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Spix’s Macaw, Star of “Rio,” Spotted in the Wild for the First Time in 15 Years

Captured in a backlit cellphone video, the sighting gives conservationists hope for the survival of Brazil’s little blue birds

(ICMBio)
smithsonian.com

In 2000, researchers thought they’d had their last glimpse of a wild Spix’s Macaw, Cyanopsitta spixii, a critically endangered bird formerly found in a small section of forest in Brazil’s Bahia state.

But a little over a week ago, a local farmer named Nauto Sergio Oliveira spotted one of the birds near Curaçá, reports Merrit Kennedy at NPR. Early the next morning, his wife and daughter hiked into the wilderness to catch sight of little blue. They returned victorious with a backlit but distinct video of the macaw.

According to a press release from Birdlife International, the Oliveiras contacted biologists at the Society for the Conservation of Birds in Brazil (SAVE Brazil) who confirmed the sighting by the bird’s call and shape.

Spix’s Macaw were thought to be extinct in the wild because of pet trade trapping and loss of the dry Caatinga forests in which it lives, according to the Birdlife website. Invasive African bees take over nest cavities, further pressuring the birds. But efforts are underway to restore the bird to their natural habitat. In 2014, the Brazilian Fund for Biodiversity began the Ararinha na Natureza project which has created over 100,000 acres of protected forest around Curaçá.

The Spix’s Macaw was probably never very common in the first place, and has a long, difficult history. The bird was first described in 1819 by Johann Baptist von Spix, a German biologist, according to Roberto Kaz at Audubon. It wasn’t seen again until 1903, and for much of the 20th century ornithologists searched for the species catching glimpses here or there.

In 1986 researchers found three specimens, thought to be the last three Spix's in the wild. Poachers eventually caught those three, and over next two decades expeditions found only a few more birds. The sightings went cold in 2000.

Now, according to Birdlife, breeders in Qatar, Germany and Brazil currently care for a population of about 130 of the macaws. They raised these little blue birds from the captive population and plan to release some of them into the forests near Curaçá over the next few years.

The origin of the bird spotted by the Oliveiras is not known. It could be the same bird last seen in 2000, a completely new individual or an escaped captive. Whatever the case, it’s an asset for conservationists. 

“The real value of this bird is that it’s in the wild,” Pedro Develey, CEO of the conservation group SAVE Brasil tells Kennedy. “What we need now is a wild bird... to start to understand what to do when we release the new birds. Now we have a model to understand the bird’s behavior.”

The sighting is a big deal for locals too, who have set up patrols to prevent animal dealers from entering the area. “The Spix's Macaw is kind of a symbol of the city, and the local community is really proud of the existence of the Spix’s Macaw there,” Develey says. “And since [2000] there has been a big expectation for the return of the Spix's Macaw. They are really waiting for that.”

Currently, Brazil’s biodiversity agency ICMBio is leading an expedition with local residents to relocate and observe the wild macaw.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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