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Disappearing nest egg: Researcher studying declining numbers of macaws

One of the most colorful birds in the world may have a less-than-colorful future.

Macaws, the largest members of the parrot family, have seen their numbers decline in recent decades, and that trend is continuing today.

Dr. Don Brightsmith, a bird specialist at Texas A&M University's Schubot Exotic Bird Center, part of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, is studying ways to make sure macaws will not just be photos in a book one day.

Brightsmith says there are 17 species of macaws, and of those, 1 is extinct, another has become extinct in the wild and 7 other species are endangered. "The numbers for all macaw species are shrinking," he says.

There are several reasons for their declining numbers. The birds are highly prized by the pet trade industry, and they are losing their native habitat due to construction and other factors. Also, some South American natives seek them out either for food or to kill them for their bright feathers.

Brightsmith has conducted several detailed studies on the birds, which technically are members of the Psittacidae family that includes parrots, macaws, parakeets and close relatives. He's the first to admit he's a macaw fan.

"They are stunningly beautiful birds and have amazingly bright colors," he says.

"You have to admire them for their beauty, which is almost a curse for them and one reason why they are so highly prized. But surprisingly little is known about them – their movements, their habits, their reproduction, almost everything about them. We just don't know much about these beautiful birds."

Brightsmith says we do know that macaws are considered highly intelligent creatures. As with many types of parrots, macaws can be taught to speak English words or phrases "or any language, for that matter."

They can live up to 50 years and often outlive their owners. Macaws can also be affectionate birds. "It's believed they are very sensitive to human emotions," he adds. "They use this intelligence to find food and to stay alive."

Brightsmith spent several months recently in the Amazon rain forests of eastern Peru, where he runs a long-term macaw research project.

He has learned that one reason the macaw populations are declining is due to the popularity of the Aguaje palm. It's highly-sought after by the local people for its fruit – the nearby city of Iquitos consumes up to 15 tons of the fruit per day.

But the tree is also a frequent home to macaws, who nest in it and who also enjoy eating the fruit.

"Unfortunately, the locals have discovered that the best way to get the fruit is to chop down the whole tree, and these can grow up to 100 feet high," Brightsmith confirms.

"So nesting areas and food sources for macaws are being eliminated."

Other prime macaw nesting grounds are being lost by logging and clearing the land for agriculture, he adds. Brightsmith will return to the area in October and hopes to install collars on numerous macaws and use satellite technology to track their movements and learn more about them.

"We have some macaws here in captivity on campus at the Schubot Exotic Bird Center, but we have much to learn about them in their native habitat," he says.

"We know that they tend to stay with one mate for a long time. But we need to learn more about their breeding habits, their migration routes, more about their diet and many other things. The more we learn about these birds, the better our chances to save them."

Don Brightsmith | EurekAlert!
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