At least 17 different species of macaws live in the Central and South American rainforests, with many calling the Amazon their home. These incredibly colorful, long-living and long-tailed New World parrots are fascinating creatures, with complex social behaviors and slightly peculiar diets.
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Big and Beautiful
Of all the world’s parrot species, macaws are the largest. The biggest of all the macaws is the hyacinth macaw, which measures about 3.3 feet from head to tail with a wingspan approaching 5 feet. Hyacinth macaws live in both the Pantanal and Amazon Basin regions of Brazil.
As well as being big, macaws are also wonderfully colorful. The various species have mixed colors ranging from blue and gold to green and red, with plenty of other combinations displayed in their vivid plumage. They also have distinctive facial patches. The patterns on these patches are unique to each bird — as unique as a human fingerprint.
If you’re trekking through the Amazon Rainforest and you’re wondering where all the screeching and squawking is coming from, there’s a good chance it’s a bunch of macaws. Macaws can be particularly noisy creatures, filling the canopy with their screams. But they do it for perfectly reasonable reasons: to identify one another, to communicate with other members of their flock, and to mark their territory.
Love is In the Air
Like swans, wolves and French angelfish, macaws typically mate for life. As well as being monogamous, these romantic parrots like to share food with each other, engage in mutual grooming, and generally enjoy hanging out and flying around together. You’ll often see couples flying side-by-side above the trees and rivers of the rainforest, so close they’re almost touching.
Nuts About Clay
Macaws are omnivores and eat all kinds of things, including fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, flowers, stems and insects. In the Amazon Basin, some macaws also eat clay from clay licks along the riverbanks. It’s believed the clay helps neutralize toxins found in elements of their diet. Some clay licks, like those in Tambopata, Peru, attract hundreds of macaws every day, providing a real spectacle for lucky human onlookers.
By avian standards, macaws are intelligent creatures. They are also highly sociable, often congregating in social groups of 10 to 30 individuals. They are able to use their strong toes to manipulate and examine items, and to pry open stubborn nuts. And despite all the squawking and shrieking, macaws are famously able “talkers.” They can mimic human speech to an uncanny level, and some studies have also shown them using words in the correct context and communicating with creative expressions. One study by Michael Dalton of his blue-and-gold macaw named Arielle found that Arielle had “spoken more than 6,000 variations of expressions, including sentences with as many as 15 syllables and sequences of two to four topical sentences.”
Live Long and Prosper
Living wild in the Amazon Rainforest, macaws can live up to 60 years. That puts them among the longest-living birds on the planet. In captivity and well-cared for, they can live even longer. A female blue and gold macaw named Charlie reportedly lived to the ripe old age of 112 years.
Despite their long lifespans, the future of many macaw species hangs in the balance. Six known species are already extinct, and others range from vulnerable to critically endangered. Humans, unsurprisingly, are to blame. Deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest and subsequent habit loss is one major threat. The illegal wildlife trade is another. Trappers capture the birds to sell in the often lucrative bird trade, despite numerous regulations controlling the international trade of all macaw species. Tourists are sometimes approached by people selling macaws and other wild birds in markets in Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. They should never be purchased, not even with the intention of releasing them, as this only encourages the illegal trade. Instead, local authorities should be quietly informed of the vendor’s illegal activities.
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Tony Dunnell is a freelance writer based in Peru since 2009. He’s the owner of New Peruvian and also writes for various magazines and websites. When he’s not walking his dog in the jungle town of Tarapoto, he’s off exploring other parts of Peru and South America.