Mounting a defence for macaws
What’s being done to save this striking bird species?
Emerald plumage with flashes of blue above and wings of gold below, a family of military macaws flying through the forest is a remarkable sight. Like other macaws, they are extremely clever and sociable birds, but their beauty, combined with intelligence, has made them highly desirable for the pet trade.
The military macaw is the most sought-after species in Mexico’s illegal cage bird trade. They are known in the exotic pet trade for their chattiness and their inquisitive, sociable personalities, and they form a strong bond with their owners. However, like many other threatened parrot species, the high demand for these characterful and handsome birds as pets has resulted in a large number of military macaws being stolen from their nests as chicks and stuffed into small containers to be delivered to pet shops and traders.
Fortunately, due to their mountainous habitat (they are typically found at much higher elevations than other macaws), they often nest in inaccessible cliff walls where poachers cannot easily reach them. This has possibly protected them from the kind of extreme exploitation that typically tree-nesting species such as the blue-throated macaw and yellow-headed parrot have suffered. However, in some areas, such as the states of Jalisco and Nayarit in Mexico, military macaws nest in tree cavities and are therefore heavily poached for the pet trade.
The other major threat to the wild population of military macaws is the significant loss of suitable habitat across their range in Mexico and northern South America. They are typically found in arid woodlands and subtropical forests at a wide range of elevations that reach up to
2,600 metres (8,530.2 feet) above sea level. They feed on a range of food items from different plant types, but they are struggling to survive in areas where habitats have been cleared for agriculture, livestock farming or mining.
They are listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which prohibits the capture of wild specimens and export into countries like the United States. As well as direct intervention through the seizure of trafficked birds, one of the most urgent conservation actions to save this species from becoming critically endangered is habitat protection.
Blocking a road to destruction
One of the important habitats still remaining (and largely unprotected) for the military macaw is the Amazonian Andes, the tropical forests found on the foothills of the Andes where the rainforest meets the mountains.
“The wildlife there is extraordinary,” says Charlotte Beckham, conservation programmes manager at World Land Trust, a charity that specialises in the conservation of wildlife habitats around the globe. “As it contains species from both the alpine and wet tropical habitats, it is one of the most species-rich wild areas on Earth, where Amazonian species such as the magnificent harpy eagle, lowland tapir and two sloth species can be found alongside animals known from the Andes, such as the spectacled bear and Andean cock-of-the-rock.”
World Land Trust has just completed a project to raise £165,000 (approximately $221,602) for the purchase and permanent protection of 400 acres of this habitat in Ecuador to create the start of a wildlife corridor between a private reserve owned by their partner organisation, Fundación de Conservación Jocotoco, and two large national protected areas: Antisana Ecological Reserve and Sumaco Napo-Galeras National Park.
“It is an incredible achievement,” Beckham explains to us. “We had a massive response from our supporters, and we needed to raise funds as quickly as possible as our partner in Ecuador had identified a crucial property that would otherwise have been sold for agriculture. Importantly, the property lies within a corridor between Jocotoco’s Narupa Reserve and neighbouring national parks. The purchase also reduces the need for a planned road, which would further isolate the reserve, which isn’t currently large enough to sustain viable populations of the threatened species.”
The military macaw is one of the threatened species that can be found in this reserve, as well as the black-andchestnut eagle, cerulean warbler, neotropical otter and three species of endangered frog, including the Puyo giant glass frog.
World Land Trust has already sent funds for Fundación Jocotoco to purchase 261 acres between the reserves, which is another step to block the planned route for the road, and they have hired a new ranger to patrol the extended reserve. This is a crucial part of the protection process, as land that is secured without a patrolling ranger is still at severe risk of illegal logging and poaching, so hiring someone to guard the area ensures the safety of vulnerable species like the macaws.
“Sierra Gorda is home to the last colony of military macaws in central Mexico, with just about 40 pairs”
Roberto Pedraza Ruiz
The ongoing protection of reserves created and managed by World Land Trust’s partners is maintained by their Keepers of the Wild programme, which funds the salaries, equipment and other resources needed by the men and women providing a frontline defence for wildlife.
Saving the forests in the sky
Following the success of the Amazonian Andes campaign, World Land Trust is now working hard on saving another habitat that is absolutely crucial for the military macaw in the mountainous landscape of the Sierra Gorda in central Mexico.
World Land Trust has worked with a local conservation organisation, Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG), to protect this habitat for ten years, and they have so far saved 10,000 acres for Mexican wildlife together.
The typical landscape of Sierra Gorda is the mountain range cloaked in clouds, underneath which lies an ecological paradise of vegetation, ranging from evergreen and deciduous tropical forest to the hardy cacti that can survive in more arid areas. There are also a number of pine oak forests and cloud forests dotted throughout this varied terrain.
Roberto Pedraza Ruiz, head of GESG’s Land Conservation Program, says, “We have made walking through the reserves like travelling in time, back to when Mexican forests were ruled by the jaguar and filled with species we consider rare today. Through our work protecting and restoring these forests, we are slowly giving it back to them.”
In his work ensuring the conservation of this habitat, Ruiz spends a lot of time exploring the forests and documenting the wildlife with his arsenal of cameras. Of the many species he is fortunate enough to witness in the wild, the military macaws are his favourite birds.
“Sierra Gorda is home to the last colony of military macaws in central Mexico, with just about 40 pairs. Threatened by habitat loss and increasing human pressure in their former territories, they face an uncertain future. Witnessing and photographing them is one of my biggest privileges. They are noisy, funny and have complicated social behaviours and rules among them. By far they are my favourite birds to see here.”
Sadly, cattle ranching is an ever-increasing sight in the Sierra Gorda, and deforestation to make way for livestock grazing is one of the key threats confronting these forests. They are also subject to slash-and-burn clearance, a practice that is highly damaging for the ecosystem but is used to produce faster (though short-term) crop yields. As land is still relatively inexpensive compared to many other biodiverse areas, GESG has been able to build up a network of reserves by purchasing land as it becomes available, with vital support from donors to World Land Trust playing a huge role. Yet there is only so much land that can be purchased affordably.
“We are racing against time,” warns Ruiz. “Land prices are only ever increasing, and we are just trying to protect as much of these wild areas as we can before it is too late. I have lived in these mountains all my life, and one of the issues I try to remind people of is that we are not just doing this for the wildlife.
“Obviously I care about wildlife and being able to see magnificent creatures like the macaws flying above our cloud forests, but every acre of forest we have been able to save with World Land Trust supporters has been an investment in our future too. Protecting the world’s forests ensures we will have water, oxygen, climate regulation and, of course, the beauty of these natural landscapes. Without these most basic needs we have nothing.”
Time to act
Habitat protection has proved to be one of the most effective ways to conserve species in the wild. Reintroducing locally extinct species is much more difficult than preserving their habitat and maintaining their populations in the wild, so preventing further habitat loss is a priority in order to preserve the precious resources of environmental agencies and organisations dedicated to conserving wildlife.
If you would like to help save important wildlife habitats for vulnerable species such as the military macaw, visit
worldlandtrust.org and donate to protect the forests of Sierra Gorda in Mexico from deforestation.
The stunning colours of the military macaw’s
plumage have sadly become a curse due to the attentions of the exotic pet trade
A fading fortress
The battle is on to preserve this macaw’s range
Military Macaws are
very sociable and are often observed in their family groups,
squawking noisily, playing and grooming
The mountains of Sierra Gorda have an incredibly wide range of wildlife habitats, including evergreen and deciduous tropical forest, shrubs and cacti, oak forests, pine forests
and cloud forests.
Sierra Gorda, Mexico
Where the Amazon rainforest meets the Andean mountain range is a remarkable habitat with one of the highest diversity of species in
That loving preening From cleaning each other’s plumage to working together to raise chicks, these loyal birds really look out for their mates
Love at first flight In the wild, macaws can choose their partner before they reach the age of maturity at two to four years old, and once they have chosen they mate for life.
Care and attention Mutual preening is one of the ways a pair of macaws will strengthen their bond, as well as calling to each other and foraging together.
Birds of a feather Unlike many other brightly coloured birds, male and female military macaws cannot be distinguished from each other by their plumage. This may be because they are monogamous and females do not need drab colours to camouflage themselves when incubating, unlike ground-nesting birds.
Providing for the family Females lay one to two eggs in the cavities of tall trees or holes in cliff faces and incubate their eggs for about one month. During this period the male will bring her food, something he will then also do for the chicks once they’ve hatched.