The Scarlet Macaw and captive breeding…


The Scarlet Macaw and captive breeding…

By Patrick Dunn

Patrick Dunn owner of Ave Azul de la Osa, a licensed avicultural compound supporting conservation through captive propagation


Ahhhh the Scarlet Macaw:  an iconic species and one that is becoming fast again well-established in a country in which it is well known.

 Scarlet Macaw

Scarlet Macaw

The Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) affectionately known by Ticos as the Lapa, is frequently seen now in several parts of this country and particularly the Osa Peninsula, where its numbers appear to be increasing partly as a result of captive breeding management and release programs established throughout the country and partly because of an increased awareness and recognition by the Costa Ricans as a symbol of success of this country’s Eco vision.

 This has not always been the case, however. The historic natural range of the bird was pretty much solid and uninterrupted from southern Mexico to Panama up until about 1955 when populations began to break up and fragment.

The bird was hunted and trapped for the pet trade and even ended up in the stew pot of some.  By the late 1960´s numbers dropped, and often the only birds observed were flying high and fast to some unknown destination. The bird was still fairly well represented in Costa Rica and even presented itself as calm or tranquillo, even trusting.

It is debatable as to exactly how many Scarlet Macaws actually remain in the country.  Conservative estimates are around 800 throughout the entire country, but some say it may be as high as 1200 individuals. One thing is for sure; the preponderance of the species occurs here on the Osa Peninsula.

(Anodorhynchus glaucus)

Hyacinth Macaw,(Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus)

There are 16 species of Macaws and all are endemic to the New World. Additionally, there are four recently extinct, three endangered and four critically endangered.  Extinct are:  the Hispaniolan Macaw (Ara tricolor) c. 1820; the Cuban Macaw (Ara cubensis) c. 1864; the Glaucous Macaw (Anodorhynchus glaucus) c. 1915; and now the rarest bird in the world, Spix´s Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii).  Named after Baron Ritter Von Spix 170 years ago, the last bird observed in the wild was in 1990 in the Bahia state of Brazil in the small pueblo of Curaçá.

Endangered are the Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao cyanoptera), the Military Macaw (Ara militaris) and the Hyacinth Macaw (Anordorhynchus hyacinthinus).  Critically endangered are the Red-fronted Macaw (Ara rubrogenys) only in the environs of Cochabamba, Bolivia. The Blue-throated Macaw (Ara glaucogularis) Buffon’s Macaw (Ara ambigua) and finally, Lear´s Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari) and in fact, this last bird is on the verge of extinction. Captive-breeding programs are currently in place to insure that that does not happen.

Spix´s Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii)

Ara glaucogularis

Blue-throated Macaw,(Ara glaucogularis)

Regarding the Spix´s Macaw, there are luckily more than 74 birds in captivity and thanks to a cooperative effort in several countries the species appears destined for recovery.  Much of this is due to just two men, Wolfgang Keisling of Loro Parque on the Canary Islands’ Tenerife and Sheikh Saoud bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani from the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation facility in Qatar. The Sheikh has constructed the perfect breeding facility for not only the Spix´s Macaw but also for other endangered birds too numerous to name.  His plan is to purchase the entire natural habitat the species formerly inhabited in the Bahia state of Brazil and set it up for re-introduction of captive bred specimens of the species.


Red-fronted Macaw (Ara rubrogenys)

Of the 16 species of Macaws the smallest is the Noble Macaw (Diopsittaca nobilis) about the size of a Robin.  The largest, and one of the rarest, is the Hyacinth.

The Scarlet ranks fifth in size after in order:  the Buffon’s (named for the French Ornithologist Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon) the Green-winged Macaw (Ara chloroptera) the Lear’s, and the largest of all parrots, the Hyacinth.

Lear´s Macaw

Lear´s Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari)

Taxonomists recently reclassified the Scarlet Macaw afforing it a new subspecies to the genus, a decision long-awaited by many Ornithologists.

Birds from Mexico to Panama were typically referred to as ¨Honduran Scarlets¨ with a very large band of yellow in the wing coverts. South of Panama and widespread Amazonia birds were referred to as “Colombian Scarlets,”which possessed only a small band of yellow in the wing largely replaced by an olive green pattern in the coverts.  Additionally, the birds in Central America were described as being truly scarlet in color while birds distributed south of Panama and throughout South America were described as being more of a fire engine red and somewhat larger in size.

Buffon’s Macaw (Ara ambigua)

Buffon’s Macaw, (Ara ambigua)

The new subspecies has now been labeled cyanoptera . . . Ara macao cyanoptera. There has been a burst of major work with the species over the past 20 or so years. Research is and has been on going to determine just how closely related specimens from Mexico are to birds as far south as Costa Rica and Panama.  The bird is now totally nonexistent in El Salvador and only remnant populations occur in Mexico, most of those escapees. The Petén of Guatemala has the last and largest viable breeding population of the species in that country.  A few specimen groups are left in Honduras, and a small population in the Cockscomb Reserve in Belize.  The Nicaraguan population is still being assessed along with Panama and Coiba Island off that country’s Pacific coast.

Because birds such as Macaws have essentially no sense of smell they make up for that fact with extraordinary eyesight that is only challenged by birds of prey. They can pick out a fruiting or flowering tree from 2,000 ft.  An Eagle can do the same with a rabbit. It has been noted that Adolf Hitler used Macaws in towers to spot aircraft before men with optics could.  It is likely that it is their keen eyesight that is most responsible for the species’ record longevity at taxonomic levels of the Animal kingdom. Swans from the family Anatidae have been known to live as long as 30 or more years and Cranes from the family Gruidae up to 50 years. But parrots have been documented into their 90´s.  One Cockatoo by the name of King Tut was a mascot for the San Diego Zoo and lived at the zoo´s entrance from 1910 until his death in the mid 1980´s.  He was collected by famed animal collector Frank Buck in Sulawesi, Indonesia.  It is unknown how old he was when imported into the United States. I still have here at my farm in Agua Buena the first bird I ever acquired in 1973.  I bought Freets from a private party who had owned him for some 15 years. I have had him for 43 years now and he will be 58 years old in August of this year.  As I am now 61, it´s now like who’s going to outlive whom at this point.

Macaws typically deposit two egg clutches which are incubated for exactly 28 days once germinated by a temperature of 99° F, though fertile eggs can be kept refrigerated for up to a week. The first of the peninsula’s season’s chicks begin to fledge the first week of February while still being fed by the parents through the summer so as to teach the youngsters how and where to find food and water coming off a crop-feeding formula. A bird’s normal body temperature is 103° F so we feed formula at that temp and never below so as to prevent crop stasis in the neonates but never above 107° F to avoid crop burn. Our hand-feeding formula for baby birds in captivity has been tested through trial and error over many years and has proven reliable. Once I worked out the adequate weight gain formula I never changed it. We feed every hour round the clock for newly hatched chicks, and I have learned over the past 35 or more years to get by with checker-boarded sleep routines.  Even in the off season I still wake like clockwork whether there are chicks to feed or not.  In the wild the species feeds the brood throughout the night until the nestling’s crops stretch large enough to hold sufficent amounts food to get them through the night.

Scarlet Macaws are strongly traditional in their use of nesting and roosting sites. They are tightly bonded and can occupy a single nesting tree for generations. Though the jungle appears chock full of trees in which to nest, the birds prefer just a handful of species (link).  Trees, and the nest sites they provide, are lost to weather, age, disease and illegal logging.  Artificial nest box programs have sprung up to redress this nesting challenge to the species.  When trees such as the giant Ficus, (Ficus Macrophylla) at Puerto Jimenez’s Rancho Tropicales beside Martina’s die, or are snapped off as in this case, many active nests are lost.  I remember pairs nesting in that tree back in 1985. Now it is gone, leaving at least three pairs and possibly as many as five with nowhere to nest.  Adults may lose several breeding seasons just locating other viable sites. This translates to a great loss in future chicks.


Hawaiian Crow (Corvus hawaiiensis)

Recently throughout Central America, Africanized bees, (Apis mellifera), Killer bees have increased as an invasion and an occupational threat to native Macaw nests. Even our artificial nest barrels have been targeted. The loss of that Ficus reminds me of a small grove of Koa trees on McCandless Ranch on the slopes of Mt. Mauna Loa above Kealakekua on Hawaii’s big isle, where the last of only 10 specimens of the Hawaiian Crow (Corvus hawaiiensis) or A La’ La’, pronounced Ahhhh la la could be found. At the last minute captive breeding appears to have saved the bird from extinction. A very successful campaign was launched by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) and the Peregrine Fund.


Guam Kingfisher (Todirhamphus cinnamominus)

Numbers of the species are now increasing. The same goes for many other species such as the Guam Kingfisher (Todirhamphus cinnamominus) where the species has been totally wiped out on the island as a result of the accidental introduction of the Philippine brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis).  Virtually every single bird on the island fell prey to the snake. Fortunately, many were and still are in captive-breeding groups throughout the world. But until the island is completely cleared of snakes no reintroduction of the bird can take place.  The birds are waiting. . .  Other species like the Rothchild’s Mynah, (Leucopsar rothschildi) a beautiful white Starling with a turquoise mask and white crest similar to our Masked Tityra here on the Osa was also saved by captive breeding.  It once occurred only on Bali.


Rothchild’s Mynah, (Leucopsar rothschildi)

Golden Conure (Guaruba guarouba)

Golden Conure (Guaruba guarouba)


 Locals loved the bird to death though, and there are no more than 30 birds now on the island in the wild and highly protected. And though there are several hundred in captivity it’s a gamble whether to introduce to the island more or not because the local people keep catching them for their beauty as a caged  bird. Captive breeding has also saved the Golden Conure (Guaruba guarouba) from Brazil, the Mauritius Pink Pigeon (Nesoenas mayeri), from the Mascarene Islands off Madagascar.  At one time just 18 birds were left on the planet.  As a result of captive-breeding efforts there are over 200 now.  I worked with the bird at the Houston zoo during its recovery. Also the New Zealand black stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae).  I went there searching for the bird years ago of which I never found but now again as a result of captive breeding there are over 200 individuals and most all on private property there now waiting for suitable habitat to be re-introduced into.


The Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus)

The Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) a large ground parrot that would rather walk than fly, was nearly wiped out by feral dogs, cats and stoats and got down to just 30 known birds left. We see now well over 200 specimens ready to be released back into habitat that is predator free.  On America’s home front captive breeding is saving such birds as the incredibly majestic Whooping Crane (Grus Americana) whose numbers fell to just 17 birds before a concerted effort was made by yet again the USFW, this time partnered with the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo Wisconsin.


Whooping Crane (Grus Americana)

Thirty years later we see a recovery plan that has worked so well that several satellite populations are known around the United States and Canada. But probably the best example is the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) a large prehistoric vulture whose numbers came

 (Gymnogyps californianus)

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus)

down to a single bird left in the wilds of Southern California in the Las Padres National forest before it was captured and added to the captive breeding group at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park.  All total, there are now some 230 birds in existance and many released since 2013 now established at selective locations around the United States. I can think of 40 to 50 species of animals and birds that are currently being worked with in captive populations that were previously destined for extinction, many a result of spreading human activities but now considered to be out of  danger of extinction as a result of captive breeding.

The zoo I directed for eight years on Hawaii’s island of Kauai captive bred and  successfully released  NeNe Geese (Branta sandvicensis). The zoo received six sexed pairs of pure strain NeNe from the Wildfowl Trust in Slimbridge, England, directed by then curator of birds Sir Peter Scott in 1986.  By 1994 we had bred nearly 100 birds. They were eventually released in small numbers and established on the freshwater lakes at the zoo and around the island. Today, the species has fully recovered and well established back on the island where it had not been seen in the wild since the 1940´s.  In 1951 there were only 30 birds known to exist. Thank the Brits, Sir Peter Scott and the French born aviculturist Dr. Jean Delacour for single-handedly saving the species. Today Hawaii sees it´s state bird flying free over the island once again and saved by captive breeding.


Nene Goose (Branta sandvicensis)

There are many captive-breeding programs that are well established throughout Central America.  Still the goal of re-introducing these birds into native habitat presumes first the securement and protection of that habitat.  Absent sustaining habitat, the captive populations of some species are building up. One of the largest such projects is located in southern Guatemala near the border with El Salvador known as Aviarios Mariana.  The facility contains some 250 Scarlet Macaws set up in captive-breeding aviaries and is managed by a good friend of mine, Scott Mcknight with whom I worked closely for two years at the Houston Zoo.  He has been running the project for near 15 years. Intended release sites include the Petén forests, the last and largest remaining tract of undisturbed primary forest expanse in Guatemala.  Protocols for release of offspring are rigid and include testing for various communicable diseases. Blood and stool samples are a priority. It is critical that pathogens are not passed to other native avifauna.

There are other satellite projects currently underway and in operation by aviculturists around the world including several in Costa Rica, including our own Ave Azul de la Osa.

Imagine if a single breeding pair of Costa Ricans Golden Toad (Bufo peregrinus) had been captive bred before its extinction in the 1990´s.  We would find today the species saved by captive breeding for all to see, especially the children of tomorrow.

Captive animal management is not a novelty but a serious series of lifelong commitments that I have been involved in most of my life.  It is literally a 24-7 commitment. No such thing as weekends or spur of the moment changes. On the other hand I have to be ready for anything to happen. There is an enormous  responsibility and source of endless worry that comes with captive breeding.  Species are being lost at rates never before seen in our lifetimes.

The time to act is now.

Currently 20% of the world’s avifauna is threatened with extinction and near 10% critically and habitat loss shows no sign of slowing down, human competition for avian resources is inevitably taking precedence. Without captive breeding, many species face extinction.  There are those that disparage the idea of “birds in cages.”  Known as aviaries, but they are the only survival avenue(especially island species) for many.  Critics should ask themselves how important species preservation is and exactly what they are doing to contribute to the preservation of endangered species.

Birds in captive-breeding facilities are not “birds in cages,” but the nucleus for the survival of a species.  We all love the sight of free-flying Macaws. But if not for captive breeding by a very concerned few, Macaws may not fly free for long or at all. In the present world of some 200 hundred acres of jungle going up in flames EVERY minute, these are choices we must make now.

The reward we get as captive breeders is watching the splash of color and the cacophony of raucous calls as a group of Macaws lifts off and flies over the jungle knowing they will be here for your children to see in the wild instead of just what was and they would see only in a book.

Extinction is forever.   Endangered means we still have time.


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