The Project

The Project

Wikipedia encyclopedic article:

Due to their large size and great beauty, macaws make excellent flagship species and serve as charismatic focal points for the conservation of the ecosystems where they occur. Unfortunately, throughout most of tropical America, large macaws have suffered major population declines.

The project began in 1989 as the Tambopata Macaw Project, supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society, with the goal of learning about the basic ecology and natural history of large macaws so that this information could be used to help their conservation throughout the tropics. The site chosen for this research was on the upper Tambopata River in the center of a huge uninhabited tract of pristine tropical lowland forest, and the Tambopata Research Center was founded to host this research project. Investigations were conducted from 1990–1993 under the direction of Eduardo Nycander. After 1993, the research continued at a slower pace as Nycander’s focus shifted towards creating the ecotourism company Rainforest Expeditions.

The Macaw Society Logo

In November of 1999, Donald J. Brightsmith joined the team and took over the direction and day-to-day operations of the macaw project. Since then, the macaw project has produced many new publications on a variety of topics and expanded to include studies of parrot biology and clay licks throughout southeastern Peru. The project developed and evaluated techniques for increasing the reproductive output of wild macaws, expanded our knowledge of macaw nesting behavior, increased our understanding of the complexities of clay lick use, tracked macaw movements through satellite telemetry, and evaluated tourism as a method of protecting macaws and their habitat. In 2019 Rainforest Expeditions made it clear that they no longer wanted to host the project, so in 2020, the project separated from Rainforest Expeditions and continues to work independently as The Macaw Society.

Scientific information from The Macaw Society is dispersed through a variety of channels to local and native communities, to the Peruvian government, and via the internet to classrooms and conservationists worldwide. The information learned in southeastern Peru has been already applied in many areas of the Neotropics and Indonesia. Now, a major goal of the study is to provide opportunities for young scientists to run satellite projects under the umbrella of The Macaw Society so that Peru and other parts of Latin America will have a cadre of trained scientists willing and able to tackle the conservation and research problems in future decades.

Why are macaws in trouble?

The main reasons for macaw decline are habitat loss and collection for the illegal trade.

Habitat loss may take many forms including clearing for agriculture and selective logging. Selective logging usually leaves much native vegetation standing, including many important macaw food species, but can severely impact macaws because the harvest often targets the old, large trees that the macaws depend upon for nesting. These slow-growing trees may take centuries to attain sufficient size to harbor cavities. The deep, dry nest cavities that the macaws prefer may take an additional 10–20 years to form, but then last for many decades. Even in virgin forests, these large tree cavities are usually in short supply. As a result, each nest site cut represents not just the loss of a single nest, but also the loss of dozens of future chicks that could have been raised in this cavity.

Collection for the illegal trade further exacerbates this shortage of nest sites because in many areas where collectors cut the nest trees in order to remove the macaw chicks. This illegal activity is amongst the most lucrative crimes worldwide, including gun-, drug-, and human trafficking.

The threats faced by large macaws are compounded by the fact that these species have naturally low reproductive rates. Previous work by the researchers in Tambopata has shown that the low reproductive rates are due to several main factors:

  • There are not enough suitable nest sites—even in pristine, old-growth forest hundreds of years old;
  • Only about 60% of nests fledge young;
  • Many natural nest sites suffer higher failure rates because they are either too shallow or wet; and
  • Successful nests usually fledge only one or two young—even when three or four eggs are laid—as the others die of malnutrition.

Given the threats that face many macaw populations today, it is obvious that protecting large tracts of habitat is vital to the survival of macaws and the thousands of species that share their habitat. Some of the most important areas to protect are clay licks. Here hundreds of individuals of up to 17 species congregate daily to descend to the river and stream banks to eat clay. This clay apparently provides an important source of sodium, which is chronically lacking in the foods the birds eat daily. The fact that macaws return regularly makes them particularly vulnerable to hunters in these locations.

For example, groups of up to 200 or more may frequent large clay licks, such as those along the Tambopata and Madre de Díos Rivers in southeastern Peru. The same predictability that makes clay licks good sites for hunters also makes these locations ideal sites for tourism. As a result, a string of ecotourism projects has sprung up in the last several decades that offer macaw viewing at clay licks as a central part of their itineraries. Significant areas are currently being protected from hunting and logging by these ecotourism companies because these tourism projects have a vested interest in protecting the nests and clay licks near their lodges.

Clay Licks (Collpas)

Despite the fact that western scientists have known about clay lick use for over thirty years, our knowledge of clay lick use is still far from complete. In general, there is still debate over why birds use the clay licks.

While there is documented evidence that the clay in the soil can reduce the absorption of dietary toxins into the blood, there is little evidence to support that the birds choose to consume soils based on their ability to protect from toxins. Instead, there is mounting evidence that the soils provide an important source of sodium.

Our studies have begun to unravel some mysteries. We have found that predation is likely driving the time of day in which the birds use the lick and the complex social interactions among different species seen when using the lick. We have also found that the birds use the lick most during the season in which they are nesting, in large part because they feed clay lick soil to their chicks.

We still lack information on how often macaws and parrots return to clay licks, how far the birds range to visit licks, and if they shift between licks on a daily basis. This sort of basic information is vital to our understanding of clay lick use and must be obtained if we want to effectively protect clay licks and understand the impacts of tourism.


While there is little doubt that ecotourism is less damaging to macaw populations than hunting and logging, studies documenting the impact of tourism on macaws and parrots at clay licks are few. Tourism impacts may be manifested in a variety of ways.

Macaws are a favorite of tourists throughout the areas where they occur. Particularly valued by tourists are close-range sightings that allow good photo opportunities. Tourist groups frequently observe the clay licks from boats as they pass by or from blinds and trails adjacent to the licks. Groups also approach macaws perched in the trees waiting to descend to the licks. Our research has shown that these practices can cause impacts when not properly managed.  Using as a starting point the basic information on the behavior of parrots and macaws at clay licks, we need to continue to study the effects of these sorts of tourism visits so that recommendations can be made on how to reduce disturbance of the birds.

Conservation Management

Unfortunately, due to the naturally low reproductive rates of macaws, just protecting habitat may not be enough to allow them to recover from the decades of collection and tree cutting in some areas. For this reason, a major objective of this project is to develop and evaluate different methods to increase the reproductive success of large macaws.

We have designed new nest boxes for macaw species that have never nested in artificial nest substrates and conducted experiments and observations aimed at understanding why some macaw chicks die of starvation and how to enhance their survival.

For three breeding seasons since 2017, the project started the “wild macaws as foster parents” program by testing wild macaws to increase chick survival. The technique was categorically successful, as all relocated foster chicks were accepted by their foster parents.

Our findings are being shared with conservation scientists worldwide and the personnel of SERNANP (the branch of the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture in charge of natural resource management). This will ensure that the basic set of tested macaw management techniques developed here arrives in the hands of the people most able to use the information to help the recovery and maintenance of macaw populations throughout the tropics.