars on the birds and are using VHF telemetry to track their movements between Guatemala and Mexico in an effort to better understand their migration. For these young birds, the team hopes to learn if they can survive and join the wild population on its migration to Mexico. A better understanding of their habits and habitats could help to target conservation efforts.

A scarlet macaw is fitted with a radio collar so its movements can be tracked. Photo courtesy of WCS.
A scarlet macaw is fitted with a radio collar so its movements can be tracked. Photo courtesy of WCS.

“It’s extremely rewarding to see so many scarlet macaws fly off into the forest,” García-Anleu said in a statement. “But we need to keep up our work to protect these birds from a variety of growing threats, or they will eventually vanish from the Maya Biosphere Reserve.”

The wide distribution of scarlet macaws, from southeastern Mexico down into the Amazon, helps them to remain classified as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List, even though their habitat is highly fragmented. The Mesoamerican subspecies (A. m. cyanoptera), distributed across the Maya Forest and Honduras-Nicaragua border, is highly threatened.

Researchers are also working to conserve macaws in this area by enlarging natural cavities in trees to increase nesting sites, building falcon-proof nests, and preventing infestation by Africanized bees, which compete for nesting sites and can kill the chicks. This year, fires in Guatemala, increases in illegal agriculture, and COVID-19 added extra challenges to the work.

“This year our field staff faced a ‘perfect storm’ of fires, invasions into the area, and COVID,” Jeremy Radachowsky, regional director for WCS’s Mesoamerica and Caribbean Program, said in a statement. “The fact that they able to persevere with the release of these chicks gives us hope in times of darkness.”

A scarlet macaw portrait. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Banner image of a scarlet macaw courtesy of WCS Guatemala.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter@lizkimbrough_

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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