The Blue-headed Macaw: Beauty, Science & Conservation in Action


Asenior Brazilian colleague of mine had traveled to visit me at Tambopata Research Center in southeastern Peru. We awoke at dawn to go out to the clay lick where we were expecting to see hundreds of parrots, but my colleague had only one question. "Will we see coulonii'The birds arrived in force. Hundreds of parrots streaming in from all sides heading towards the center of the clay lick. Then I heard a distant call off the left side of the lick and I quietly announced "couloni" I spotted a pair as they banked and headed down to the clay. He saw them too, the blue head, the long, tricolor tail, the light bill and the pink feet. It was Primolious couloni aka the Blue~headed Macaw. He remained speechless for minutes before turning to me with a huge grin and said "thank you:' His trip was complete.

Why should this bird cause such a stir among even the most seasoned tropical ornitholoqists? Its beauty? Its rarity? Its restricted ranqe? How about yes, yes, and yes. The Blue~headed Macaw is a striking mini macaw found only in southeastern Peru and adjacent areas of Brazil and Bolivia. Unfortunately, this little gem is not really common anywhere. In fact, most have commented on its apparent rarity even in the most pristine protected areas. In my first three months in southeastern Peru in 1993 I saw the species only once.

This general rarity seems to be an inherent feature of the species. It is not thought that it was ever very common and humans are not apparently to blame. However, this rarity makes it very difficult to study. In addition, the species has been almost completely absent from aviculture, suggesting that the species has not been traditionally trapped. As a result, the species was not considered under any sort of threat. In fact, it was not even listed in the Parrot Conservation Action Plan back in 2000. The bottom line on the bird in the wild was that nobody really knew anything about the species and nobody was really worried about it.


But, in 2002, all this began to change as the species began to appear in aviculture in Eastern Europe. People began to worry. It is well known that species that are rare in the wild cannot survive intense trapping. As a result, in 2003, the species was uplisted to Appendix I of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) in an effort to help reduce the trade. This proposal was accepted by CITES based on the species rarity in the wild and the obvious increase in the trade. However, there was almost no information on its status in the wild. Then. in 2004, the species was moved from its old classification of "Least concern" to "Near threatened" by Birdlife International and the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). Then in 2006, it jumped up two ranks from "Near threatened" to "Endangered:' Once again, the jumps were based on the species' continued presence in the illegal wildlife trade along with a few opinions on abundance from scientists who had worked in Peru. But once again, quantitative intermation on wild birds was completely lacking.

Needless to say, all of this pole vaulting of conservation status began to attract the attention of scientists. A friend and colleague of mine, Alan Lee, decided to focus on Blue~headed Macaw as a key species in his parrot and macaw monitoring project on the lower Tambopata River. Biologist Aimy Caceres began an undergraduate thesis on the species in captivity. George Powell from WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and his crew began to look more intensely at the species along the Madre de Dios River. A field biologist friend of mine even used the genus name as his new e-mail account name.

Then Joe Tobias from Oxford University contacted me. He told me he was compiling data to write a review of the conservation status of the Blue~headed Macaw and he asked me if I had any information to contribute. When he said Blue~headed Macaw, I thought he was crazy. All I could think was "we don't know anything about that bird, what will we be able to produce?" I was afraid it would be like the changes in censervation status, another opinion based on very little information. But he explained that he had been going through trip reports, reading bioloqical surveys, visiting museums, interviewing bird watchers, contacting ornithologists and looking for the bird in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. And he said he was building a good database of occurrence of the species. I was convinced to join the effort. In my gut I never felt that the jump to endangered was really warranted, but since I had no real data, I had never made an issue of it.