10 Apr 2018

Record numbers of Blue-throated Macaws spotted

Although it’s in critical danger of extinction, there’s hope for the Blue-Throated Macaw. A series of conservation initiatives have led to record numbers of the bird being seen this past November.

Photo: Charles Hesse
By Samantha Moreno

When Tjalle Boorsma, a reserve coordinator at the Barba Azul Nature Reserve, surveyed the number of Blue-throated Macaws Ara glaucogularis this past November he counted 155, a new record.

The finding is significant because Blue-Throated Macaws are Critically Endangered, with just 250 to 300 left in the wild according to BirdLife. The population was initially decimated in the 80s when wild birds were caught and sold as pets. Live export of the parrots was banned in 1984, leading to a dramatic reduction in trade. However, the species did not bounce back, largely due to a lack of habitat and suitable breeding spaces.

Currently, all known Blue-Throated Macaws live in the Llanos de Mojos, a tropical savanna region in northern Bolivia. The parrots nest in large cavities of trees, where their young are hatched. Most of the Llanos de Mojos is made up of private cattle ranches now though, meaning that many trees have either been cleared to make way for pasture, or burned in fires meant to stimulate grass growth; drastically reducing the number of suitable nesting areas for the birds. In 1998, a species survey found only 36 Blue-Throated Macaws in the wild.

Since then, however, there has been a substantial push to save the Blue-Throated Macaw. In 2005, Armonía (BirdLife in Bolivia) began putting nest boxes around the macaws’ habitat so fledgling Blue-Throated Macaws would have a safe place to hatch. Because the birds need to nest far away from predators in trees with large cavities safe sites can be hard to find. The nest boxes provided a solution to this problem. Since the installation of the first nest boxes, 71 fledglings have hatched and subsequently been observed joining the existing Blue-Throated Macaw population.

To make sure that the adult population had a safe place to eat and live, in 2008, Armonía created the Barba Azul Nature Reserve in order to secure habitat and nesting areas for the parrots. Now made up of 11,000 hectares of grasslands, tropical hammock forests, savanna and wetlands, the reserve is an ideal habitat for Blue-Throated Macaws. More than 700 motacu palms (Attalea phalerata), which is the macaws’ preferred meal, have been planted, while fire breaks were also put into place. The reserve employs local ranchers as rangers in order to make sure the area is protected.

The results of these efforts have been overwhelmingly positive. In 2016 a Dutch researcher, Fabian Meijer, counted 118 Blue-throated Macaw in the wild, confirming an incredible increase in the birds’ numbers over two decades.

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Boorsma’s sighting of 155 Blue-Throated Macaws both continues and confirms the positive trends for the species that have been recorded. “The birds came in to the roost in flocks of 15-20 individuals. Soon I realized this was the highest ever sighting of Blue-throated Macaws,” says Boorsma. During the monitoring process, the team also observed a significant number of juvenile birds, another indication of the nest boxes’ success.

Looking towards the future, Armonía plans to expand their nest box program, and to acquire more protected land for the species to live in.

All the this combines to paint a picture that is anything but blue; nearly 20 years after just 36 Blue-Throated Macaws were recorded in the wild, things seem to be looking up for this Critically Endangered bird.