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Project Update 2014

The Tambopata Macaw Project: 2014 Update

Donald J. Brightsmith, Gabriela Vigo

Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center at Texas A&M University

Annie Hawkinson

Tambopata Macaw Project at TRC

and George Olah

Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

December 2014

It is December once again. Out in the “civilized world” Christmas carols are blaring in malls as hapless shoppers run from store to store and worry about their resolutions for 2015. Here in Peru at the Tambopata Research Center the end of the year brings a different type of flurry of activity as macaws jostle for position at the clay lick and hurry back to nests to chase away rivals and feed hungry chicks.

It also brings us to our time for reflection on 2014 and planning for 2015.

Overall 2014 was a busy year for all with the project moving forward in the field, in the laboratory, at conferences, and in the scientific literature. Alan Lee’s new paper on “Diet and geophagy across a western Amazonian parrot assemblage” found that the parrots that feed in the young successional forests near the rivers use the clay lick more than those from the old towering rainforest that we all think of when we imagine TRC and southeastern Peru. We have some indication that the successional forest plants have less sodium than those in the older forests making the need for sodium greater among these secondary forest birds. George Olah’s new paper “Nest site selection and efficacy of artificial nests for breeding success of Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao) in lowland Peru” looked at 10 years of nesting data and showed us how important the social aspects of macaw nesting are: nests that were successful in one year are the most likely to be occupied the following year. As we suspected, the macaws are smart. If a nest works one year it is likely to work the next. And that is where the fights come in. If you want a nest you are usually best off if you fight for it and take it from a pair that was successful last year.

Here at TRC Annie Hawkinson from Minnesota took over as field leader in May and has led a crack team of climbers and observers to document the goings on in the world of macaws and clay licks this season. With her help we have continued our tradition of monitoring macaw populations while training young biologists, veterinarians, and volunteers from all over the world.

After 15 years you would think that we would have learned all there is to know about these birds, but the rain forest always has surprises. Yesterday afternoon I was working on this report when I was interrupted by a radio call from Annie and her climbing crew. . . they had found a dead adult macaw inside a nest, right next to 3 recently laid eggs. This is the first time we have ever found a dead adult in a nest. My head began to spin. What could have happened? Did a predator trap the mother in the nest and eat it? That was the leading theory until the vets brought the body in and we got to take a look. Unfortunately the bird had died a few days earlier so there was not much to be learned. But what was obvious was that the bird was whole, clearly not killed and eaten by a predator. So how did it die? All we can imagine is that the bird got hurt, and perhaps had sustained some sort of head injury. Was it during a fight with another macaw over the nest? Was it a collision while flying? But once again all the rain forest will give us is clues, not clear answers.

It is only December and we are already amazed by the quantity of macaw eggs we have found this breeding season. Normally macaws lay a single clutch of 3 to 4 eggs from November - January. If a nest is lost to predators or during a fight with other macaws, a pair may lay a replacement clutch, but clutches of more than four eggs are rare. This is why we were so surprised to find 6 eggs in the natural nest Max and a whopping 8 eggs in the artificial nest Franz! We really have no idea what causes these super rare “megaclutches” but the main theories are 1) that something drives the female to lay extra eggs, or 2) during fights for nests or other times multiple females lay their eggs in one nest. Hopefully future genetic analyses will give some insight in to this odd phenomenon. In Franz four of the eggs hatched and the mother left the three younger chicks to die, choosing to raise only the oldest one. Incredible to think that out of these 8 eggs, at most only one new macaw will be added to the population. At Max the situation is even more complex: after 3 of the 6 eggs hatched several more eggs, including a much smaller egg, appeared suggesting that “somebirdy” is still dropping eggs in to this nest.

Chuchuy and Inocencio (left) and their chick from the 2014 season (right)

The hand raised Scarlet Macaws (known affectionately as “the Chicos”) at 22+ years old continue to provide entertainment to visitors and researchers alike. The sight of an adult Scarlet Macaw swooping down from the forest to land in the lodge is unforgettable and sends the visitors scrambling for their cameras. However, it is their “soap opera-like” antics at the nests that keep the researchers enthralled. In the 2014 season Chuchuy and Inocencio defended an artificial nest by the lodge but were expelled in a dramatic fight. We thought that Chuchuy had died but in May she reappeared with Inocencio and a single recent fledgling! We have no idea where they nested, but it was successful. Now in 2015 the drama continues. In early December they defended a natural cavity in their old nest tree, and enormous Ironwood overlooking the lodge. Unfortunately for them, a pair of Red and Green Macaws (likely the same ones that that kicked them out of their nest in 2013) did not want to share. They roundly expelled Chuchuy and Inocencio and sent them packing. But only a day or so after their last attempts in the old ironwood, we found them with eggs in an artificial PVC nest less than 100 meters away. Within days these eggs disappeared and now the pair is defending another nest. The question remains will they be able to raise another family in the 2015 season?

Back in Texas our very own Gaby Vigo (PhD student at Texas A&M) along with Dr. Janice Boyd made a scientific poster on macaw movements and habitat use which won top prize in a university-wide GIS competition. The study suggests that upland forests within 1.2 km of rivers are favorite habitats for Scarlet Macaws around TRC. These upland areas likely offer good food sources and the big old trees with the large cavities needed for nesting. The study also showed that the birds spent most of their time within 6 km of TRC and the large clay lick. Unfortunately the precision of the locations from our ARGOS satellite collars did not permit us to analyze in greater details the bird movements around TRC. However, in January of 2015 we will be using new GPS collars to get high precision locations of male macaws as they move through the forest to collect food, visit the clay lick, and feed their young. These new collars will give us super accurate locations every 5 – 15 minutes for 3 to 4 weeks. For the first time we will be able to see the scale at which these birds use the forest during breeding. We have so many questions: How often do they go to the clay lick? Do they use just a few fruiting trees or do they sample from a broad range of species in the forest? How far will they go in a day? What do they do in the hours between feedings? Do they explore the surrounding area or just find a comfortable branch to rest on? This information will provide the perfect complement to the coarser scale year-long movements we have measured in our previous work during the non-breeding season. Together these studies will provide important information on the amounts and types of habitat needed to support healthy populations of large macaws.

In 2015 we will also be analyzing feather samples to look at how birds use clay licks. Through these analyses we hope to estimate how many birds regularly visit the clay lick near TRC and other key licks in the region. We will try to determine if clay licks are 1) used by a wide range of birds that come from all over the landscape and wander from lick to lick or 2) used mostly by small groups of “locals” who are nearly exclusive in their use of a single lick. This information will give us an idea of how future hunting and forest loss will affect the populations of birds using different clay licks and provide incentives to conserve these incredible places and the forests that surround them.

As we face 2015 we need your help to continue our ground-breaking work on macaws and parrots here at Tambopata Research Center. We are committed to advancing the study of macaw and parrot conservation and training new students, volunteers and young professionals so they can go out to support conservation of parrots and natural ecosystems worldwide. We are also working on a new film about the macaws and clay licks of the Tambopata region that should be complete around mid-year. See http://igg.me/at/macawmovie for more information.

We are also raising funds for an expedition to return to the Candamo Valley. This isolated valley in the foothills of the Andes Mountains is an incredible biodiversity hotspot threatened by oil exploration. Our analyses suggest that the macaw populations in the valley are isolated from the surrounding area, but we need more information. On this expedition we will collect more feather samples and place satellite collars on some of the valley’s macaws to compare the annual movements of the birds with our genetic results. We hope to determine how isolation affects macaws in the long term and if the population in this remote valley is truly as unique as we believe.

On behalf of our research crew, Chuchy, Innocencio and all the other macaws and parrots in the forest we would like to thank Rainforest Expeditions, Texas A&M University, the Wildlife Protection Foundation, The Parrot Conservation Fund, Phoenix Landing and all the private donors who have supported us in the past year. Thanks also to Gustavo Martinez, Annie Hawkinson and all the other employees and volunteers who worked so hard to collect this year’s crop of valuable data. Thanks also to you for your support of the Tambopata Macaw Project. Happy holidays!

Initiatives for 2015

Macaw monitoring and training volunteers and young professionals

Field assistant salary ($600 per month x 4 months) $2,400
Climbing gear $1,400
Supplies $600
Total $4,400

Expedition to the Candamo Valley

Boat, driver and gasoline $800
Expedition leader salary $800
Food $500
Satellite collars (2 at $2000 each) $4,000
Equipment $600
Total $6,700

How you can help

There are two ways to make a tax deductible donation to our project

  • Check: Make payable to “Texas A&M University” and mail to:

Donald Brightsmith / Patty Vychopen

Department of Veterinary Pathobiology

Texas A&M University 4467

College Station, Texas 77843-4467

You can also come and work with us as a volunteer. For more information on being a volunteer please click here.

For more information please contact Dr. Donald Brightsmith at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Candamo Valley