Lear's (Indigo) Macaw (A. leari)
The common and scientific name for these parrots is in honor of Edward A. Lear, a popular British artist and writer (Nonsense books and stories including "The Owl and the Pussycat") who painted several species of macaws residing at the London zoo. He painted what we now know as the Lear's Macaw labeling it Hyacinthine Macaw and signing his name (Lear, or course) to the art.
The Lear's or Indigo Macaw is much smaller and much more threatened than the Hyacinth. A lighter and duller shade of blue (more a greenish-blue) than the Hyacinth, it also has a larger (half-moon shaped) and less deeply colored cheek patch. Specimens from the wild have measured 70-75 centimeters and captive bred birds have weighed around 700 grams (1 ½ pounds). Another palm nut specialist (licuri palms of the species Sygrus coronata), they have a small range in a caatinga habitat of the Brazilian state of Bahia. The caatinga is made up of several sub-types, but all have the characteristics of extreme dry climates, thorny scrub brush and cacti. I have traveled over much of the caatinga regions of northeaster Brazil and can tell you that the home of the Lear's Macaw is some of the most rugged and inhospitable. It is the red stone outcroppings of the Raso da Catarina that provide the cliffs for their nest sites.
The total population of Lear's Macaws is not known, but has been estimated to be between 70 and 100. There are rumors that there may actually be a second population with a similar number of individuals. Even if true, there are probably no more than 200 in the wild and a handful in captivity.
An interesting feature of the diet of the Lear's Macaw is that the licuri palm nut yields a much more generous portion of meat than the palm nuts eaten by the Hyacinth Macaw. Also, the shell of the nuts eaten by the Hyacinth is much thicker and harder to open. I have watched both species eating palm nuts and the Lear's are much quicker in getting to their rewards and consuming them. This seems the opposite of what it should be. The larger macaw has to work harder and longer to get much less volume of food. The differences may be justified by the fact that the Hyacinth lives with the palms it uses for food, while the Lear's roost in the far away cliffs and must make long flights to get to the food source. Perhaps the extra work of getting there balances the ease of consuming the food.
Click Here to see close-up of Licuri palm nuts
The Genus Cyanopsitta
Spix's (Little Blue) Macaw (A. spixii)
There is only one species in this genus, the Spix's Macaw (C. spixii). Ironically, there is also only one known wild individual of that one species. This macaw is 55-57 centimeters (about 22 ½ inches) long and captive bred birds have averaged 350 grams (about ¾ pound). They have a grayish-blue head and neck and blue body. Its peculiar coloration and striking black triangular facial patch combine to give it a most distinct, almost bizarre, appearance. The late Helmut Sick, famed Brazilian ornithologist, felt that this bird was not a macaw at all and deserved status as a separate family of parrots. The last know surviving wild individual of this species, genus and, perhaps, family of parrots lives in the lower Rio Sao Francisco Valley of the Brazilian state of Bahia. Never widespread or numerous, at least in modern times, this species seems doomed to extinction in the 21st century. Perhaps the few individuals held in captivity hold out some tiny hope for the survival of this species.
The Genus Ara
There are eight species in this genus, including the most familiar and "classic" of the macaws. Several former members of this genus have been moved to other genera and one, the Cuban Macaw (A. tricolor), became extinct in 1864. Ara, from Indian languages and adopted into Brazilian Portuguese, translates to macaw.
Blue & Yellow (Blue & Gold) Macaw (Ara ararauna)
These beautiful and familiar macaws are the most commonly seen in captivity (at least in the United States). With lengths of 75-83 centimeters (30-33 inches) and captive adult weights of 1,100 grams (2.4 pounds) they are quite large birds. They have ultramarine blue upper surfaces, golden-yellow undersides, green foreheads, black throats and large white facial patches. Black feathers make narrow lines on the otherwise bare face and an ominous black bill completes their striking appearance. Their tail and flight feathers are blue above and golden-yellow below. The scientific name for the species was given by early taxononomist Linnaeus. Clearly, he did not understand that ararauna in the original Indian language translates to "black macaw".
Their range extends from eastern Panama to southwestern Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. They are a bird who prefers lowland humid forests but I have seen them up to 3,000 feet in Panama and on sparsely treed savannas in southwestern Brazil and eastern Bolivia. Their preferred nesting site is a dead palm tree in a varzia (seasonally flooded) forest. Although they have suffered from both habitat loss and persecution, they are not threatened with extinction.
Click Here to see Blue & Yellow Macaws in the wild
Blue-throated (Caninde) Macaw (Ara glaucogularis)
The "old" common name for this species was Caninde Macaw. It is still used in the pet trade and among aviculturists, but is to be condemned. The "old" common name came from the "old" scientific name, Ara caninde. This name was applied by an early ornithologist who thought that "caninde" was the name used by locals for these birds. In fact, it later proved that "caninde" was the local common name for the Blue & Yellow Macaw. Both the new scientific and common names are descriptive. Glaucogularis translates to blue throat. They occur in the Bolivian state of Beni. Reports of their being in other states is probably not accurate. Their preferred habitats are palm stands in seasonally flooded savanna country and along palm lined watercourses in the same area. The places that I saw them were all "palm islands." These are palm groves on ground slightly higher than the surrounding savanna, and the ones I saw had natural moats around them. They eat the soft fruit of several species of palms, especially those of Attalea phalerata, Acrocomia tolai and Scheelea princeps.
This species is highly endangered with only 50-100 individuals left in the wild. Fortunately, there are several hundred in captivity, where some aviculturists have found them to be prolific breeders.
Click here to see Blue-throated Macaws in the wild
Military Macaw (Ara militaris)
The apparent origin of this bird's common and scientific names is the similarity of coloration to those of the Mexican soldier of the past. At 85 centimeters (34 inches) and 850 grams (almost 2 pounds) it is among the larger macaws. Mostly green with a red forehead and a pale blue rump, it is attractive but far from gaudy. The large bare facial patch is lined with black feathers (sometimes a few red feathers). The face is white in color, but often looks pink due to a blush effect.
This macaw has a most unusual distribution. With a northern extension well into North America (it ranges farther north in Mexico that southernmost Texas), skips Central America, picks up again in Colombia, skips several areas in South America and finishes out in extreme northwest Argentina. Preferring high and dry terrain, this species makes possibly the longest seasonal movements of any parrot. Pine nuts are among its favorite foods and it nests in both tree cavities and holes in mountain cliffs.
These macaws have declined due to loss of habitat and persecution but do not appear to be in serious danger of extinction.
Great Green (Buffon's) Macaw (Ara ambigua)
In the past, I believed that there were insufficient differences between the Military and Great Green Macaws to warrant placing them in different species. In recent years, I have been converted to the school that splits them. Even the scientific name suggests confusion about their taxonomic affinities (ambigua = ambiguous). There are significant differences in the size, preferred habitat, vocalizations and habits of these two birds, enough to convince me.
This species occurs in humid forests of parts of Central America (Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama) and extends, in a disjointed fashion, from Colombia through Ecuador. I have been privileged to see them on two trips to remote areas of eastern Panama and observed them up to elevations greater than 4,000 feet (higher than usual for this lover of humid lowland forests). Being a mostly Central American species, they have suffered from extensive loss of habitat. They are classified as CITES Appendix 1. VUNERABLE.
Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao)
One of the most beautiful birds in the world, these large macaws are dressed in feathers of scarlet red, golden-yellow, deep green and powder blue. Their large white bare facial patches are lacking of noticeable feather lines. They are 80-96 centimeters (32 38 inches) and average 890 grams (2 pounds). Their tail and flight feathers are blue above and red below. When seen from the front, landing Scarlet Macaws look almost totally red.
Their range is the most extensive of any other macaw, extending from southeastern Mexico to southern South America. They seem to prefer dry forests in Mexico and Central America but are found in humid and dry forests in South America, as well as in some savanna areas. No other macaw has been reported to eat a diet as varied as the Scarlet. The list of fruits, nuts and seeds seems endless. Perhaps this is a partial explanation for their expansive range. They prefer to nest in cavities in hardwood trees.
They have suffered from habitat loss and persecution by man over much of their range, but nowhere so dramatically as in Mexico and Central America. Not really endangered, they are nevertheless listed in CITES Appendix 1. This listing, I believe, is mostly to help protect the Mexican and Central American populations, for they are plentiful through much of their South American Range.
Click Here to see Scarlet Macaws in the wild
Red & Green (Green-winged) Macaw (Ara chloroptera)
The scientific name of this bird literally says "macaw green wing", agreeing more with the common name used by pet owners and breeders than that favored by ornithologists. These magnificent macaws are very large and painted a deep red, blue and green. Their bare facial area is lined with red feathers and their head is huge. Many have a disproportionately short tail, giving them a top-heavy look. Their length is reported to be 73-95 centimeters and their captive weight about one kilogram (2.2 pounds). This makes them one of the largest macaws.
They have a range almost as large as the Scarlet, extending from eastern Panama to northern Argentina. They seem to prefer humid forests in the lowlands to foothills, but I have seen them in mountainous areas in eastern Venezuela and eastern Panama. Their diet is almost as varied as that of the Scarlet, taking many varieties of fruits, nuts and seeds. They nest in cavities of large hardwood trees.
Like most macaws, they have lost habitat and been persecuted by man but appear safe from eminent threat of extinction.
Red-fronted Macaw (Ara rubrogenys)
These medium-sized macaws are interesting in coloration. Their body is largely olive-green but red-orange markings of the forehead, crown, ear coverts and wings give them a most hansom look. Their reported length is 60 centimeters (24 inches) and their captive weight about 435 grams (1 pound). They have a tiny range in central-southern Bolivia. The area is arid and rocky with thorny scrub and cacti. They eat a variety of fruits and nuts. They have been persecuted for raiding crops of corn and ground nuts. They nest in crevices of cliff faces.
With a small range and small numbers, not to mention persecution by man, they are listed as CITES Appendix 1. ENDANGERED. Captive breeding efforts have been somewhat hampered by the fact that imported stock had many more females than males.
Click Here to see a Red-fronted Macaw
Chestnut-fronted (Severe) Macaw (Ara severa)
These 40-49 centimeter (16-20 inch) parrots look like miniature Military Macaws. Only the substitution of a chestnut forehead for a red one spoils the impersonation. Their distribution is from eastern Panama to central South America, avoiding the heart of the Amazon Basin. They inhabit forested areas (varzia, gallery, partially cleared, secondary, swampy) as well as savannas. They are often encountered in clearings and other disturbed sites, a habit I have personally observed in Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela.
These birds eat a varied diet typical for large parrots and nest in cavities of dead palms. They have not been persecuted as much as most macaws, lacking both size and gaudy feathers. Sometimes it pays to be plain. They do not appear to be in eminent danger of extinction.
The Genus Orthopsittaca
There is only one species in this new genus, the Red-bellied Macaw. Until recently, this macaw was in the genus Ara.
Red-bellied Macaw (Orthopsittaca manilata)
These small (44-48 cm.) macaws have a close association with stands of Mauritia palms; in fact, they depend on them for roosting sites, nest cavities and most of their food. The Mauritia palms occur only in swamps or seasonally flooded areas. They range from northern South America to south central Brazil with their range centered on the Amazon Basin.
These birds have interesting coloration. Mostly green, they have a yellowish bare facial patch, yellow wing undersurfaces and a reddish belly. Being small and lacking bright coloration, they have suffered little persecution by man. Their habitat, being swampy, has suffered little destruction. In short, their numbers have declined little in comparison to other macaws.
The Genus Propyrrhura
Three "miniature" macaws are placed in this genus, all having previously placed in the genus Ara. I suspect that the name derives from the blue parts of the head.
Blue-headed Macaw (Propyrrhura couloni)
This blue-headed, mostly green macaw measures 40 cm. (16 inches). Its triangular facial patch is a dark shade of bluish-gray. It has a restricted range in the western Amazon Basin including southeastern Peru, northwestern Bolivia and westernmost Brazil (the Brazilian data via personal communication from Andrew Whittaker). They seem to prefer disturbed forests in the foothills to 1,500 meters. This species is little known in the wild and uncommon in captivity. Its limited range and small population puts it in some danger of extinction, but there is no evidence that its numbers have declined.
Blue-winged (Illiger's) Macaw (Propyrrhura maracana)
These macaws are a bit more colorful than most other small macaws. They measure 43 cm. (17 inches). Like all small macaws, they are mostly green but have an attractive red forehead and blue crown. The bare facial area is light in color and there is a red abdominal patch. Their range is below the Amazon Basin, covering much of the eastern one half of middle South America. They are found in humid forests, deciduous (dry) forests and cerrado (closed scrubland) savanna.
This species has declined markedly in recent years for reasons that are not fully understood. Clearing of suitable habitat has played a role, but the rate and distribution of decline cannot be explained by this alone. They are uncommon in captivity with most captive birds in breeding programs. They are classified CITES Appendix 1. VUNERABLE.
Yellow-collard Macaw (P. auricollis)
The scientific species name literally translates to "golden neck." Mostly green with a handsome golden-yellow collar, black forehead and blue crown and nape. Like all macaws (excepting the Red-shouldered) their flight feathers are blue above. A rather small range in central South America holds these birds. They inhabit a variety of habitats including forests, savannas and the cerrado of central Brazil. Their numbers seem to be relatively stable.
The Genus Diopsittaca
This is another monotypic genus.
Red-shouldered (Noble) Macaw (D. noblis)
The smallest of the macaws (30 cm., 12 inches) these birds are easily mistaken for a parakeet of the genus Aratinga. In fact, they look much like a Blue-crowned Parakeet (Conure), differing mostly by their red shoulder patch and small, triangular facial patch. The last flock of this species I saw was in the front yard of a ranch house in Brazil and I mistakenly identified the parrots as parakeets at first glance. Only close study with binoculars corrected my error. There are two (possibly three) subspecies of the Red-shouldered Macaw. Diopsittaca noblis noblis has both mandibles colored dark gray, while D. noblis cumanensis has a horn colored upper mandible. In aviculture and the pet trade D. noblis noblis is called the Hahns Macaw while D. n. cumanensis is called the Noble Macaw.
Several ornithologists challenge the placement of this parrot among the macaw clan. The creation of a genus just to accommodate this species speaks to their peculiar status.
These little guys occur north and south, but not in, the Amazon Basin. They prefer open woodlands, savannas and palm stands, avoiding thick, humid forests. They do not seem to be any eminent danger of extinction. They are fairly common in captivity and are bred with regularity.
1. Abramson, J., Speer, B.L. & Thompson, J.B.: The Large Macaws. Raintree Publications, Fort Bragg, CA, USA. 1995, 1999.
2. Clark, W.D.: Personal observations during 30 field trips to Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil of one to three weeks in duration, 1984-1999.
3. Clark, W.D.: Hyacinths of the Pantanal. "Bird Talk." Vol. IX, No. 2: 26, February 1991.
4. Clark, W.D.: Hyacinth MacawsNesting in the Wild. "AFA Watchbird." Vol. XVIII, No 3: 8-10, June/July, 1991.
5. Clark, W.D.: From the Field: the Lear's Macaw. "AFA Watchbird." Vol. XXV, No. 4: 19-21, July/August, 1998.
6. del Hoyo, J., Elliott A. & Sargatol, J. (eds.): Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 4. Lynx Edicions. Barcelona, 1997.
7. Juniper, T. & Parr, M.: Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World. Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1998.
8. Forshaw, J.M. & Cooper, W.T.: Parrots of the World, 3rd Edition. Lansdowne Editions, Willoughby NSW, 1989.
9. Whittaker, Andrew: Personal communication, January 1997.
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