"Chico, chico," Eduardo Nycander says softly, stroking the head of a young scarlet macaw he has just removed from its nest. Nycander is relaxed as he handles the chick, spreading its wings to monitor feather growth. His activities are routine for a field biologist, but his calm might seem surprising. Nycander is dangling from a rope 30 meters (100 ft.) in the air.
The macaw parents watch nearby, unfazed, as Nycander returns the chick to a most unusual nest - a length of PVC pipe attached to the trunk of a towering tree. The plastic pipe is a nest box designed, constructed and positioned by Nycander in a Peruvian rain forest where he and a team of associates are studying wild macaws.
Everything about this scene was unthinkable just 10 years ago. At that time Nycander was a university undergraduate in Lima, Peru, studying to become an architect. As for the macaws, nine of the world's sixteen species were in danger of extinction, and of the rest, little could be said of their prospects. That was before American ornithologist Charles Munn began the first detailed studies of the birds in the wild and before Munn met Eduardo Nycander in the Amazon - the beginning of a working friendship that inspired the talented young architect to design housing for macaws instead of for people. It was a challenge that shaped Nycander's life and has blossomed into a conservation effort to restore the parrots to the rain forests of the Americas.
Big cats, not birds, first lured Nycander to the Amazon. In 1986, a wildlife film he saw about jaguars made Nycander's hair stand on end. "I felt something rush in my blood, and I decided I must go someplace wild to work with animals," he told me when photographer Frans Lanting and I visited him in the wilderness of southeastern Peru. Nycander promptly sold enough possessions to buy a camera and a backpack, then traveled over the Andes and hitchhiked canoe rides to Manu National Park. There, Munn of the Wildlife Conservation Society was studying macaws, and there, Nycander became enchanted with the spectacular birds.
Found in tropical forests from central Mexico to northern Argentina, macaws are admired for their colorful plumage, intelligence, longevity (they can survive to 70 years in captivity) and remarkable ability to mimic human speech. Noisy and social in the wild, they are most easily set apart from other members of the parrot family by long tails and big, powerful bills.
Although half of the macaw species are kestrel-size or smaller, many of the larger macaws can reach more than a meter (3 ft.) from head to tail. The big macaws are the best known to people in North America and Europe, especially the turquoise-winged blue-and-yellow, the big-headed red-and-green and the rainbow-colored scarlet macaw. These three species are among the eight that occur in Manu and nearby wilderness regions, and because of their relative abundance there, they became the focus of Munn's macaw studies.
Not long after Nycander arrived in Manu, Munn hired him. Nycander returned to the project during every university break. "I felt that Eduardo had tremendous untapped potential in wildlife research and conservation," says Munn. "And I was right."
Three years later, in 1989, both Nycander's life and Munn's macaw research reached a turning point. Nycander was accepted for a master's program in landscape architecture in the United States. "But my heart was in the forest," Nycander says. "I had to make a big decision." At the same time Munn's studies pinpointed urgent conservation measures needed to save macaws.
Macaws were facing a triple threat: habitat loss, hunting for food and feathers, and the demands of the pet trade in North America and Europe. Of the three dangers, the most devastating was the pet trade. Some 600,000 parrots are still traded worldwide each year, and contrary to the claims of many pet dealers, most of the birds are …