Animal Spotlight: Spix’s Macaw

Taxonomy:spixsmacaws3

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Psittaciformes
  • Family: Psittacidae
  • Genus: Cyanopsitta
  • Species: Spixii
  • Nicknames: Little Blue Macaw, Guacamayito Azul, Guacamayo de Spix
  • Average Length: 21.65-21.75 in (55-57 cm)
  • Average Weight of Captive Males: 11.2 oz (318 g)
  • Average Weight of Captive Females: 10.2 oz (288 g)
  • Estimated Lifespan: 20-30 years

The Spix’s macaws are elegant parrots to view with their various shades of blue and striking deep blue wings and tail. However, their beauty has led to their decline as it has become the world’s rarest bird.

Spix’s macaws, in the wild, inhabit caraiba gallery woodland along seasonal creeks, in the dry scrub zone known as ‘caatinga’. They are endemic to this small area in the northeastern corner of Brazil and are found nowhere else.

The last wild bird was the solitary male Spix’s macaw until 2000, when he disappeared and was never seen again. It is considered effectively extinct in the wild, surviving only through a small global captive population.

Physical Appearance:

As the only small blue macaw, the Spix’s macaw is easy to identify by its bare gray facial skin of its lores and around the eyes. It has a delicate blue-gray plumage, which intensifies from the ashy-blue crown of the head to the bright blue tail and wings. Its head is distinctively square shaped with pale blue underparts. The legs and feet are brownish-black, the beak is entirely dark gray, and the irises are yellow.

Juveniles appear similar to adults, but the bare facial skin is pale gray, the irises are brown, and are typically dark blue in color. In addition, they have a white stripe along the center of the top of the beak, along the culmen ridge.

Diet:

spixsmacaws2The Spix’s Macaw is a herbivore, feeding on various seeds, nuts, fruits (mainly cactus fruits), flowers, leaves, and other plant material found within its range. They eat the seeds of Favela/Faveleira trees and Pinhão-brabo trees, fruits of Fachiero cacti and local licuri palm, and nuts of the Buriti palm. However, captive bred birds have accommodated to slightly different diets, but has not proved to be as nutritious as what it might have been able to feed on in the wild.

In the wild, the most common seeds and nuts consumed were from Pinhão and Favela trees. However, these trees are colonizers and are not native to the Spix’s macaw’s habitat, so they could not have been historical staples of the diet. With no recently sighted wild Spix’s macaws in the past decade, no biologist or conservationist can fully know what its original diet was prior to its decline.

Behavior:

Information about the natural ecology and behavior of the Spix’s macaw is limited. Research only began when there were only three birds left in the wild so conservationists are limited to the captive population that may have unnatural behaviors due to captivity. However, there has been some data collected that biologists believe to be true for the Spix’s macaw.

Spix’s macaws are noisy, lively birds and like many other species of macaw, they are masters of mimicry. They can mimic human noises and rarely fly more than a few feet before letting out a “kra-ark” cry. Though due to small population size that cause them to be in groups no larger than two or three, it is suspected that they once traveled in flocks of up to fifteen birds, making constant oral communication a necessity.

Spix’s macaws are monogamous and will mate for month. They will travel in pairs or family units, both parents taking active roles in feeding their young and finding food for each other. It is suspected that when this species was more abundant, males competed with each other for nesting spots. However, due to its rarity, it is nearly impossible to observe natural behavior.

Breeding season is between November and March and the birds will breed once a

1546
Photo Found: BirdLife Foundation

year. A clutch is usually two to three eggs, up to five in captivity, laid in the hollows of the dead crowns of craibeira trees. The same nest will generally be reused each year, making them susceptible to poaching.

The eggs incubate for 26 days. During this time, it is essential that the adult Spix’s macaws are undisturbed, as they may injure or destroy their eggs. Chicks fledge in two months and are independent in five months. Because they have extremely small crops, baby Spix’s macaws require more frequent feeding than other young macaws of related species.

Captive bred Spix’s macaws reach sexual maturity at seven years of age. The late maturity in captivity might be due to inbreeding or other artificial environmental factors, as other parrots of similar size reach sexual maturity in two to four years.

In the wild, mating involves elaborate courtship rituals, like feeding each other and flying together. However in captivity, there is no such courtship display. Rather, breeding is signalled by mutual feeding, longer periods of treading (five to ten minutes), and increasing aggressiveness towards the keeper. Breeding in captivity has been achieved several times.

Conservation and Threats:

The Spix’s macaw was known for over 150 years, from small numbers of traded birds and a hunted bird taken by von Spix, until it was traced in 1985-1986 to near the rio São Francisco in north Bahia, Brazil. Prized for their feathers, the Spix’s macaw was poached and sold globally. Human destruction of the caraiba forests in the past 500 years have also led to its decline.

The three remaining birds were captured for trade in 1987 and 1988. However, a single male, paired with a female blue-winged macaw, was discovered in July 1990.  A female was released from captivity in 1995 in hopes of the two becoming a pair. Unfortunately, it disappeared from the release site after seven weeks and is suspected to have collided with a power-line. By the end of 2000, both the wild bird and its mate disappeared and neither were sighted since.

spixsmacawimmatureThe IUCN has listed the Spix’s macaw ‘critically endangered’ since 1994 and listed on the Appendix I of CITES. Though believed to be extinct in the wild, it cannot yet be classified as such until all areas of potential habitat have been thoroughly surveyed. If any populations remain, they are likely to be tiny, and for these reasons, the species is classified as ‘critically endangered’.

In 2000, the total number of publically declared birds in captivity was 60, 54 were captive-bred.

By 2012, the number totalled 80 individuals, with an estimated total of about 120 including birds not registered in the official captive program. Approximately 60 birds (35 females, 24 males, 1 unknown) are kept at the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation (AWWP), Qatar, Persian Gulf, and Middle East. 33 were bred in captivity from 2006 to 2012. 13 birds are owned by a private owner in Switzerland. Seven of the eight birds (6 females, 2 males) that were previously kept at the Loro Parque Foundation (LPF) in Spain have been returned to Brazil (1 was sick and has since died). Another seven (3 female, 4 male) are kept at the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots. Three were bred in captivity. Another four (2 male, 2 female) are kept at the São Paulo Zoo in Brazil. The status and locations of three other birds lost from Dr. Hammerli’s Swiss collection in 1999 are unknown but presumed to be still alive. However, the majority of the registered birds are related to each other as there were only a few successful pairings.

Until 2001, the Spix’s macaw recovery program was coordinated and implemented through the Permanent Committee for the Recovery of the Spix’s Macaw (CPRAA), composed of the Brazilian government, scientific advisors, and Spix’s macaw holders. The future of Spix’s macaw depends on the success of the captive-bred population and its possible reintroduction into the wild. There have been recent problems, however, leading the Brazilian government to suspend CPRAA in 2001, due to internal conflicts persuading individuals to cooperate for the good of the species rather than for greed. However, the brief cooperation between holders of birds resulted in annual increases in the captive population.

It is succeeded by the Working Group for the Recovery of Spix’s Macaw, overseen by the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio). This group is responsible for coordinating captive breeding programs and on-site reintroduction facilities, later followed by on-site breeding facilities. Successful breeding has occurred within some registered facilities, including AWWP and LPF. The later has opened a new breeding center for the species in 2007. AWWP raised five chicks in 2007 and seven in 2013 successfully. In 2013 and 2014, females from the AWWP captive breeding population were artificially inseminated and successfully produced eggs.

spixsmacaws

In February 2009, AWWP announced the purchase of 2,200 hectares Concordia Farm in Bahia state, Brazil. The site is where the last sightings of the lone male Spix’s macaw in October 2000 were recorded. It will be the base of the Spix’s Macaw field project, largely financed by LPF, in hopes of becoming a release site. Plans have been made to allow both the Concordia Farm and its adjacent Gangorra Farm to return to a more natural state by removing domestic livestock and providing a valuable habitat resource for future reestablishment of a wild population.

Interesting Facts:

  • The Spix’s macaw inspired the 2011 movie Rio. Director Carlos Saldanha said he hoped the movie would raise awareness of the challenges facing endangered birds in Brazil. Blu is based off of a Spix’s macaw named Presley.
  • Presley died around 40 years old and is thought to be the second-to-last of the remaining wild-born parrots.
  • There are still occasional unconfirmed local reports of Spix’s macaw sightings in Serra da Capivara National Park.
  • It is considered the rarest bird in the world.
  • It is commonly mistaken for the Hyacinth macaw, which looks similar but bigger.
  • The birds seem to favor the dead crowns of Craibeira trees as perches, suggesting that these are important nest sites for Spix’s macaws
  • Its voice is a strong, clear cra-á cra-á cra-á.
  • The first bird found by von Spix was misidentified as a Hyacinth. It was only two years later that it was noted as a new species.
  • In 1987, wealthy collectors paid up to $40,000 for them on the black market. Nowadays, these rare birds, as well as other endangered species, may be sold for $200,000 or more.

References + For More Reading

The Real “Rio”: True Story of a Spix’s Macaw

Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii)

IUCN: Cyanopsitta spixii

The Spix’s Macaw

Beauty of Birds: Spix’s Macaw

Spix’s Macaw Species Fact Sheet

Spix’s Macaw: The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird by Tony Juniper

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