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Macaws in Flight

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Costa Rica's two native species of macaws are the scarlet (Ara macao) and great green (Ara ambigua). They are rapidly disappearing, the scarlet being restricted to Guanacaste and the extreme NW Caribbean slope. A few more persist in Carara and the Corcovado basin.

The great green macaw was once widespread, but is now restricted to the Caribbean lowlands. They are tied to the huge leguminous tree Dipteryx panamensis, or mountain almond, on whose fruit they feed, and they fly long distances to find the giant isolated specimens remaining. I'm thankful that there is a ban on any more cutting of mountain almond, as they are essential to the survival of great green  macaws.

Whether either of these macaw species can find enough appropriate habitat in the vicinity of Don Alvaro's finca to support them and their families is an open question, one that bothered me even as I watched them sport in the garden. La Selva Biological Reserve is within striking distance, but who knows how much acreage it takes to support a breeding population of scarlet or great green macaws?

I pondered this as I watched these happy macaws, "kept" at liberty in Don Alvaro's magical gardens. Each bird that took off unleashed a rainbow of unexpected color, leaving me breathless and laughing.

Macaws fly with their heads well below their wing level, so they're hard to photograph in flight. They look headless! The stunning cerulean rump of the scarlet and great green, and that incredible shading on the great greens' tails of tomato-red to sea blue, just knocked me out. Somehow, until they take flight, the entirety of their raiment is hidden.

We had planned to come here to sketch and perhaps paint. It was a little like trying to sketch in the middle of Ringling's circus. My head was whipping back and forth, my camera following it...hopeless. All I could do was survive the aesthetic barrage of color, ear-splitting sound and unbridled psittacine joy. Their joy was mine. I felt I was coming full circle. It was an exorcism of years of guilt I'd felt at keeping Charlie in my studio, when I knew in my heart that she was meant to be flying free somewhere in Peru.

I got a peanut! I got a peanut!

Look at my peanut!! (and my cerulean panties!)

An entirely different bird from the rear--all that cobalt! How is it that a blue feather has a red reverse?? Who thought that up? How does it work? Structural color, prisms, not pigments, set to catch the light, that's how. But knowing a little something about feather color still left me unprepared for the beauty of these birds.

In fact, I can't look at these huge birds without wondering why. Why are they so colorful, why so large, why so loud, why so intelligent, gregarious, amazing?

And why can't we let them be what and who they are?

Why do we even try to cage them?

Because a macaw in a cage is simply not a macaw, any more than a caged hummingbird is a hummingbird, a caged swift a swift.

A macaw was never meant to be a decoration, a status symbol, a prisoner, an inmate.

This--this is what a macaw is. It is flight, crazy color, motion, sound.



Don Alvaro's finca is a place of succor and comfort for twenty macaws, some of whom have had rough starts in life. There is another project in Costa Rica that is captive raising great green and scarlet macaws for release, and release only. It's called Project Ara. I heard about it from my crane conservation compatriot Cyndi Routledge. Here's a link to a pdf about the first release of two great green macaws. As a bird rehabilitator, I could completely empathize. Well worth the read. 

Wishing Don Alvaro and Project Ara, and the precious packages of genetic material they're releasing, all the luck in the world. They'll need it.


One of God's most beautiful paintings! Thanks for sharing this!

Your photos capture the joie de vivre of these fabulous creatures. And your prose asks all the right questions: why why why? Do we think that in caging these lovely birds we capture their essence? We don't! The most diligent owner, no matter how loved the bird (or other wild thing for that matter), cannot give them a life to compare with the life they should have in the wild. Nothing substitutes for the freedom we have stolen. The worst, imo, are those who make profit, the dealers and the animal theme parks.
Sooner or later those who love these birds see the truth, as you have, as I have.
Keep telling their story!

Posted by Gail Spratley March 25, 2014 at 8:33 AM

Awesome. Awe-inspiring. Gorgeous beyond words.

I wish you were my mother or my sister. I would love to follow you around on your adventures. Thank you for sharing so many amazing photos and stories. I have learned so much from you!

might also be worth putting in a plug for Donald Brightsmith's Tambopata Macaw Project (in Peru):

(I've always heard great things about it.)

Just amazing.

Julie, I keep coming back to look at these photos. I don't even know what to say, they are out-of-this-world beautiful. I hope you paint some macaws in flight. I can remember seeing many paintings of them sitting, but they need to be painted flying!

What a wonderful trip you had. These birds are amazing and you have captured them on film most brilliantly!

These images are stunning. This must have been an amazing experience. I have been fortunate to have seen the wild green macaws in the Caribbean lowland more than once. But I have never been showered with tropical birds like this!

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