‘Extinct’ parrots make flying return to Brazil | Birds

Twenty years ago, the future of Spix’s Macaw Couldn’t have looked darker. The last member of this distinctive parrot species has disappeared from the wild, leaving only a few dozen birds in the cages of collectors around the world. The prospects of Cyanopsitus spixii were grim, to say the least.

But thanks to a remarkable international rescue project, Spix’s macaws – with their gray heads and bright blue plumage – have made a dazzling comeback. A herd now hovers freely over their former homeland in Brazil after being released there a month ago. Later this year conservationists plan to release more birds and hope the parrots will start breeding in the wild next spring.

A macaw wildlife sanctuary has been established in the state of Bahia, northeast Brazil

“The project is going extremely well,” said biologist Tom White, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and a technical advisor to the rescue project. “It has been almost a month since we released the birds and all have survived.

“They act like a herd; they stay close to their release and they begin to sample the local vegetation. It’s going as well as possible. »

The Spix’s macaw – named for German biologist Johann Baptist Ritter von Spix, who first collected a specimen in 1819 – was the victim of an environmental double whammy that began in the 19th century. As agriculture spread to South America, the parrot’s homeland – in an area of ​​scrub and thorn forest known as Caatinga in northeastern Brazil – was overgrazed by goats and other farm animals. The land has been badly eroded and the number of macaws has dropped as their habitat has been destroyed.

“That loss in numbers had a very unfortunate side effect,” White said. “As soon as an animal is endangered, collectors want to have one. And that’s what happened to the Spix’s macaw. They became rare and as a result unscrupulous individuals decided to try and take what little was left in the wild for their private collections.

The future of the species looked bleak until the bird’s fortunes were revived by, of all things, an animated film. Riothem story of a domesticated male Spix’s macaw called Blu, who is taken to Rio de Janeiro to mate with a free-spirited woman, Jewel, was released in 2011. The film and its sequel, Rio 2, earned nearly a billion dollars. Basically, the films revealed the threat to the species to a global audience.

The 2011 Rio animation, the story of a domesticated Spix’s Macaw, revealed the species’ plight to a global audience. Photography: 20th Century Fox/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Later, in 2018, Michel Temer, then President of Brazil, signed a decree establishing a wildlife refuge for macaws in the northeastern state of Bahia, while a breeding program, using parrots from collections private, has been implemented in various centers around the world. . A key player in this collaboration has been the German-based organization the Association for Conservation endangered parrots.

The increasing sophistication of modern genetics has also played an important role in saving the Spix’s macaw, White said.

“When you’re trying to build up a number of animals from a very small surviving population, inbreeding can be a real problem. However, the techniques used to verify the genetic status of these birds were very, very sophisticated and allowed breeders to match birds very carefully.

“Artificial insemination has also facilitated the production of offspring from birds.”

As a result, several hundred Spix’s macaws were bred in captivity, and eight of them were taken to Bahia in June for release. And they had company: in addition to Spix’s macaws, eight Illiger’s macaws were also released on June 11.

White said: “The Spix macaws we have now are the end result of generations of captive breeding, and that will have dampened some of their instinctual survival skills.

“However, by mixing them with Illiger’s macaws – which were really just wild birds brought briefly into captivity – Spixes have the advantage of associating with a native species that is lively and alert, and can show them where they get food and alert them to potential predators.”

The birds, each tagged with radio transmitters, are now carefully monitored. “We will release another 12 Spix macaws in December if all goes well,” White added.

“These birds will all be of reproductive age. We have also ensured that there are several nesting cavities, some natural and man-made, in the area to encourage birds to start mating next year and eventually establish breeding territories in the area.

“It’s ambitious but so far things are going well.”

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