Macaws of the Peruvian Amazon
Macaws and parrots are some of the most beautiful and threatened birds in the world and have undergone a severe decline in many parts of the world. Currently around one third of all parrot species are threatened with extinction in the wild.
Their beauty, large size and intelligence have been factors in their decline; collection for the lucrative international pet trade is a key threat. Other drivers of the slide in numbers include habitat loss and hunting compounded by a naturally low reproductive rate. These birds can act as charismatic focal points, ‘flagship species', for the conservation of the ecosystems where they are found.
Macaws of the Peruvian Amazon
is a large, long-term multidisciplinary study based at the Tambopata Research Centre in the Peruvian Amazon, one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in the world. The project is led by Dr. Donald Brightsmith of Texas A&M and Dr. Alan Lee of Manchester Metropolitan University and has been supported by Earthwatch since 2001. The study aims to increase knowledge about these birds and to help to develop management techniques to support their conservation.
This research programme studies the biology, conservation and management of a range of macaw and other parrot species in depth, including the red and green, blue and yellow and scarlet macaw. The results will then be applied to the wise conservation management of the macaws in the Tambopata area and throughout the tropics.
Current objectives of the research include developing and evaluating different methods to boost the reproductive success of large macaws; nest monitoring, investigating hatching and fledging success, chick growth and survival, as well as researching patterns of clay lick use and the impacts of tourism and boat use on these beautiful birds. Ecotourism has great potential as a tool for generating income and support for conservation of species and habitats around the world; the project team aims to use their results to help develop ecotourism protocols in conjunction with local tour operators and the Peruvian government to ensure the birds are not negatively affected by tourism.
Protecting large areas of habitat is critical to the survival of macaws and the myriad of species that share their habitats. Amongst the most important areas to protect are clay licks. Tambopata National Reserve is home to the world's largest clay lick and the area supports the highest concentration of avian clay licks in the world. The clay licks along the river bank attract a wide range of bird species which gather there to engage in geophagy, from the Greek meaning "earth eating". At any one time the Tambopata clay lick can attract hundreds of colourful macaws and other parrots, forming an amazing ornithological spectacle.
It is not fully understood why species engage in geophagy. It may allow animals to obtain essential minerals that are difficult to find in typical food sources, it may help neutralise toxins, and in some species it is thought to alleviate diarrhoea. The research led by Brightsmith and his team has indicated that the parrots at Tambopata show a preference for clay that contains high levels of sodium and has a high ability to bind to dietary toxins. The strongest correlation with use is with sodium content, suggesting that this mineral, which is often lacking in the parrots' usual diet, is playing an important role. The fitness benefits to the birds from ingesting sodium are not understood, and there may be other benefits of geophagy in these species that are as yet unknown - there is still much to learn.
In 2008, for the first time the teams monitored a series of clay licks along the Tambopata River. As the parrots have access to all of the licks, they form a complex. Seasonal patterns of use by macaws have been detected at all of the clay licks in the complex; however, the seasonal changes were more marked at the Tambopata clay lick (the largest).
Understanding these seasonal patterns of use in different parrot species has been a key focus of the research. Preliminary analyses of the data collected by Earthwatch volunteers has allowed the team to determine that the patterns are due to interactions between food availability, parrot abundance and parrot breeding. The availability of food is at its lowest from March to July (the end of the wet season/start of the dry season). During this time the abundance of parrots decreases as they leave the area. They return as food availability increases. For nearly all species studied, clay lick use peaked during the breeding season, and the team's work with macaw chicks has discovered that chicks are fed clay lick soil by their parents. These insights have started to shed light on clay-lick use, which is a very complex phenomenon.
The research on the effects of tourism has shown that the presence or numbers of tourists at the clay licks does not affect the macaws, but boat traffic can have a negative effect, causing the birds at the lick to ‘flush' (take flight). The project team have taken their findings to local boat operators who, encouragingly, have agreed to change their activities around the clay licks to minimise their impact and have proven very supportive of the need to protect the macaws and other birds using the licks.
Simply protecting macaw habitat is unlikely to be enough to allow them to recover due to their naturally low reproductive rates, and a major objective of this project is to develop and evaluate various methods of increasing the reproductive success of macaws. The team is continuing to refine nest box designs and conducting experiments that aim to understand the reasons for chick starvation and how to enhance their survival.
The results of the project are disseminated to conservation scientists worldwide in the scientific literature. Reports are also sent to the Peruvian National Institute for Natural Resources (INRENA) and local tourism companies each year. The team also interacts with the local community and disseminates findings from the project through talks and reports in the local area. This all helps to contribute to the conservation of the macaws.
To find out more about the results of this project, see the 2008 field report available to download
. To find out how to take part in this research call +44 (0)1865 318831.
Report by Lianne Evans.