What is the blue-throated macaw?
Brilliantly colored plumage makes the blue-throated macaw, a member of the parrot family and one of at least 17 macaw species, hard to miss. Its chest, belly, legs, and under-wing area are bright yellow, with golden swoops extending on both sides of its turquoise throat. Its wings and head are also blue. Blue and white stripes surround its eyes, which are separated from its strong, curved beak by a small patch of skin.
In Spanish, the bird’s name is paraba barba azul, which translates to “blue bearded” macaw. Its namesake blue beard distinguishes the blue-throated macaw from its lookalike, the blue-and-yellow macaw (Ara ararauna).
The vibrant blue-throated macaw was thought to be extinct for years until 1992, when a wild population of the species was found in South America. Today, the blue-throated macaw is critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Habitat and diet
Blue-throated macaws are geographically isolated and only found in northern Bolivia, where there are two subpopulations spread across 3,320 square miles of savanna. Their precise locations and habits are still somewhat of a mystery. Conservationists discovered a new breeding area in 2017, raising hopes the finding will help us to better understand the macaw’s life cycle.
Blue-throated macaws live in the groves of motacu palms. Some of these groves are more than 500 years old. The birds have also been found nesting in cavities of totai and royal palms which, in Bolivia, are often clustered on elevated terrain formed from prehistoric human existence in the lowland region.
Threats to survival
Humans are the biggest threat to blue-throated macaws. Steep population declines can be traced back to the 1970s and '80s, when more than a thousand birds were caught in the wild and exported from the country to be pets. Though live export of the bird was banned in 1984, the wildlife trade remains the species’ biggest threat.
Ranching operations also pose a limited threat to the blue-throated macaw’s habitat. Cattle can hinder the growth of tree seedlings by trampling and grazing, and trees are sometimes cut down for fuel and fence posts. Ranchers also burn the savanna yearly to improve grassland pasture. But research has found the presence of cattle overall is unlikely to have any immediate impact on the bird’s population.
In 2007, the population was estimated at between 250 and 300 individuals. Ten years later, 155 of the birds—a record number—were counted in one place. But today there’s uncertainty around the size of the bird’s population; IUCN offers a conservative estimate of between 50 and 250 adult blue-throated macaws.
Despite its low numbers, the blue-throated macaw population is considered stable thanks to numerous conservation efforts. Bolivia created a recovery plan for the bird, which was listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Many of the examples of successful conservation work are occurring on local private ranchlands, which are planting trees to provide food and habitat for the bird, protecting existing palm forest habitat with fences, and installing nest boxes to maximize breeding success.
Land purchases are helping too. In 2008, a private reserve was created to protect at least 20 of the birds, and the Barba Azul Nature Reserve has doubled in size in recent years to include important foraging and roosting sites. A 1.5 million acre reserve was established in 2017 as a protected area for just over a third of the blue-throated macaw’s known population and about half of its known breeding pairs.
There’s also an ongoing effort to replace macaw feathers with artificial ones in traditional headdresses used for indigenous celebrations.
Conservation measures and a diminishing caged-bird trade are giving researchers some hope the Bolivian bird is on the upswing. But the blue-throated macaw isn’t out of the woods yet. IUCN points to the population declining by more than 80 percent over the last three generations as evidence that more needs to be done for the bird to have a viable future.