Mexico is one of the top ten countries in the world in terms of bird diversity, but poverty, crime, and corruption can make it a difficult place for conservationists to work. In the remnant rainforests of Veracruz and Chiapas, however, the restoration of an iconic tropical bird that had all but vanished from the country provides reason for hope: Nearly extirpated from Mexico’s forests for decades, scarlet macaws are once again filling the canopy with their raucous calls.
Photo by Eric Carlson/Flickr
The scarlet macaw’s range extends from southern Mexico through Central America to much of northern South America. While the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List categorizes this brilliantly hued bird as a species of “Least Concern” because it remains fairly common in many parts of its range, in Mexico it has suffered severe population declines.
Threatened by capture for the pet trade as well as habitat loss due the region’s rising human population and the clearing of rainforest for cattle pastures, the scarlet macaw’s range in Mexico is now only 2 percent of what it was historically. As of 2013, only about 250 wild scarlet macaws were estimated to remain in the country and the Mexican government has classified it as endangered.
Now, a bold reintroduction project spearheaded by a group of scientists and their unlikely partner: an amusement park, is seeking to reverse the decline of wild scarlet macaw populations in Mexico.
Xcaret Ecopark is a Disney-esque theme park located on Mexico’s Caribbean coast that has been breeding a captive population of macaws for over two decades. In 2009, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized it for having the most macaws born in captivity in one year. The park’s record-breaking breeding program is now providing birds that can be released back into Mexico’s remaining rainforests.
Of course, reintroducing macaws back into the wild is not as simple as driving a truckload of birds from the amusement park out into the middle of the woods and letting them go. Before the first macaw can ever be released, a long list of questions must be answered to determine whether the project has any hope of success. This begins with the captive macaws themselves — are the same subspecies as the scarlet macaws historically present in Mexico? Are they genetically diverse enough to found a healthy wild population, safe from the problems of inbreeding? Are they free of infectious diseases? Fortunately, tests showed that for the Xcaret macaws, the answer to all of these questions was yes.
The next step was determining whether there was enough habitat remaining to be able to support them in the wild. Two sites were selected for macaw reintroductions, one in Chiapas and one in Veracruz, both of which had enough intact forest to (hopefully) provide for healthy populations of these large, colorful birds. Xcaret selected genetically diverse groups of young macaws, and the researchers built large enclosures in the forest where the birds could get acclimated to their new surroundings in preparation for their release. They needed time to get to know each other and form the social bonds that would keep them together as a flock, time to build up their physical strength by flying around the large, L-shaped cages, and time to learn to recognize the foods they’d encounter in the wild. Their caretakers provided branches of fruiting plants so the macaws could practice foraging.
The human community too, had to be prepared to accept their new neighbors. Patricia Escalante, the scientist in charge of the Veracruz site, says that after decades without them many locals didn’t remember that scarlet macaws had ever lived in the area. “I was talking to a campesino, a farmer, and he said yes, they were here once, but not anymore. When I told him we were doing that he was very happy,” she says. “But not many people remember the scarlet macaws.” So the researchers organized massive education campaigns to garner support for the reintroduction program. A popular local musician in Chiapas wrote a song about Scarlet Macaws that was aired on local TV and radio stations, an annual “scarlet macaw festival” was created with a parade and costume competition, and a macaw-themed coloring book was distributed to local children.
Finally, on a Sunday morning in April 2013, government officials and members of the public gathered to watch the first group of scarlet macaws be released into the Chiapas rainforest near Palenque National Park. The day before, the macaws had been lured from their large flight cage into the smaller “release cage” at one end, and now the weather conditions were just right and there was nothing left to wait for. The gates opened, the red, blue, and yellow birds took flight, and Mexico’s population of Scarlet Macaws increased by 17.
Eight more groups of birds have been released since then, five in Chiapas and three in Veracruz. But the work doesn’t end when the macaws enter the open forest. Project staff and volunteers conduct regular surveys around release sites, recording where they observe the macaws, what they’re doing, and what they’re eating. At the Chiapas site, an observation tower makes it possible to watch flocks in flight from a central location. Some of the macaws are fitted with radio collars to facilitate detailed tracking of their movements. Researchers have even used an aerial drone to film and photograph the macaw flocks and their habitat.
This intensive effort is yielding some impressive results. Out of 96 individual parrots released at the Chiapas site, only nine have died — four were eaten by crocodiles after falling into a lagoon, two flew into branches shortly after being released, and in two more died of unknown causes. The numbers from Veracruz are similar, with 85 releases and only seven deaths. Even more exciting is the fact that the released birds are nesting in the wild; there have been twelve nesting attempts by birds in the Chiapas population, seven in natural cavities and five in artificial nest boxes provided by researchers. Half of those nests successfully fledged chicks.
The story of the macaws’ return to Mexico isn’t over. Much of the bird’s rainforest habitat was cleared to make way for cattle pastures that are no longer profitable for their owners. Escalante sees the next step as restoring this habitat while promoting ecotourism and agroforestry to help support local communities. She has started an agroforestry demonstration garden at the Veracruz site and hopes to provide locals with tree species to plant that will provide habitat and food for macaws as well as fruit and wood that can be harvested commercially.
“Little by little people are realizing that maybe it’s a good idea,” she says. Escalante hopes that the macaws will also help attract bird-loving tourists to the area who will spend money on things like lodging, guides, and transportation, providing further economic benefit.
Macaws were powerful symbols for the ancient people of Mexico. Aztecs paid tributes of macaw feathers to their kings and Mayan stories tell of a macaw demon that pretended to be the sun and moon. While they may need a little human help to continue to thrive in Mexico today, that doesn’t make them any less awe-inspiring. Thanks to the hard work of scientists and local communities, today these beautiful birds are flying free once again.