There are many wildlife highlights to enjoy in the Neotropics, but having the opportunity to both see and photograph colourful parrots and macaws at close quarters in their natural habitat has to be pretty high on anybody’s list. And, if you’re lucky enough to be visiting the Southern Pantanal, you'll almost certainly see the largest of them all, the unforgettable Hyacinth Macaw [Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus].
The exceptionally splendid Hyacinth Macaw [Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus]
This magnificent macaw is only found in three areas of South America - small populations exist in the Cerrado of interior Brazil and the eastern Amazon Basin, but the majority are in the Brazilian Pantanal, which extends into eastern Bolivia and northeastern Paraguay.
This is a rarely captured image of a bird eating the pink trumpet flower of the piuva tree, which only blossoms for a few days each year
The Hyacinth Macaw’s habitat varies throughout its range, but primarily they prefer the open expanses of palm savannas typical of those found around the Pantanal’s farms and cattle ranches (fazendas), and semi-open riverside or wetland tropical rainforest. Whilst they’re locally common in the Pantanal, they are pretty rare elsewhere. Unfortunately, like virtually all parrots, Hyacinth Macaw numbers in the wild have declined dramatically over the years due to a combination of habitat loss and capture for the pet trade. Macaws also have another threat in that their feathers are highly sought after by the Kayapo Indians of Gorotire in southern Brazil to make headdresses for religious and ceremonial purposes, and other kinds of ‘feather art’ for the tourist trade. As a result, the Hyacinth Macaw had been classified ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List, but recently downgraded to ‘vulnerable’ as it’s now protected by Brazilian law, and also from capture and exportation under Appendix I of the ‘Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’ (CITES). There are probably no more than 6,000 left in the wild - the vast proportion of which survive in a few specific areas of the Pantanal.
It's a real treat to watch these beautiful birds flying
If you take Macaws, and parrots as a whole they are currently the most threatened bird species in the world. The wider 'parrot family' - taxonomic order PSITTACIFORMES - has the most ‘endangered’ species of any other bird family, especially in the Neotropics where just over a third of the 145 species are at a serious risk of global extinction. Whilst parrots are reasonably widespread across the pantropical areas of the world, macaws are only native to Central and South America. There are currently only seventeen species of macaw left in the wild, many of which are classified ‘vulnerable’, ‘endangered’ or ‘critically endangered’.
Barranco Alto, Southern Pantanal
The Hyacinth Macaw is distinctly larger and bulkier than other species of macaw, measuring up to a metre in length and weighing upwards of 1.5kgs. Their cobalt-blue plumage is offset by bare yellow skin around the eye and at the base of the bill, which gives them a rather comical grin and clown-like appearance. They are often seen in small groups when feeding, but at other times they’re always in pairs. Also worth noting is the fact that they are extremely noisy and somewhat clumsy when clambering around trees – on many an occasion I’ve seen them falling from a branch when feeding or ‘playing’.
Baia das Pedras, Southern Pantanal
They generally nest in natural tree holes or cavities where one or two eggs will be laid, possibly three. But, as is common in the natural bird world, only one fledgling at most is likely to survive. Whilst existing tree holes can be enlarged to a degree using their powerful beaks, the competition for suitable nesting sites is fierce. In the Pantanal the vast majority of these nests are within just one type of tree, the Manduvi. The problem is that these trees are few and far between, plus they need to be at least 60 years old in order to provide a large enough hole. And, to make the situation even more difficult, there are a number of other species of bird, and a few animals, that would also use these holes for nesting. Strangely, and what has been regarded as a bizarre biological twist, researchers have found that the Toco Toucan is by far the largest distributor of Manduvi seeds, which it manages to scatter over a wide area. So, the Toco Toucan is playing a big part in the continual and future survival of the Hyacinth Macaw but, the twist is that, it is also by far the main predator of the Hyacinth Macaw eggs!
Taking a close inspection of a possible nest hole
In the southern Brazilian state of Mato Grosso du Sol, there is now a conservation programme to protect the species, a part of which is to create a few artificial nests to compensate for the lack of natural tree holes. This initiative has helped stabilize the population in the Pantanal, contributing to the downgrading of the IUCN ‘endangered’ classification.
With their dexterous claws, powerful bills and strong tongues, the Hyacinth Macaw can manage to eat a wide variety of hard fruits and nuts
Hyacinth Macaws feed on seeds, hard fruit and nuts of just a few regionally endemic palm species, which in the Pantanal is almost exclusively the acuri and bocaiuva nut-palms. Although they can crack open coconuts and macadamia nuts with their exceptionally powerful beaks, the acuri nut is so hard that they cannot feed on it until it has fallen and been eaten and digested by cows. Consequently, the birds can often be seen waddling around on the ground picking up nuts and other food from around the trees or in areas where there are cattle. As well as their immensely strong beaks, they have a smooth tongue with a bone inside that makes an effective tool for getting into fruits and extracting nut kernels. And, in addition, they also have the ability to eat certain poisonous seeds and unripe fruits that other animals can’t digest, as their system is able to absorb them.
Foraging in cow dung for digested acuri nuts