Adapted from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter of February 9, 2007
issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve,
QUERÉTARO, MÉXICO

MILITARY MACAWS

On Tuesday I joined a group of 18 teachers from the technical institute at San Juan del Río across the mountains to the west, serving as the group's naturalist. Our first stop was at a pretty little waterfall known as Cascada del Chuveja, in a humid valley about half an hour west of Jalpan and surrounded by high mountain peaks. The moment I stepped from our truck's cab I heard very raucous squawking from high in the sky. I could guess what I was hearing, for I'd read of this species' presence there and I'd hoped to see it. And there they were, a flock of 14, my binoculars clearly showing the large parrots' long, pointed tails. Even though they were silhouetted by the low clouds that chopped off mountaintops all around, I could see that, at least from below, they were almost entirely green. They were Military Macaws, which you can see in a Cedro tree at http://www.mangoverde.com/wbg/picpages/pic74-187-4.html.

Of course there's lots of info on the Internet about Military Macaws, mainly because they're such favored pets. Ever since the early 70s, however, I've had a knee-jerk negative reaction against macaws, or just about any big birds for that matter, being kept in cages.

Back then I was serving as naturalist on archeological tours into the Petén "Jungle" of northern Guatemala. To reach our isolated Maya ruins mostly we traveled in dugout canoes on the Usumacinta River running between Guatemala and southern Mexico. On the Usumacinta we frequently saw Scarlet Macaws, a different species with red more apparent than green. Even then the locals told us that there wasn't nearly the number of birds there used to be. The thing happening was that the locals would shoot the birds, hope the birds were only wounded and not killed, and if they were only wounded they'd try to nurse the birds back to health. Then they'd sell the birds for fifteen or twenty dollars. Of course the people who bought the macaw would then resell them to pet enthusiasts, mostly North Americans and Europeans, who'd give over a thousand dollars for them, sometimes much more. I hear now that Scarlet Macaws are seldom seen.

Pet owners always say that their birds are bred and brought up in captivity, and the vast majority probably are. However, I saw enough about macaw smuggling back then to know that the cheapest way for a backwoods person to get a macaw is to shoot it and nurse it back to health. The thriving market for macaws in the North is what fuels the whole process.

Also, in the wild I've watched a lot of parrots and macaws in their daily lives and I can tell you that few animal species appear to be as needful of social interaction than they. When you see the intimacy with which they interact in their wild flocks, you can't stand the idea of there being just one bird in any cage.

Last Wednesday I asked the señorita at the park gate if she'd like to see the birds through my binoculars. She replied that she often sees them up close, feeding in fruiting trees near the falls. Then she told me the thing that people always love to tell about macaws:

"Macaws are monogamous," she said, as she must say several times a day, "and they remain bonded for life. In flocks, you often see pairs flying so close together that their wings nearly touch."