Magazine article International Wildlife

Single, Lonely Parrot Seeks Companionship

Magazine article International Wildlife

Single, Lonely Parrot Seeks Companionship

Article excerpt

male Spix's macaw, South American, mostly blue, last of his kind. Wants female for connubial bliss, nesting. Open to blind dates arranged by scientists and bird collectors.

Late one afternoon in Curaca, a sunbaked village in the northeast Brazilian backlands, a quiet vigil is under way. Three men sit on wooden stools in the back lot of a stucco and wattle farmhouse, their eyes fixed on the thin fringe of trees and bushes that lines a dried-up creek bed. The sun that punishes this flat land of cactus scrub has dimmed, and a breeze whispers of the coming dusk. The men scan the treetops, crown by crown. No binoculars are needed here. The men know well the habits of their anticipated visitor, the little blue, or Spix's, macaw, a species that has become as rare in the wild as a species can be, reduced to a lone male.

In time they hear it, faint but unmistakable: Kraw kraw arrrk. "The macaw," says biologist Marcos Da Re, the chief watchman here. He looks at his wristwatch. "Five sixteen," he announces, noting the time. Suddenly, a matte blue streak flashes against a powder blue sky. The macaw flies straight toward the tops of the caraibeira trees, where he will rest for the night.

At his side is a smaller, more brightly colored female maracana, or Illiger's macaw. The male, driven by loneliness or an instinctive need to establish social bonds, has become the constant companion of the maracana. They wheel and soar before disappearing among the leafy camouflage. The performance is brief but brings smiles to the faces of the human observers.

The world's 16 macaw species are scattered from Mexico to Argentina. A seventeenth became extinct around the turn of the century, and today nine are considered endangered, though none so gravely as the Spix's. Da Re is a field biologist who has joined a scientific effort to save the Spix's from extinction, in part by locating a captive female as a potential mate for the lone wild male. If successful, the project will offer inspiration for similar projects around the globe.

The Spix's macaw first came to scientific recognition in 1819, when famed Austrian naturalist Johann Baptist von Spix shot one while visiting Brazil. The bird was not seen again in the wild until 1903, and scientists have observed it only rarely since. In 1986, Swiss scientist Paul Roth spotted a family of three on Melancia Creek, some 800 kilometers (500 mi.) inland from the coastal city of Salvador, near where Spix shot his specimen. But the wild-animal trade and habitat destruction by settlers had found them, too, and by 1988 naturalists thought that, with the exception of a few captive birds, the Spix's macaw was extinct.

Then, in 1990, after a local farmer turned up with Polaroid snapshots of a large blue "parrot," a team of naturalists plunged into the backlands, coming upon a lone adult male Spix's near Melancia Creek. Scientists believe this bird is the last of his kind in the wild, living in the scrub that surrounds Curaca.

Brazilians call this country the caatinga, a sun-scorched terrain of baked mud, dried-up riverbeds, cactus scrub and the occasional lofty caraibeira. The caatinga hardly seems a fitting landscape for a macaw. Movies and books of jungle tales have created an image of macaws - those raucous, outsize parrots - as creatures of dripping rain forest, flitting about in clouds of steam and tangles of liana. But in fact, this arid land provides habitat for three macaw species, including the Spix's.

But for Curaca's stubborn male, the Spix's macaw would be a footnote of ornithology. To save the species, a group of scientists in the late 1980s started a long and tricky campaign. Back then, they had a rough idea of who held the dozen or so captive Spix's, but locating and acquiring them posed a challenge. "We didn't know who had what birds, where they kept them all, much less what sex they were," says Iolita Bampi, one of the pioneers of the campaign and currently the chief of the wildlife department of the Brazilian environmental authority, I BAMA. …

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