The Hyacinth Macaw!
I’m going to take a break from writing the “oddball” parrots series to post this article I wrote for Parrots magazine about Hyacinth Macaws. Enjoy!
In the Land of the Hyacinth Macaw
By: Jessie Zgurski
Of all the great wilderness areas and wildlife spectacles of the Neotropics, it is the famed Amazon rainforest of northern South America that gets the biggest share of the attention and tourists. It is, after all, the world’s largest rainforest and is home to countless plant and animal species, many of which remain to be discovered. However, on a recent trip to South America, I chose to explore another lesser known but no less great wilderness area: the Pantanal region of central Brazil. It is not nearly as well known as the Amazon region to the north, but its wildlife is just as spectacular, if not even more so.
The Pantanal is South America’s counterpart to Africa’s Serengeti plains – the wildlife there is extremely abundant and very visible. There are, however, fewer of the giant mammals Africa is famous for, and there are a lot more cattle. But, the Pantanal makes up for this in the sheer otherworldliness of many of its mammals and in the astonishing number of birds that live there. Many ecotourists who visit the Pantanal get to see furry Giant Anteaters, which look like no other mammal on earth, and almost nobody leaves a trip to the region without seeing big groups of capybara, which resemble sheep-sized, aquatic guinea pigs. At night it is possible to see armadillos, which, with their leathery shells, look a bit like a cross between a large rat and a tortoise. Huge birds such as the graceful, ostrich-like rhea and the stately black and white Jabiru Stork are very common, and sinister-looking but harmless Yacaré Caiman are almost everywhere. Birders can see a startling variety of beautiful toucans, parrots, herons, raptors, and hummingbirds with almost no effort. With effort, the number of bird species seen in a short visit can easily climb over one hundred. I greatly looked forward to this trip for months before leaving, eager to see the Pantanal’s wonderful diversity of birds, but, there was one magnificent species in particular I had my sights set on, for I was in the realm of the Hyacinth Macaw, the biggest of all of South America’s parrots.
The Pantanal: Realm of the Hyacinth Macaw
The Pantanal is the world’s largest wetland and it is so big that early European explorers initially thought they had found a great inland sea upon discovering it. It covers 140 000 to 195 000 square kilometers of central Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, although most of it lies within the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil. I visited the region during the dry season, which lasts from June to August, so what I saw didn’t resemble an inland sea, or even a modest lake. What I saw was grassland interspersed with patches of forest, a few small pools and some shallow, reddish rivers. However, the water marks on many of the trees revealed that much of the land had been underwater at some very recent point. In fact, about 80% of the Pantanal is submerged each year during the wet season, which lasts from November to March. A boat would have been needed to get to the lodge I stayed at during the wet season. However, it could be reached by a vehicle while I was there.
The Pantanal is truly a paradise for bird watchers such as myself, as the region is home to hundreds of species, and at least 250 of them can be found just on the land of the lodge I stayed at (Pousada do Xaraés), which covers 4200 hectares. Eleven species of parrot have been recorded on the property and I managed to see nine of them. Even just around the lodge, I could see all sorts of hummingbirds, raptors, thrushes, blackbirds, flycatchers, jays, tanagers, and two species of kingfisher. Nanday Conures, Peach-fronted Conures and Quaker Parakeets often perched in the trees right outside my room, and flocks of Blue-fronted Amazons foraged and roosted in nearby stands of trees. The sheer number of birds was amazing. For mammals, I was able to see two Giant Anteaters, a few groups of Ring-tailed Coatimundi, Marsh Deer, Red Brocket Deer, Grey Brocket Deer, a Giant River Otter, families and pairs of Howler Monkeys, herds of White-lipped Peccaries, and a Crab-eating Fox. I also saw jaguar and tapir tracks, but, unfortunately, not the animals that made them. I also saw no anacondas or any other snakes. That is something most people would say with a sense of relief, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing some of these often-loathed animals – from a distance, in the case of the giant or venomous species. I also didn’t see any of the monstrous giant spiders that live in underground burrows in the area either, but I always wondered how many I walked over, while being totally unaware of their presence a foot or two under my feet. I did get to see hundreds of caiman (a relative of the alligator), several Green Iguanas and many smaller lizard species.
I also spotted several flocks of the major flagship species of the Pantanal, and the animal I had come to see. The grand Hyacinth Macaw is a bird usually described in superlatives: they are the biggest of all flighted parrots, and are startlingly beautiful. Their glossy feathers are a rich, royal blue colour – a colour rarely seen on such a large animal – and their golden, almond-shaped eye rings contrast beautifully with their plumage. The golden, featherless patch on the edge of their lower mandibles adds to their charm because it makes them look like they are smiling. They admittedly do look a little awkward – even somewhat puppyish – while they walk on the ground looking for palm fruits. However, in flight they are elegant and move with very shallow wing beats that appear nearly effortless. Few parrot fanciers forget their first meeting with a Hyacinth Macaw, especially if it is with a free-living bird.
Meeting the Hyacinth Macaws
While in the Pantanal, the first group of macaws I saw was in flight over a ranch I was going horse-back riding at. One of my favourite ways to see a countryside is from the back of a horse. While the guides were preparing the horses, three hyacinths landed in a tall palm tree nearby that contained bunches of palm fruits– a favored food of wild macaws. I dumped my back pack in the dirt and grabbed my binoculars to watch them. I think I held up the group, but got a few pictures and went riding – hoping I would see more hyacinths.
I did see many more hyacinths throughout the trip. They seemed to prefer to inhabit open areas, and they had booming voices, so they were hard to miss. However, it is best to get up early to see wild macaws actually doing something besides perching, because hyacinths, like many parrots, are early risers. I, under normal circumstances, am not. However, hearing several wild hyacinths squawking right outside my room gave me a good motivation to get up at 5:30 am while I was in the Pantanal. And what a nice thing to wake up to! Hyacinths feed largely on palm fruits, and there were several palm trees around the property I was staying at. Hyacinths will gladly forage around farm houses and people if there is food available.
Wild Hyacinth Macaws are fascinating to watch and they have a lot of character. They often hang upside down by their feet or beaks as they pull palm fruits off of trees, and despite their size, they are really quite acrobatic. They often chat to each other in low, grumbly voices and they occasionally let out very loud, booming squawks. It is also easy to pick out the couples and family groups in a flock of hyacinths. In flight, pairs fly together, and a pair with an offspring will fly with mom and dad in front and the youngster slightly off to the side or a bit behind. Young hyacinths can stay with their parents for up to sixteen months, and the parents won’t breed again until the youngster has become independent. Hyacinth families in the region I was in – the Southern Pantanal near the town of Miranda – are usually groups of three, as it is rare for a pair to be able to successfully raise more than one chick. However, in some areas where there are fewer people, hyacinths often can raise two chicks to maturity. When a hyacinth family rests during the hottest part of the afternoon, they will rest close together and a few family groups will often roost in the same tree. The roosts I saw usually contained a dozen or so birds, but sometimes, a night roost can contain up to one hundred birds. Greenwing Macaws will also sometimes roost with hyacinths.
I should note that, while they are locally common in the area of the Pantanal I visited, Hyacinth Macaws are globally endangered. They actually occur in three disjunct areas of Brazil – the Pantanal, a region of dry cerrado (tropical savannah) in central Brazil, and the east-central Amazon. Although some live in the Amazon region, hyacinths are not rainforest birds. They prefer to live in open habitats and where they occur in the Amazon, they prefer to stay near forest edges. During their low point in the 1980s, there were only about 2 500 Hyacinth Macaws in the world and only about 1 500 of them lived in the Pantanal.
Two main problems contributed to the hyacinth’s demise in the wild: capture for the pet trade and the destruction of its habitat. Additionally, they are captured for their feathers where they occur in the Amazon. Hyacinth Macaws are targeted by smugglers because they are greatly coveted by many parrot owners and breeders, and a single hyacinth can usually sell for $8 000 USD or more. It has been illegal to export them from Brazil since 1967; however, between 1981 and 1984 about 700 birds were caught and exported legally from Bolivia for the US market. That was a huge portion of the population. Many of those birds were likely illegally caught in Brazil and then snuck into Bolivia for export. In 1987, hyacinths were placed on Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), meaning that they could not be exported legally from any country where they occurred, but it’s difficult to estimate how many birds have been exported illegally. It is also difficult to estimate how many birds have been captured and kept in captivity within Brazil. Based on how many smugglers have actually been caught, there’s no doubt that hundreds of hyacinths have been removed from the wild by smugglers.
Hyacinth Macaw populations have also declined because their habitat tends to overlap with regions where people want to raise cattle, especially in the Pantanal. I saw that they can live alongside cattle, if the palm trees that produce the food they eat and the large trees they nest in are not cut down. In the Pantanal, virtually all hyacinth nests are in Manduvi trees (Sterculia apetala). Like the majority of parrots, hyacinths nest in tree cavities, and Manduvi trees have all the qualities needed to make a good macaw nest, because they are tall and wide, and they have soft wood, so a macaw can easily enlarge an existing hole in one. Individual trees big enough for hyacinths to nest in are not common and several other species, including Greenwing Macaws, also nest in Manduvi tree cavities. The availability of nest trees really limits Hyacinth Macaw populations. A Manduvi tree large enough to make a good hyacinth nest takes 60 years to grow, so if people cut down the Manduvi trees in an area, it would take decades for the area to again become suitable habitat for a breeding population of hyacinths. This is especially true if there are a lot of cattle in the area, since they can trample or eat Manduvi seedlings.
Despite these problems, a significant population recovery of Hyacinth Macaws has occurred in the Pantanal thanks to the efforts of dedicated conservationists and the farmers and ranchers who worked with them. In 1990, biologist Neiva Guedes started Projeto Arara Azul (the Hyacinth Macaw project), with the aim of restoring Hyacinth Macaw populations in the Pantanal and ensuring their long-term survival. One of my guides in the Pantanal had been a field assistant for this project, so I got to learn a lot about it. Part of the recovery effort for hyacinths involved installing artificial nest boxes throughout the Pantanal, so populations could increase in areas where good nest trees were scarce. Since so much of the Pantanal is private land, researchers worked with farmers and ranchers to get the nests installed. Members of the Hyacinth Macaw recovery team educated the Pantaneiros (inhabitants of the Pantanal) about the macaws and why they are endangered through presentations and radio and television messages.
The Hyacinth Macaw Project has been very successful. The population of wild hyacinths now stands at approximately 6 500, with 5 000 birds living in the Pantanal region. Given the low natural reproductive rate of the species, this is a very impressive result. Poaching has also declined very sharply in the Pantanal, so things are looking up for the Hyacinth Macaws in this region.
The biologists working on the Hyacinth Macaw project have also gathered a great deal of data on the behavior and ecology of hyacinths. A research report was recently published in the journal Biological Conservation about the hyacinth’s relationship with another big, charismatic bird that lives in the Pantanal – the Toco Toucan. While coatimundis, opossums and jays eat hyacinth eggs, the biggest predator of hyacinth eggs are Toco Toucans. The toco is the species most people would picture if asked to think of a toucan. Tocos are black with white bibs, blue eye-rings and long, bright orange beaks. They weren’t too hard to spot in the Pantanal, due to their habit of flying in open areas between patches of trees and their very bright beaks. They are impossible to mistake for any other bird. They have a broad diet and eat most things they can swallow whole, and eggs make a very nutritious meal for them. I spend a lot of time watching several toucans swallow small palm fruits whole one afternoon. I found that group by following their calls, which are rather harsh and gronky sounding.
In addition to eating their eggs, Toco Toucans also compete with hyacinths for nesting sites and will even take over hyacinth nests after killing nestlings. Thus, their presence can really create problems for the hyacinths. However, the hyacinths actually need the toucans to persist over the long term, because the toucans disperse the seeds of the Manduvi trees that hyacinths nest in. Toucans actually disperse the seeds of many plant species, since they swallow whole fruits and expel their seeds either through their droppings or by regurgitating them. Since toucans travel widely, they do a great job of spreading around seeds, including those of the Manduvi tree. Hyacinths need Manduvi trees that are spread out across the landscape, because they prefer not to nest closely to each other.
Aside from the Manduvi trees they nest in, Hyacinth Macaws also rely strongly upon two species of palm trees for food: the acuri palm (Attalea phalerata) and the Bocaiúva palm (Acrocomia aculeata). While walking around the lodge one afternoon, I picked an acuri fruit off of a tree to examine. They are rock hard and very smooth, but the hyacinths can still open them with their incredibly powerful beaks. I would have needed a hammer and all of my strength. However, it still takes the hyacinths a lot of beak grinding to get these fruits open. It’s also a skill that takes juveniles some time to learn. But, as I saw later, some hyacinths have also found a way to get at the nutritious and fatty meat of the palm fruits without having to do as much beak work.
At one point, while traveling in a jeep, my guide and I came across a group of eight Hyacinths on the ground in the middle of a field that cattle graze on. They were clearly eating something they could hold with their feet, though they were very far from any palm trees, or any other plants that produce large fruits. We pulled in closer to the macaws, but not so close that the birds became agitated.
What the macaws were doing was picking palm fruits out of cattle manure. The droopy-eared, hump-backed Brahman cattle of the Pantanal – of which there are about eight million – will eat palm fruits that have fallen on the ground. They cannot digest the entire fruits, but they can digest off their tough, fibrous outer coatings. They then expel the fruits in their manure or they regurgitate them. Without the tough outer coating, the fruits are much softer, so when a group of hyacinths comes across a batch of these processed palm fruits, they will take the opportunity to get an easy-to-open meal.
Hyacinth Macaws have another neat little trick to deal with opening their meals. They are one of only two parrot species (the other being the Black Palm Cockatoo) that have been observed using tools in the wild. Wild hyacinths may take a leaf, roll it around a palm fruit, position the fruit in the beak and remove the fruit’s outer shell by moving the lower mandible back and forth. Perhaps the leaf makes the fruit easier to “peel,” by making it less slippery? This would be similar to how some people put a dish cloth over a tight jar lid to make it easier to get a grip on and twist open. This hypothesis regarding why hyacinths use leaves to open palm nuts is backed by the fact that hyacinths feeding on palm fruit found in cattle manure don’t bother wrapping the fruit in leaves. The fruit would not be as slippery and difficult to peel, so the leaf wrap would not be needed.
Saying “Goodbye” to the Hyacinths
My last day in the Pantanal was great in terms of hyacinth viewing. I saw several groups on a jeep ride and watched several foraging and resting around the lodge after I got back. After that, I left for Bonito, a town about a four hour drive away. I got to see more parrots around that town, especially Greenwing Macaws, which are very common around a large nearby sinkhole called “Buraco das Araras,” or “Hole of Macaws.” The greenwings nest in the sides of the cliffs there. I also saw a few flocks of Greenwing Macaws in the Pantanal as well, although while they will forage or roost alongside hyacinths, I never saw the two species together. Around Bonito, I also got to see more Orange-fronted Conures, Blue-fronted Amazons and Green-cheeked Conures. Bonito is most famous for the clear rivers full of colourful fish that run through the nearby countryside, so I also went snorkeling while I was there.
Was I happy with my decision to visit the Pantanal? Absolutely! The wildlife there was absolutely amazing. I would definitely recommend the region to bird-watchers, people who want to see wild parrots, or anyone who enjoys seeing wildlife. I would even like to go back to Brazil someday, to go back to the Pantanal again – I really loved it there – but also to visit the Amazon rainforest and the Atlantic rainforest.
Projeto Ara Azul – The Hyacinth Macaw Project
-this site is in Portuguese, but can be translated into English with the google.com translator.
-a site about the Hyacinth Macaw and its relatives.
Borsari A, Ottoni EB. 2004. Preliminary observations of tool use in captive hyacinth macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus). Animal Cognition, 8, 48-52.
Collar NJ, Gonzaga LP, Krabbe N, Madroño Nieto A, Naranjo LG, Parker TA III and Wege DC. 1992. Threatened Birds of the Americas. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, USA, in cooperation with The International Council for Bird Preservation, Cambridge. UK.
Forshaw JF, and Knight F (Illustrator). 2006. Parrots of the World: An Identification Guide. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, USA.
Guedes NMR and Harper L. 1999. Hyacinth Macaws in the Pantanal: Conservation and management. In: The Large Macaws: Their Care, Breeding and Conservation. J. Abramson, BL Speer, and JB Thomsen (eds.) Raintree Publications, Fort Bragg, CA, USA.
Guedes NMR. 2004. Management and conservation of the large macaws in the wild. Ornitologia Neotropical, 15, 279-283.
Pizo MA, Donatti CI, Guedes NMR, Galetti M. 2008. Conservation puzzle: Endangered hyacinth macaw depends on its nest predator for reproduction. Biological Conservation, 141, 792-796.