A glorious flock of big, beautiful, raucous Scarlet Macaws inhabit the Copan Archeological site. Raised in a protected area, the macaws are not shy of people, providing excellent views of this often-elusive species, which has become very rare in Central America. These birds were rescued from smugglers as very young birds.   Only young birds are suitable for the pet trade since the macaws must be acclimated to people at a young age. Adult birds are killed or driven away and the nesting trees cut down to obtain the young birds. The illegal international bird trade combined with habitat loss is the reason that so many macaw species are in serious trouble.

Stable populations in remote Amazon locations keep the Scarlet Macaw out of the IUCN Red Book of Threatened Species but the species has become very rare in Central America, resulting in a change in CITES status from Appendix III to Appendix I, highest concern, in the nine years between 1978 and 1985. While the pet trade has depressed the species, deforestation is the major reason for their decline. Since 1960, Central America has lost more than seventy percent of its forest cover. Cattle ranches, sugar cane plantations, and coffee plantations are responsible for most of the deforestation. The Scarlet Macaw has disappeared entirely from El Salvador, which is essentially deforested, and is reduced to scattered pockets of forest in the rest of Central America. The closing of the Chalillo Dam in Belize destroyed the strong hold of the Scarlet Macaws in that county by flooding one of the most pristine wildlife areas remaining in Central America.

Lack of suitable nesting holes has constrained efforts to boast macaw populations. Success with introduced nesting boxes has been mixed. Macaws are highly intelligent, social birds with a culture. Much behavior is learned, not innate. Macaws raised in nest boxes will readily use them when they reach breeding age but encouraging the first generation of birds to use the nest boxes has been problematic.

The ancient Maya considered Scarlet Macaws messengers of the Sun God, their highest deity. The fall of the Mayan civilization offers a stark lesson in conservation. Human overpopulation resulted in deforestation which resulted in water loss. Water loss led to agricultural failure, famine, and resulting discord. Eventually the civilization collapsed. Unfortunately, the cycle is repeating itself today in Central America.

The Scarlet Macaw is one of ten large macaws in three genera. Three species are listed as vulnerable, one species is endangered, one is critically endangered, one is critically endangered and possibly extinct in the wild, and one species, the Glaucous Macaw, is presumed extinct.   The three remaining species are disappearing on the periphery of their ranges where they are in contact with people and are only considered not of global conservation concern because of stable populations spread out over large, remote areas of the Amazon.   Protecting the remaining macaws will not be easy, but the world would be a poorer place indeed if these big, beautiful, highly intelligent birds were to disappear.—

—Sharyn Magee

President, WCAS