Bolivian macaws, of all Bolivia’s birds, come in such a dazzling array of colours and sizes, says Michel Livet of boutique tour operator, Bolivia Naturally.
Macaws – and parrots at large – are worthy and memorable additions to every birder’s life list. They are the most recognisable parrot species in the world. Their flashy overcoats, regal personalities and endangered status make every encounter with these stunning creatures an unforgettable aspect of birdwatching in the Neotropics.
Photo Credit: Michel Livet – Bolivia Naturally. Bolivian endemic Red-fronted Macaws.
But because of recent and rapid declines in their numbers they are in desperate need of our help. Ecotourism travellers help support biodiversity conservation in the world’s most biologically important areas. And in Bolivia this means added protection for the macaws and their habitats.
The Parrot Family
Macaws are superstars in the Psittacidae family of New World Parrots which numbers some 150 species. They are renowned for their intelligence, charisma and beauty, with plumage that looks as if they’ve been dipped in bright, multicoloured paint.
Apart from macaws, the psittacid family also includes the small to medium-sized parrots with long tail feathers known as parakeets or conures. It also encompasses other primarily short-tailed parrots such as Amazons.
Compared to other parrots, macaws are distinguished by their (very) long tails, slim and colourful bodies, proportionately larger beaks and relatively bare and light-coloured facial patches. These are fascinating, long-lived creatures, with slightly peculiar diets and complex social behaviours.
Macaws range in size from the 30cm (12in) Red-shouldered Macaw (Diopsittaca nobilis) to the largest of all parrots, the Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), which can reach a length of approximately 1m (40in).
More commonly seen large macaws among Bolivia’s birds include the Military Macaw (Ara militaris), Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao), Blue & Gold Macaw (Ara arauna), and Red & Green-winged Macaw (Ara chloroptera).
Photo Credit: Shutterstock. A Scarlet Macaw in flight.
Unfortunately, the beauty of these birds comes at a very high price. Trapping for the illegal pet trade, combined with ongoing habitat destruction, has led many macaw species to be endangered in their historic habitats. These include Lear’s Macaw and Blue-throated Macaw and the increasingly rare Glaucous Macaw. Spix’s Macaw may already be extinct in the wild.
Fifteen different species of macaws now remain, unevenly distributed within Central and South America, with many calling the Amazon their home. Some species are associated with forests, especially rainforests, while others prefer woodland or savanna-like habitats, and some even favour dry rocky riverbeds.
- Macaws are a group of birds in the parrot family (Psittacidae).
- All macaws are parrots, though not all parrots are macaws.
- Macaws are native to Central and South America and classed as New World Parrots.
- Most are found in rainforests, but some species prefer more arid habitats.
- IUCN Status of all macaws varies from vulnerable to critically endangered, and several species have become extinct in recent decades.
- Macaw conservation actions are crucial to the survival of all the macaw species.
- Bolivia holds the record for the number of wild macaw species present in just one country.
Photo Credit: Michel Livet – Bolivia Naturally. The Blue-throated Macaw is endemic to Bolivia but is now endangered.
The World’s Highest Diversity of Macaws are Found Amongst Bolivia’s Birds
Many birders flock to Central America just to see macaws and Bolivia could be said to be the best country to find them in the wild. Of the 15 surviving macaw species, 12 are found in Bolivia, including two species that are endemic to this small country in central South America, the Blue-throated Macaw and the Red-fronted Macaw.
Due to its geographic location in the heart of the continent, straddling the change from wet tropical to dry subtropical climates, Bolivia holds significant portions of South America’s major biomes and ecoregions. So it is no surprise that Bolivia is home to the majority of macaw species, as well as more than 1,400 other bird species.
In fact, only three macaws are not present in Bolivia – the Great Green or Buffon’s Macaw (Ara ambiguus) whose range is mostly restricted to Central America, Lear’s Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari) found in Brazil, and the Blue-winged or Illiger’s Macaw (Primolius maracana) also in Brazil, although it sometimes crosses the border into Bolivia. It is not included in the list of Bolivian macaw residents, but it may be possible to catch a glimpse of it.
Having 12 out of the 15 extant macaw species makes conservation efforts in Bolivia critical in the preservation of these magnificent birds.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock. A pair of Blue-and-yellow Macaws.
How Many Macaws are Left in the World?
As might be expected with such widespread locations of the birds, there are debates as to the global population of each type of macaw. But we can reasonably assume that there are decreasing numbers of the vast majority of macaw species, and that many of them have reached a highly threatened status. It is unlikely, for instance, that there are many more than 500 individual Blue-throated Macaws, and possibly only 800 to 1,000 Red-fronted Macaws. These two species are listed as critically endangered and on the brink of extinction. Meanwhile others, such as the Hyacinth Macaw are in a slightly better yet still fragile position with numbers around 5,000.
The problem for conservationists lies partly in the sheer number of macaw species that are in desperate need of some sort of protection. There are also vast areas of macaw territory that need to be intensively monitored and properly preserved in order to stabilise and improve living conditions for these birds.
Nevertheless, a number of conservation initiatives in Bolivia have managed to mitigate the effects of habitat loss and fragmentation, persecution as crop pests and poaching for the pet trade. All of these have previously pushed several of Bolivia’s parrots to the brink of extinction, but macaw conservation is now growing in confidence in the face of a fragile but sustained recovery.
Helping Bolivia’s Birds with Ecotourism
Ecotourism and demand to see Bolivia’s birds can really help to promote Bolivian reserves and prevent further habitat loss. Job creation in the form of reserve staff and guides gives financial incentive to preserving the natural Bolivian environment necessary for macaws and other native flora and fauna to prosper. Many worthy research and conservation organisations are working hard to protect a wide diversity of parrot species and develop responsible ecotourism activities.
From the traveller’s standpoint you would assume that, with their loud calls and flamboyant attire, it would be easy to spot macaws in the wild. But the nature of their habitats and their behaviour can make them hard to find. Where to go for the best views of macaws and other parrot species is dependent on the skills and knowledge build over many years by local bird guides. Choosing guides who are actively involved in some of the many conservation projects makes the experience of seeing Bolivia’s birds all the more meaningful.
Wild parrots need the world’s attention and help, not only to thrive but often simply to survive. So grab your binoculars and go! You’ll do yourself and the birds the biggest of favours!
Macaws Large and Small
On a trip to see Bolivia’s birds, particularly a specialist macaw tour, there is the potential to see 12 macaw species from Super Large XXL to Extra Small, as well as dozens of other beautiful parrots.
The XXLarge Bird
The unmistakable and supersized Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus also known as Paraba Azul or Paraba Jacinta in Spanish).
Some XLarge Species
The most common of the large macaws, Red-and-greens (Ara chloropterus also known as Green-winged Macaws) and Blue-and-yellow Macaws (Ara ararauna also known as Blue-and-gold Macaws) are widespread and fairly common in the forests of South America. In contrast, the slightly smaller Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) is much less common and less gregarious.
The Large Sizes
The Blue-throated Macaw (Ara glaucogularis, Barba Azul in Spanish) is endemic to Bolivia but its population size is unlikely to exceed 500 individuals.
By contrast, Military Macaws (Ara militaris) are relatively common in the rainforests of the foothills of the Bolivian Andes (mainly in Yungas habitat), with a population size of 2,000-7,000 (decreasing).
Photo Credit: Shutterstock. Portrait of a Military Macaw.
A Medium-sized Bird
Only found in Bolivia, the medium-sized Red-fronted Macaw (Ara rubrogenys) is critically endangered: it is estimated that fewer than 1,000 of these magnificent birds remain in the wild.
The Small Species
Red-bellied Macaws (Orthopsittaca manilatus) have a wide range over a large area in the Bolivian lowlands along with the Chestnut-fronted Macaws (Ara severa also known as Severe Macaw).
The aptly named Golden- or Yellow-collared Macaws (Primolius auricollis) are closely related to the rare Blue-headed Macaws (Primolius couloni also known as Coulon’s Mini-Macaws) and the Blue-winged Macaws (Primolius maracana).
Photo Credit: Shutterstock. The Severe Macaw, aka the Chestnut-fronted due to the feathers at the base of its beak.
And Finally, the XSmall Variety
At 30cm (12in) and weighing 130-170g (4.5-6oz), the Red-shouldered Macaw (Diopsittaca nobilis also known as Hahn’s Macaw) is the smallest macaw. The species is named for the red coverts on its wings. It is not yet considered to be an endangered species, but it is listed in Appendix Two of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.
Michel Livet is an independent international trade and development professional, based in La Paz, Bolivia and working with Bolivia Naturally, an offshoot of Fremen Tours Bolivia, Andes & Amazonia.
Original Date of Publish: 5th August 2021