For a momentary respite from the confinement of the COVID pandemic, Elinor Zamora went up to the roof of her building to breathe in the outside air. There, in 2020, she encountered a surprising sight: She watched dozens of huge, colorful macaws gather just before sunset, drawn by a neighbor who was feeding them. Mesmerized by the majesty of the birds, Zamora was moved by the scene. Like the birds, she also began a daily pilgrimage to the roof to bask in their splendor.
“No matter what happens, everyone knows that at 4 p.m. I go to my house to meet my guacamayas on the roof,” she says.
The birds, which can grow up to three feet in length, are a symbol of Caracas, the capital city built in a valley separated from the Caribbean Sea by the Venezuelan Coastal Range mountains. They frequent rooftops and balconies of countless buildings in search of food. People feed them and flood social networks with photos of their bright blue, green, yellow, and red plumage. (In general, experts advise against giving food to wild animals, since it can harm them and create a dependency on humans. But such advice doesn’t seem to be welcome or heeded in this case.)
They also exchange the details of their created stories as if they were part of mini soap operas. “The yellow one is dating the orange one but she’s being mistreated,” somebody might say.
“This yellow is always dirty; she must spend the day in a mechanic workshop,” another offers. “The blanquita is spoiled,” ventures a third.
Over time, the birds have become collective mascots of the capital.
What makes Caracas’s macaws unique is their diversity, says biologist Malú González, a professor at the Simón Bolívar University. “Between macaws, parrots, and parakeets, we have 17 species flying here,” González explains.
This includes four macaw species, all native to Venezuela. The maracana (Ara severa), mostly green, is the smallest and the only one from this central region. The flag macaw (Ara macao)—its yellow, blue, and red coloration reminiscent of the national tricolor flag—is originally from the plains and the Amazon region. The red-and-green macaw (Ara chloroptera) maintains small populations in the country’s east and west. These last two have been displaced in the skies of Caracas by the blue-and-yellow macaw (Ara ararauna).
Historically, macaws weren’t native to the capital, and it’s not entirely clear why they began to nest in the city’s palm trees, but González believes their arrival was driven by the pet trade.
“Entire generations grew up with a parrot, parakeet, or a macaw at home,” González explains. “Some escaped, others were released.”
When people talk about the macaws in Caracas, they often mention Vittorio Poggi, an Italian immigrant who once rescued an injured blue-and-yellow macaw. Though Poggi didn’t keep the bird captive, it followed him as he rode his motorcycle through the streets of the capital. Poggi became known as the “macaw boy.”
Thanks to this fame, for years many people brought him injured or sick birds, as well as macaw pets they no longer wanted to keep at home for him to take care of.
Malu Gonzalez cautions that the birds are not meant for captivity. “The truth is that these birds are terrible to have as pets,” González says. “They are noisy, break everything, and make a mess. A lot of people grabbed them because they are beautiful. The first month is idyllic, but then they can't stand it, and they look for ways to get rid of them.”
For decades, Poggi released into the urban area dozens of these animals that he received from people tired of keeping them at home. This was not the only cause of the macaws’ proliferation, but it “did partly favor the predominance of the yellow-and-blue ones,” Gonzalez says.
On the wing
It is unknown how many macaws there are in Caracas, but in 2016 Gonzalez counted between 300 and 400 yellow-and-blue ones.
“Then two things happened,” she says. Protests in Caracas in 2017 “impacted the populations,” she says. Birds may have been killed by tear gas and other disruptions. But then came the pandemic. “They came back to recover the empty spaces, and I think the population grew,” she adds.
González wants to understand how the interaction with the humans is changing the behavior of these birds, whose populations in their original habitats are declining. Part of that involves the “‘caretakers’ [who] have a passion for them—they dedicate a lot of time to them and this observation makes them experts,” she says. To aid this effort, she is searching for funding to develop an app with bird facial recognition that would populate a database with the support of the people who observe and feed the birds every day.
Little is known about how urban living effects the birds. But Gonzalez explains that some changes are visible in the macaws themselves. “They are breeding with close relatives, and this is making more common mutations that are very rare,” she says.
Gonzalez explains that certain mutations, common in small caged populations that reproduce among themselves but rare in the wild—such as white coloration—are becoming increasingly frequent in Caracas because the birds don’t travel outside the city.
Another phenomenon is becoming visible: hybrid macaws, the result of mixing between two different species. One way to recognize the hybrids is the abundance of color—orange, for example—unlike the mutants that lose a tone, such as the white ones.
In general, experts recommend against feeding wild animals. In mangroves and forests, macaws normally have a varied diet and fly long distances. But in the city the birds eat processed foods, bananas, or a few types of seeds fed to them—and they tend to be relatively sedentary. This means Caracas macaws may have a shorter life expectancy. Sometimes they’re hit by cars, and urban pollution may also affect their health.
This altered diet may in turn impact their reproductive cycles, González says. “The abundance of fruit trees in Caracas, [along] with the seeds and foods they receive in the rooftops, made possible an increase in the population,” says Gonzalez, who is trying to determine if that wealth is leading to higher hatching rates.
The animals exist in a gray zone among the wild and feral and domestic. Some people consider them pets, while others do not. But why buy a captive bird when there are macaws flying in the streets?
Elinor Zamora, for one, has never owned a bird. She doesn’t need to. “I always say that I live alone, with my guacamayas.”