Is the Blue Macaw Extinct? Not Yet!
The blue macaw is one of the most recognizable birds in the world. Its beautiful blue feathers were known to Europeans as early as 1790, and native South American peoples for centuries before that. Unfortunately, this bird whose population may have numbered in the millions at one point is on the brink of extinction. Today, let’s take a look at what has driven these beautiful parrots to this point.
Blue Macaw Biology
Before we can understand the unique challenges that blue macaws face, we have to first understand some basic facts about them.
To better understand the blue macaw, we have to understand its place in the world of biology. Let’s take a look at the bird’s phylogeny – its biological classification.
- Class: – Aves: Generally speaking, aves encompasses all animals that most people would consider “birds.” Remember birds are not mammals, but they have feathers, are toothless, and lay eggs.
- Order – Psittaciformes: This order includes almost all parrots. These birds are divided into three superfamilies: Psittacoidea (“true” parrots), Cacatuoidea (cockatoos), and Strigopoidea (New Zealand parrots).
- Family – Psittacidae: The family Psittacoidea is one of three true parrot families in the superfamily bearing the same name. It includes both new and old world parrots.
- Genus – Anodorhynchus: This is one of several genera within Psittacidae. It includes three species. One, the Glaucous macaw, is thought to be extinct. Another, Lear’s macaw, has recovered to roughly 1,000 birds in the wild, up from only ~50 in the 1980s. The third species is A. hyacinthinus.
- Species – A. hyacinthinus: This species is what is most commonly referred to as the “blue macaw.” Some specimens of the blue macaw date back to the 18th century.
Blue macaws are enormous birds. In fact, they are the largest living parrots. In the wild, they can measure over a meter (3.3 feet) in length and weigh up to 2 kg (4.5 pounds). The birds are distinct due to two features. First, they all have bright blue feathers. Secondly, almost all macaws have a flashy, yellow rings around their eyes and mouth.
At one point in time, the blue macaw’s extant range may have occupied a majority of South America. Today, that is certainly not the case. The birds survive in three relatively distinct population clusters.
- Tri-Border Area: More commonly known as the Pantanal region, this area is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is the world’s largest tropical wetland and occupies parts of Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia.
- Cerrado Region: Although this area is vast (accounting for roughly ⅕ of Brazil’s landmass) the macaw habitat is relatively small.
- Northern Brazil: The smallest population group of macaws exists near the Amazon River Delta. This habitat mainly borders the Tocantins, Xingu, and Tapajós rivers.
The blue macaw has similar habitat preferences to other parrots. They generally stray away from dense forest, preferring to occupy semi-wooded or less-densely forested areas. These often include palm swamps. When the macaws do live near dense jungles, they often live along the wide-open banks of major rivers.
Unlike some taxa, birds differ widely in their diet. Large birds of prey – hawks, falcons, etc – are carnivores. Smaller songbirds – robins, jays, etc – are insectivores. The same thing is true for parrots. The New Zealand superfamily of parrots is omnivorous – feeding on both nuts and the hatchlings of seafaring birds.
The blue macaw has a much simpler diet. It is almost exclusively a herbivore that feeds on nuts. In some areas of its habitat, the birds will feed on nuts from only a few types of trees: A. aculeata and A. phalerata. Macaws will also consume some fruits or vegetables depending on what their local environment has to offer.
Reproduction and Lifespan
The reproductive tendencies of the blue macaw are most interesting within the Pantanal region. The vast majority of blue macaws nest in one species of tree: the Mandovi tree. Interestingly, this means that the blue macaw is dependent on certain species of toucans, which spread the Mandovi seeds.
The gestation period for the eggs is roughly one month. The fledglings will eventually leave the nest after around 100 days. Like many large birds, the clutch size is small, usually around two. The birds have to survive for quite some time in the wild because they do not reach sexual maturity until the age of seven.
Danger of Extinction
Blue macaws have been endangered for decades. The other two species in the genus Anodorhynchus provide both a glimmer of hope and a worst-case scenario. The Lear’s macaw has seen a tremendous comeback in the last ~20 years, multiplying its population over ten-fold. On the other hand, the Glaucous macaw is thought to be extinct. Let’s take a look at the two-fold extinction threat to blue macaws.
- Habitat destruction: This is a problem faced by countless species on our planet. Blue macaws require a goldilocks-type habitat: not too dense, not too open. Additionally, they depend on many other species for their continued survival. The vast majority of this habitat destruction is purposeful on the part of humans. By-products such as wildfires, while unintentional, are just as detrimental.
- Caged bird trade: Unfortunately, biologists and conservationists are the only people who believe blue macaws are a beautiful species. Trappers and poachers took roughly 10,000 birds from the wild in the 1980s.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List (IUCN), the blue macaw is listed as “vulnerable – decreasing.” They indicate that roughly 4,300 are left in the wild, and that number is decreasing. While this news is discouraging, there are two bright spots.
First, the number of birds in safe captivity is increasing. More zoos and sanctuaries are recognizing the importance of keeping active birds for genetic diversity. This means that the possibility of reintroducing macaws back into the wild increases with time.
Secondly, multiple Brazilian national and other international organizations are actively monitoring the macaw population. Knowing the challenges is the first step in helping macaws make a recovery to a healthy and stable population size.