Painting of Spix Macaws, being extinct in the wild and with only a small captive population remaining. Every individual is precious at this stage of decline, and in 2002 another Spix’s could be added to the breeding program as a male was discovered living in someone’s home in Colorado as a pet. The animal, named Presley, was eventually flown back to Brazil, from which he was probably illegally smuggled some 25 years ago. Thanks to him, new genes could be added to the population, which then only counted 60 heads. As of today, the captive populations count 96, but the researchers are still having troubles: with such a large number of inbred birds, many embryos are lost and more hens than cocks hatch. Also, they matured later (10 years) than healthy Spix’s, but this problem has been solved in the main breeding facility, and the animals start reproducing at 4-5 years of age again, which is considered normal. Pairs are difficult to form, with animals always choosing their own partner which will rarely result in the most optimal DNA-matches. All chicks are currently being hand-raised, though as numbers increase parents raising their own clutches will become the norm. The Brazilian government department of Natural Resources plans on returning some Spix’s back into the wild as soon as the population has grown enough, and sufficient suitable habitat is available again.
The species appears to have been seen and described – “MARACANA Brasiliensibus, Avis Psittacosis planè similis (cuius & species) sed maior, plumae totius ex gryseo subcoerulescunt, clamat ut Psittacus. Fructus amat, Murucuia imprimis. (“Brazilian parrot, bird very similar to Psittacus[ African grey parrot ] but larger, the entire plumage is ashy-bluish, calls like a parrot. Fruit it loves, especially Passion fruit.”) – by the German naturalist Georg Marcgrave when he worked in Pernambuco in 1638.
Spix’s macaw is named for German naturalist Johann Baptist von Spix, who collected the first specimen in April, 1819 near the São Francisco River in the vicinity of Juazeiro. Recent authorities cite the type locality as Curaca, but others say the locality can’t be known with certainty. Spix wrote: “it lives in flocks, although very rare, near Joazeiro in the region bordering the Rio São Francisco, and is notable for its thin voice”).
The next reported sighting of the bird wasn’t for 84 years, in 1903 by Othmar Reiser of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, 400 kilometers west of Juazeiro at Lagoa de Parnaguá (lake at Parnagua) in the State of Piaui. (What we now know about its habitat and probable range casts doubt on this observation. Reiser had also seen one in captivity at a railway station in Remanso. These observations resulted in an early supposition of a vast potential range for the species in the dry interior of the northeast.
With the passage of the Brazil Wildlife Protection Act in 1967, Brazil forbade the export of its wildlife, and in 1975 became a party to the CITES treaty. These actions barely affected the illicit bird trade, but Spix owners were forced underground (consequently complicating the later effort to initiate a captive recovery program).
The bird was not studied in the wild until the 1970s. In 1974, Brazilian ornithologist Helmut Sick observed groups of three and four of the birds near Formosa do Rio Preta in northwest Bahia flying over buriti Palms (Mauritia flexuosa). As recently as 1980, Robert Ridgely (ornithologist) stated that “there is no available evidence indicating a recent decline in numbers.” Beginning around 1980, at the very height of the illegal bird trade, traders and trappers removed dozens of Spix’s from the wild, and by the early 80s, it was generally believed to be extinct in the wild. Naturalist Dr. Paul Roth conducted field surveys of the bird in the Curacá region from 1985 to 1988. Roth found only 5 birds in 1985, three in 1986, and only two after May, 1987.
Two of the birds were captured for trade in 1987. A single male, paired with a female blue-winged macaw, was discovered at the site in 1990. A female Spix’s macaw released from captivity at the site in 1995 was killed by collision with a power line after seven weeks. The last wild male disappeared from the site in October 2000. The species probably became extinct in the wild late in 2000, when the last known wild bird disappeared and was never seen again. No sightings of this macaw have been made in the wild since 2000. While the IUCN Red List views its status as Critically Endangered and possibly extinct in the wild, ornithologist Nigel Collar of Birdlife International, the authority for the IUCN Redlist of birds now calls this bird extinct in the wild.
Extinction in the wild:
The bird was already rare by the time of Spix’ discovery of it in 1819 following 100 years of intensive burning, logging and grazing of the caatinga. Centuries of deforestation, human encroachment and agricultural development along the Rio Sao Francisco corridor following European colonization of eastern Brazil preceded its precipitous decline in the latter part of the 20th century. Naturalists surveying its known remaining native habitat in the Curaçao region have estimated that it could have supported no more than about 60 birds at any time in the last 100 years. Contributing factors were the anthropic introduction of invasive and predatory species of black rats, feral cats, mongooses and marmoset monkeys which prey on the eggs and young, and goats, sheep and cattle which destroy the regenerative growth of the woodland trees, particularly the Caraibeira seedlings.
Other recent evidence has shown that anthropic changes that occurred on the northern shore of the São Francisco River, such as a broad scale conversion into agricultural lands and flooding following the construction of Sobradinho Dam starting in 1974, have changed the flora structure and displaced the Spix’s macaw away from that portion of its original range.
The final decline of the species in the 1970s and early 80s is attributed to hunting and trapping of the birds, unsustainable harvesting of the Caraíba trees for firewood, the construction of the Sobradinho Dam above Juazeiro starting in 1974 that submerged the basin woodlands under an artificial lake, and the northward migration of the Africanized bee, which competes for nesting sites.
Caraiba grows very slowly; most of the trees are 200–300 years old, and there has not been any regenerative growth for the last 50 years. In addition, 45% of the Caatinga dry forest in which the woodland galleries are embedded has been cleared for farms, ranches and plantations. Climate change resulting in desertification of significant parts of the Caatinga has permanently reduced the potential reclaimable habitat.