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Angry Monkeys

Sunday, March 30, 2014


I was talking to the animals, Doolittle style, and making a big big fuss over the female great curassow at Don Alvaro's wonderful animal sanctuary. And the little paca was sooo hurt and jealous. If ever there were an accusatory paca, this is it. I am pretty sure that had I been able to get into the enormous flight cage where it lived, it would have climbed onto my lap, demanded a belly rub, and given me what-for. 

Note the hands. I was smitten with this snooty little guinea pig on stilts.

Speaking of that flight cage: It's more like a hacking cage. About 10' off the ground there are several enormous holes cut in the chain link, and the macaws go in and out of them. It's like a big halfway house for them. If they want to feel safe, they go into it and shelter from rain under its partially covered roof. If they want to fly up and down the river or tussle in the treetops, they make their way out. What an elegant system, a system based on trust.

I was delighted to find great green and scarlet macaws enjoying the fruits of a palm right in Don Alvaro's garden. 

I always much prefer taking photos of birds in natural habitat, and these could possibly be useful for publication somewhere.

Extravagant, that's what they are. Flaunting their colors.

I loved watching them fly from tree to tree.

Soon, however, trouble arrived in the form of several wild white-faced capuchins. 

Monkeys suffer for our perceptions, having our anthropomorphism so freely applied to them. But I gotta say: the look on this monkey's face says it all. She was a real piece of work. She wanted the peanuts that Don Alvaro was offering to the macaws, and she resented their having any of them.

So she'd rush the big birds and race to the peanut bowl and grab double handfuls of the nuts and then gobble them down. Which was OK. But then, when the peanuts were all gone, she spent the afternoon racing through the treetops deliberately flushing the macaws for no apparent reason.  Showing off?

Planning an attack on a scarlet macaw which was minding its own business. She reminded me of a tiny catcher behind the plate. 

I had to smile when Mario said, "I don't like those capuchins. They are just nasty animals, always making trouble."

The macaws retreated to the palms to eat.

and continued their storm-trooper like passes through the yard. Cracked squawks and screams rang out continually, but they seemed perfectly in place, not dissonant as they are when echoing off the walls of a room.

Seeing the birds free to do whatever they pleased all day long was such a treat. I wished there were more places like this, where macaws could be free to realize their potential, to pick mates and perhaps raise young.

How I wished there were still tens of thousands of scarlets and great greens in Costa Rica, instead of just hundreds.

We primates are always finding something to be perturbed about. Even in Paradise.

A Peaceable Kingdom

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Quite a lineup--five scarlets, one great green, and its hybrid great green x scarlet baby.
We're still at Don Alvaro's macaw rescue ranch.
A wild white-faced capuchin moves in to make some trouble. She wants a peanut, too. Or all the peanuts. Give me all the peanuts.

A great green macaw walks up a tree trunk. Its feathers shine with health. I couldn't believe the exquisite condition of these birds. Natural food, humidity, the society of others and freedom--they all make for healthy, happy birds.

Here comes a great green!

To see these birds bombing by at eye level is something I'll never forget. And catch the color of the reverse on the tail feathers--tomato red and blue reverses to gold and green.

Those who were brave enough to hold the peanut bin might get sat upon. Nancy loves it!

Photo by Jim Palmer

Conejo, or "Rabbit," was this donkey's name. He was the loveliest, most placid animal I've ever met. He moved quietly around the garden, like the macaws, free to go, but choosing to stay. And he came up to give a little love to pet-starved travelers like Kim.

Don Alvaro saw me feeding him some of the delicious pineapple he'd set out for the human visitors, and brought out the rinds and cores for me to give to Conejo. I gave him a whole core and the juice just flowed from his soft mouth.

If I could have packed that donkey in my luggage, I'd have brought him home. He was that lovely.

I saw a female great curassow hanging around in the big macaw flight. Noted that she'd been pinioned, a cruel operation that cuts the distal joint of the wing at the bird's wrist, rendering it flightless. Knew for sure that Don Alvaro would never do such a thing, and that he'd rescued her from somewhere.

I'd talked with captive great curassows in Brasil, and had a hunch she might be lonesome. I made a soft, low hmmmmm in my throat. She walked up to me and let me caress her soft face.

 And she answered with her own low humming.

Amy got to pet her, too.

and so did Kim

and Nancy A.

 The paca (a kind of long-legged forest rodent) was very, very jealous. He tried to interfere while we were petting the curassow. I petted him, too, but I was a little nervous about his extra-long incisors.

I did not pet the female jaguar, who was caged with a male. They had been killing cattle in Nicaragua, and were trapped and slated for death when Don Alvaro intervened.

Don Alvaro's farm is a peaceable kingdom, a place where animals have another chance. However sad its life was before coming to this farm, every animal there has clearly been treated with love from the moment it arrived. I could see that in the curassow's eye, feel it in her warm skin.

And it was magic.

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.

Macaw Refuge

Sunday, March 23, 2014

This is not an ordinary man-and-macaw story. The afternoon we visited Don Alvaro's finca in the rolling countryside near the Rio Sarapiqui was one of the most magical and moving of our trip.

This gentle man rescues macaws. Caged, lonely, abused macaws, macaws coming from all over. I saw one with only half a beak, one that had plucked itself to down. He has 19 in all. That's a lot of macaws. "Has" isn't quite the right verb here. 

Because it's what he does with them, how he "keeps" them that moved me so. These birds are free, flying all over the farm. Flying many kilometers up and down the river, voicing harsh shrieks that, in their harshness, still sound joyful.

But they come back to Don Alvaro for peanuts and a little loving. 

Having lived with a captive chestnut-fronted macaw for 23 years, I could immediately see that this was a much, much better way. Perhaps the only way to "keep" any parrot. Free.

Macaws are widely perceived as so valuable that very few people would dare to release them into the garden, much less the sky.

But Don Alvaro relies on their native intelligence and their attachment to the only home they know. And he hopes they will breed, make more macaws, perhaps in time even repopulate some of the area, perhaps La Selva Biological Reserve, which after all isn't too far away.

As a trained observer can see, one pair has already bred. A great green macaw paired with a scarlet, making some lovely hybrid babies--four in one clutch!

You can't tell someone whom to love.  Mama and Papa, likely the birds to the right--and three of their sunny rainbow babes lined up.

Even though it was a bit of a bio-misfire, it was encouraging to see that they could successfully breed. I hoped hard that some same-species pairs would follow suit. Don Alvaro has huge nest boxes in the trees around the place, hoping. The world needs more macaws. Everywhere they once were, they are disappearing.

Having seen so many macaws languishing in iron cages, sitting still and mopey on perch stands, their colors and eyes dull with boredom, seeing them swooping and bickering and yelling here was a tonic si sorely needed.

Oh, they were saucy and loud. Yet their screams fit this vibrant place, were part of its music. They dissipated into the open sky. I realized that listening to macaws screaming indoors is nothing but painful. Outdoors it's music. 

These macaws have found a friend, someone who understands and trusts them.

Who believes in them enough to set them free.

Though he has very little English, and his Spanish was far too rapid for me to understand, Don Alvaro's kindness and love permeates this place. Just being there with him among the birds changed me forever.

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