48 Facts About the Spix’s Macaw: Extinct in the Wild
Survival Only in Captivity
In September 2018, researchers declared that the Spix’s macaw was extinct in the wild. Some members of the species survive in captivity and some of the captive birds have shown that they can breed. The fate of the species depends on their success and on human assistance and determination.
This article describes forty-eight facts about the parrot and its life in the wild and in captivity. It also describes the captive breeding of the animals and the plan to release them into a wild habitat. Hopefully the bird will soon fly through its natural woodland habitat in Brazil again.
BirdLife International is a major conservation organization. In 2018, it estimated that 60 to 80 Spix's macaws lived in captivity. In 2019, the Association for Threatened Parrots said that around 160 birds exist. When the bird was living in the wild, little research into its behaviour and ecology was performed. By the time scientists became interested in the macaws, their numbers were already very low.
Classification and Physical Features
1. The scientific name of Spix’s macaw is Cyanopsitta spixii. Its common name begins with a capital letter because it’s derived from the name of a person. Johann Baptist von Spix was a German naturalist who hunted and collected one of the birds in Brazil in 1819.
2. Like other birds, the Spix's macaw is classified in the class Aves. It's placed in the order Psittaciformes (parrots), the family Psittacidae (true parrots), and the subfamily Arinae (New World parrots).
3. The head of the bird is grey or blue-grey in colour. There is a grey or white patch of skin in front of and around each eye. The body is a shade of blue. The undersurface of the bird is often paler than the upper surface, but sometimes the two areas are more or less the same colour.
4. The bird is smaller than most of the more vividly coloured and well known macaws and has a more delicate appearance. It's sometimes known as the little blue macaw.
5. Like other macaws, a Spix's macaw has a long tail and feet that grip well. It also has long wings.
6. Males and females are about the same size.
7. Juveniles have a white or pink line along the outer edge of their beak, as shown in the photo above.
Life in the Wild
8. The bird is endemic to a small area in northeastern Brazil that contains gallery woodland. A gallery forest is one that exists when the conditions in the surrounding landscape don't support it. The forest may form in the moist area beside a river when the surrounding area is dry, for example.
9. The area where the birds once lived contains a habitat known as the Caatinga, which is represented by the brown patch in the map below. It's a dry area containing small, thorny trees and shrubs. The macaws were found in a special region within the Caatinga habitat. They lived in the drainage basin of the river named Rio São Francisco.
10. The birds' habitat consisted of woodland containing a large population of caraiba trees and shrubs belonging to the spurge family (the Euphorbiaceae).
11. The bird fed on the fruits and seeds of the caraiba tree (Tabebuia caraiba). In North America, this tree is often known as the trumpet tree due to the appearance of its yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers. The seeds from spurges are thought to have been the bird's main source of food.
12. The macaw was seen in pairs and small groups. It's a monogamous species.
13. The nests were created in cavities found in caraiba trees and perhaps in other places as well.
14. Two or three eggs were laid in the summer. Captive birds sometimes lay four or five eggs. Incubation lasted for about a month.
15. The wild birds are thought to have lived for close to thirty years. Birds in captivity may live up to forty years.
Decline of the Wild Bird
16. By 1985, people had known of the macaw's existence for a long time. Exactly when the bird started to experience problems is unknown, but its population probably decreased throughout the twentieth century. It may never have been a common bird.
17. In 1985, the first observations in a series signalling the end of the bird's life in the wild were made. From 1985 to 1986, three birds were found at a site in north Bahia in Brazil. (Bahia is a Brazilian state and is the red area in the map below.) Unfortunately, in 1987 and 1988 the birds were captured, perhaps for the pet trade.
18. In 1990, investigators found a male at the site mentioned above. He was accompanied by a female blue-winged macaw (Primolius maracana).
19. In 1995, a captive female Spix's macaw was released at the site and appeared to pair with the male. She disappeared seven weeks later. She is believed to have collided with a power line and to have died from electrocution.
20. The male associated with the blue-winged macaw again. Neither bird was seen after 2000, however. This is the point at which the Spix's macaw was thought to have become extinct in the wild.
21. A sighting of a different Spix's macaw flying in the wild in 2000 caused much excitement, but the animal is now believed to have escaped from captivity.
22. In 2016, the bird in the video below was filmed. The video is very brief and the bird is flying quite far away from the camera, but luckily he or she emits a call. Experts have confirmed that the animal is a Spix's macaw based on its body shape and its sound. Once again, the bird is thought to have escaped from captivity.
23. The 2016 discovery wasn't enough to prevent the species from being declared extinct in the wild in 2018.
24. The Spitz's macaw may never have been abundant and lived in a special habitat. This background probably made it susceptible to problems.
25. The main threat to the macaw population was the destruction of its habitat. According to BirdLife International, the gallery woodland where it lived has been lost and degraded due to colonization and exploitation for more than three centuries.
26. Another major influence on the bird's population size was trapping for the illegal wild bird trade. This became more important in recent times.
27. The creation of a hydroelectric dam may have had an influence on the population, and perhaps a major one, but its effects are uncertain.
28. In 1957, some Africanized honeybees escaped from a research facility in Brazil and spread rapidly. The bees were a hybrid of the African honey bee and European species. The escape may have affected the macaw population. The bees are very aggressive and readily sting both animals and humans. They build their nests in tree cavities and may have been competitors with the macaw.
Spix's macaws are active and energetic birds. In captivity, they are best kept in a large aviary with a long flight path and lots of perches.
Presley the Spix's Macaw
29. Presley was a captive Spix's macaw who spent the first part of his life in the wild. He died of old age in 2014, but he may still be able to help his species.
30. Presley was caught in Brazil and illegally brought into the United States.
31. He ended up in a woman's home in Colorado. He was kept in a cage and couldn't fly, but his caretaker seems to have been fond of him. He apparently showed a love of rock music and was named after Elvis Presley.
32. The caretaker eventually phoned a veterinary office about a problem in the bird. When he was examined and his species confirmed, authorities were contacted.
33. A deal was arranged. The woman avoided prosecution in return for giving up Presley so that he could be returned to Brazil.
34. The bird ended up in a refuge and breeding facility in Brazil, where he appeared to be happy. The administrator of the refuge said that he was a congenial and vocal animal who made friends with parrots of other species.
35. Presley didn't produce any offspring. He did mate with one female, but all of the eggs that were produced were sterile.
36. Presley was thought to have been around forty years old when he died. Before his death, the administrator hoped to use his sperm to fertilize females via artificial insemination. Since he was unrelated to the other captive birds, he sperm could have provided some genetic diversity. He died before the plan was carried out. His reproductive tissue has been preserved, however. It may one day be useful in the effort to save the macaws.
Breeding facilities for the Spix's macaw are located in Brazil, Qatar, and Germany. Unfortunately, the birds in the facilities are descended from a small group of captive macaws that consisted of only a few male-female pairs. There is limited genetic diversity in the captive animals today. Diversity is useful because it may allow some individuals to survive a stress that kills others.
Inspiration for the Rio Film
37. The Spix’s macaw was the inspiration for the animated film entitled "Rio", which was released in 2011. The word Rio in the title represents Rio de Janeiro. The plot involves the plight of two birds. (Scenes from the film are shown in the first video in this article.)
38. In the film, Blu is a male Spix's macaw who was captured in Brazil when young and is kept in Minnesota as a pet. He is happy, though he believes he is the last member of his species still alive. In addition, he believes that he is unable to fly. One day he hears that a female Spix's macaw named Jewel lives in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. He and Linda, his human caretaker, go to Brazil to find Jewel in the hope of saving his species. After Blu and Jewel have many adventures and Blu discovers that he can fly, the story has a happy ending and three young macaws are produced.
39. It's said that the plot of the film was specifically inspired by Presley and his experiences. Like Blue, Presley was captured in Brazil, kept in the United States as a pet, where he was unable to fly, and then returned to Brazil in an attempt to help save his species.
40. In real life, many places in the world have strict regulations about obtaining a Stix's macaw and keeping it in captivity. It's often illegal to do this.
Returning the Spix's Macaw to the Wild
41. The Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP) seems to be playing an important role in the attempt to save the bird. They are building a Spix's Macaw Release, Breeding and Research Centre in the Caatinga. Their work is shown in the video above.
42. The association works with ICMBio (Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade), a Brazilian organization that is also trying to help the bird.
43. Once the centre is ready for use, birds from Germany will be transferred to the facility in preparation for release into the wild. The release is planned for 2021.
44. Sometime in 2020, the organization will perform a small release of captive blue-winged macaws (also known as Illiger's macaws) in order to test their procedures and equipment. Wild members of this species live in the Caatinga. The researchers want to prepare for the 2021 release of the Spix's macaws so that the process goes as well as possible.
45. The researchers are also preparing the public in the release area. They are trying to raise the local people's awareness of the bird's importance.
46. The organization has bought a farm in the Caatinga, which will serve as the nucleus of the release area. The farm is located in the area where the last wild Spix's macaws were seen.
47. Another potentially significant development is the agreement to create a 120,000 hectare wildlife refuge in the state of Bahia in Brazil. The refuge will include part of the area where the macaw once lived.
48. The previous President of Brazil signed the agreement to create the refuge. Hopefully the creation of the refuge will still go ahead now that a new president is in office.
Due to the small number of birds that formed the basis of the captive breeding program the preservation of the genetic diversity of the population has always been very challenging, however through dedication and hard work we have managed to improve things greatly in this regard.— Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots
An Uncertain Future
The announcement of the Spix's macaw extinction in the wild was made along with an announcement about the disappearance of seven other bird species. Unlike the other birds, the Spix's macaw has a second chance because of the existence of captive animals. Producing enough birds to survive the dangers of life in the wild might be a challenge, however, especially when the current stresses exist. It would be a shame to release a group of precious captive animals and then discover that they died soon after their release.
There is also another factor to consider in relation to the Spix's macaw. Should we actually try to save the bird? Extinction of a species has happened numerous times in Earth's history. The production of new species and the disappearance of old ones is part of life's record on the planet and took place long before humans appeared. It's a natural event.
The Spix's macaw population seems to have been in trouble for a long time. Some people say that the bird should be left to face its fate and no efforts should be made to restock the wild population. Others point out that the destructive action of humans almost certainly sped up the macaw's extinction and say that we owe the bird a chance to live in the wild again. Whichever opinion prevails, I think it would be a shame for the bird to completely disappear.
- Cyanopsitta spixii data from BirdLife International
- The Spix's macaw entry in the IUCN Red List
- Information about Presley the Spix's Macaw from Audubon Magazine
- Spotting of a bird in the wild from the Smithsonian Magazine
- An announcement about the bird's extinction in the wild from The Guardian newspaper
- News about the bird in captivity from the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP)
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Linda Crampton