Monday, 27 September 2010

Parrots Part 5: The macaws

Currently Bristol has only two macaws, with only one on show. This is our male Scarlet Macaw ‘Rio’, who members of the public can meet most days in our Amazing Animlas show, where he flys free and usually circles over the audience several times. Macaws are among the most intelligent and long lived of all parrots – one Blue and Gold Macaw that is till alive today is said to be over 100 years old and is claimed to have once belonged to Winston Churchill (although this last is probably apocryphal – though it still swears at Hitler). They need their long lives because they do not have a high reproductive rate – at best they only manage to rear one or two young to independence every 3 years or so. Unfortunately, all large macaws are under high pressure from nest poaching for the pet trade, both internationally and within national boundaries, and many species are threatened. Several species were formerly found in various Caribbean islands but are now extinct. As a species, Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao) are listed as Least Concern, but the northern subspecies A.macao cyanoptera is down to perhaps as few as 1,000 individuals.

The diet of macaws is mostly seeds and fruits, with some flowers, foliage, and other plant parts. Some of the fruits contain toxic compounds, and macaws will visit clay licks to consume the clay which absorbs the toxins before they are taken up by the parrots systems. For this reason, a suitable habitat for macaws needs a clay source as well as the expected food and water supplies. Clay licks are traditional and young birds learn where to find them by following their parents and conspecifics.

Macaws are capable of using vast areas when necessary, travelling tens of kilometres each day between roosting and feeding areas. The nest is usually in a dead tree, where they excavate a nest cavity or re-use an existing one. As all macaws are inveterate chewers of wood, a nest tree mainly only last a few years before needing to be replaced, and removal of dead trees, especially large ones, from a forest can severely limit reproduction even without other threats. Fortunately, Scarlet Macaws at least will readily take to artificial nest sites, and conservation measures usually include providing these.

As I mentioned last week, Macaws are quite capable of surviving in the wild if they escape, and several species are currently to be found living wild in Florida, for example these Blue and Gold macaws Ara aruana:

You do not need to travel to Florida howver, as one pair of Scarlet macaws lives considerably closer – in the Netherlands of all places (despite the cold). For an account by one who found them see here:

Of all the highly threatened macaws, the most famous is Spix’s macaw. Sadly extinct in the wild, they are however breeding in captivity at a few locations, and it is possible that they will be able to be reintroduced once the captive population is large enough to produce offspring for such an effort. However, given the long time to maturity and low reproductive rate of all macws, this islikely to be a good few years yet.

(Images from Bristol Zoo website and Wikipedia)

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