The Spix's Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) is a long-tailed Brazilian parrot from the Psittacidae family. It is the only member of its genus but similar in appearance to other long-tailed blue Macaws like the Hyacinth Macaw, the world's largest flying parrot.
Spix’s Macaws have recently featured in two popular animated movies (Rio and Rio 2), although their plight has been well-known to bird enthusiasts for a long time. The story of these small, blue Macaws makes for sad reading, but are they really extinct, and is there still hope?
Spix’s Macaws are extinct in the wild. The last wild individual disappeared in 2000. However, over 200 birds remain in captivity, mostly in Europe and Asia. Excitingly, eight adult birds were released in their natural habitat this year (2022), with plans to release a further dozen.
Spix’s Macaws hail from Bahia, a state in northeastern Brazil. The natural habitat of the last remaining birds was riparian woodlands along seasonal watercourses in a semi-arid region known as the Caatinga. Sadly, trapping for the international pet trade and habit loss saw their numbers dwindle before scientists even knew where to look for them.
Despite reintroduction, Spix’s Macaws still face many challenges. Their natural habitat is extremely limited, the threat of further habitat destruction, poaching, and climate change loom, and the world’s remaining birds have a narrow gene pool.
There’s a lot more to learn about the status of Spix’s Macaws. Read on as we unpack their past, present, and possible future.
Spix’s Macaws are completely extinct in the wild, disappearing in the year 2000
Spix’s Macaws are extinct due to trapping for the exotic bird trade and habit loss from livestock farming and wood harvesting.
However, Spix’s Macaws were probably already in trouble before collection for the international pet trade began to take its toll. These birds take their name from Johann Baptist von Spix, an early European explorer. He remarked that they were already very rare in 1819.
As modern transport systems evolved, moving exotic animals to all parts of the world became more efficient, allowing traders to export more Spix’s Macaws to the distant homes of collectors and parrot admirers. Despite the logistics, these birds were already popular with parrot enthusiasts before the turn of the 20th century.
Although long known in captivity, ornithologists did not track down the wild birds until the 1980s. By then, the wild population totaled just three individuals, and it is thought that trappers took two of them soon after. The last remaining bird disappeared in 2000. It had paired with a Macaw from a different species.
Spix’s Macaws are extinct due to trapping for the exotic bird trade and habit loss from livestock farming and wood harvesting
Birdlife International declared Spix’s Macaws extinct in the wild in 2019. However, these birds still live in captivity and were recently reintroduced to the wild. The last known wild individual, a male, was discovered in 1986 and disappeared around the turn of this century.
The nail in the coffin for Spix’s Macaws was trapping for the pet trade. Bird lovers from distant parts of the world fueled their collection and caused their extinction. However, a lack of suitable habitat explains why the birds occurred in such low numbers and were most vulnerable to extinction.
Wild Spix’s Macaws had specialized diets and nest site requirements, making them particularly vulnerable. Scientists believe they bred in a specific vegetation type known as Caraiba gallery woodland.
These woodlands are corridors of tall vegetation that grow along seasonal water courses, a magnet for livestock on ranches. The birds laid their eggs in cavities in the Caraiba tree (Tabebuia caraiba) and fed primarily on the seeds and fruits of other plants in the area.
Studies done on this habitat in the early 1990s showed that livestock ranching prevented the regrowth of these trees. Even where seedlings grew, they were being browsed heavily and were deemed unlikely to survive to maturity.
Although undocumented, Spix’s Macaws would have had natural predators and diseases, and local people also hunted them for food.
A pair of Spix Macaws in captivity
Humans affected Spix’s Macaws by altering their natural habitats and trapping and removing the remaining birds. Overgrazing of cattle and goats damaged their specialized habitat, and the trees they depend on were unsustainably harvested for timber.
However, we have a chance to undo some of the damage. The work of dedicated conservationists and private organizations is resurrecting Spix’s Macaws and protecting their habitat today, hopefully with permanent results.
It is difficult to name the single biggest threat that caused the extinction of wild Spix’s Macaws. Trapping was the most serious direct threat, but it is likely that habitat loss heavily compromised the species.
Close up of a Spix Macaw feeding on food
You can help Spix’s Macaws by supporting conservation bodies that seek to restore the birds and their natural habitat in Brazil. Keeping these birds in captivity is the primary cause of their demise, and law enforcement will be vital in ensuring their long-term safety.
Spix’s Macaws need healthy, natural habitats if they are to recover, and it is vital that we protect their specific habitats if the birds are to live in wild, viable populations.
Farmer education and protected area management are equally crucial in regenerating suitable habitats and saving the species.
Spix’s Macaws are officially extinct in the wild, according to the IUCN. However, this is not entirely true. So just how many of these birds fly free in the Brazilian Caatinga?
There are eight Spix’s Macaws in the wild as of June 2022, released as part of a reintroduction program. A further twelve specimens are due to be released in December of the same year. There are no known wild birds, and scientists believe there is little chance of finding any.
There are eight Spix’s Macaws in the wild as of June 2022, released as part of a reintroduction program
Very few birdwatchers have ever had the pleasure of watching wild Spix’s Macaws in their natural habitat. With just eight free-flying birds in a closely managed reintroduction program, birdwatchers are not likely to spot these birds any time soon.
However, we can only hope that the reintroduction program is a success. A return could see birdwatchers flocking to see the resurrected birds back in their native home. For now, you can still see the Spix’s Macaw in the Pairi Daiza Zoo in Belgium.
Most of the world’s Spix’s Macaws live far from where they belong. In 2010, nearly 80% of the known Spix’s Macaws resided at the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation in Qatar. A privately run German organization subsequently took over their care.
Far from the dry tropical savannas of Brazil, most of the world’s Spix’s Macaws live in captivity in the ACTP (Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots). Their facility in Germany holds approximately 110 individuals, although they transported 52 to Brazil in 2020.
The first eggs from these birds hatched on native soil in 2021, although still in a captive setting. Hopefully, the Caatinga region of Brazil will once again become the world’s stronghold for these beautiful birds.
Hopefully Spix Macaws will become re-established in the wild one day, with the help of reintroduction programs
It is illegal to kill a Spix’s Macaw. These incredible birds are in such a precarious position that the loss of any one wild individual could seriously impact the success of their reintroduction.
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