Are Blue Macaws Extinct? 2023 (Not Yet)

Last Updated on April 16, 2023 by Ali Shahid

The Blue Macaw (Spix Macaw) is the inspiration for Blu in Rio, a story about a domesticated bird who goes on an adventure in Rio de Janeiro. But will this beautiful bird only be seen in the film? Are Blue Macaws Extinct?

In the wild, the Blue Macaw went extinct for 22 years and has not been seen since then. Fortunately, a breeding and rehabilitation program in northeastern Brazil has resulted in the Blue Macaw making a comeback in the wild.

Unfortunately, many macaw species are endangered, with habitat loss and the pet trade being the biggest threats. But there’s some hope. A Spix’s macaw is a small parrot with blue feathers. It is one of the world’s rarest birds.

There have been numerous factors that have contributed to the disappearance of the species.

These factors include illegal trade, hunting, and the destruction of its natural habitat by agriculture and other animals. Fortunately, with the help of conservation programs blue macaws are returning to the wild.

Are Blue Macaws Extinct?

Blue macaws haven’t gone extinct. In October 2019, the species’ lone wild representative of Spix’s little blue macaw, Cyanopsitta spixii, suddenly disappeared.

This highly sought-after, incredibly rare parrot faced a bleak future despite several small populations found in cages around the world.

However, scientists, conservation biologists, veterinarians, aviculturists, and indigenous peoples are cooperating worldwide to improve the situation for this species.

A total of eight captive-bred little blue macaws, taken from their native habitat in Brazil, were released back into the wild on June 11, 2022, and 12 more are scheduled for release in December 2022. Over the next 20 years, this program will involve captive breeding and reintroduction of parrots.

According to estimates, there were 55 captives, spread throughout Europe, Brazil, and the Middle East. According to the American Bird Conservancy, the Blue-Spix Macaw population in 2023 is around 160–180 captive individuals.

It is anticipated that continuous efforts will be made to reintroduce this species over the next few decades. The birth of three wild children in 2021 was a welcome development for conservationists. However, this does not guarantee a stable wild population of blue macaws in the future.

Because wild animals take years to develop their skills, it is difficult to reintroduce them into the wild. These skills cannot be developed in captive animals during their adolescence.

Consequently, they are more susceptible to natural causes of death, such as predation and starvation.

The genome of Spix’s little blue macaw has been sequenced in case it becomes extinct altogether. Therefore, if all hopes of reintroduction fail, it might be the de-extinction candidate.

Why Blue Macaws are Still on the Verge of Extinction

The Spix’s Macaw has been battling extinction for a long time. However, why? Several reasons contribute to this, but the territory, habitat, and pet industry are the most important.

  • Minimal Territory

It’s true, Spix’s macaw is a rare bird. In 1824, Von Spix, the man after whom the bird was named, noted that it was a very rare species. Before it became a popular pet, the species had already a small and dispersed population.

  • Habitat Destruction

The Spix’s Macaw already had a limited range but faced another problem: desertification.  Spix’s Macaws inhabit the Caatinga, a semi-arid region of Brazil. The rainy season lasts only 3–4 months of the year.

It rarely rains, but when it does, it rains heavily, which provides ample water for the rest of the year. Nevertheless, this also creates a great deal of vulnerability for the land. Rather than working with the land, people cleared it for cultivation.

The overgrazing of livestock resulted in the soil and natural vegetation being depleted, leaving Spix’s Macaw without enough food.

  • Disease

Because captive animals live near one another, they can become infected with each other’s diseases. Spix’s little blue macaws suffered from a nasty and incurable disease: proventricular dilatation disease.

Since 1978, aviculturists and pet owners have recognized this virus and given it another name that will strike terror in their hearts: macaw wasting syndrome.

A novel bornavirus that causes brain disease in horses and sheep was identified as the cause of this terrifying syndrome. Infected nerves in the gastrointestinal tract are gradually deteriorated by the parrot bornavirus.

The victim eventually succumbs to starvation. The good news is that a DNA test has been developed, which was carried out on all of Spix’s little blue macaws.

The proactive action of separating infected animals from breeding populations eventually eliminated the threat. However, captive blue macaws released into the wild are still at risk of getting this disease from other macaw species.

  • Inbreeding

Currently, there are 261 healthy Spix’s little blue macaws, which leads us to another significant issue: all of them descend from seven founders, creating a genetic bottleneck.

When genetic diversity is lacking, fertility decreases and hatching success is reduced, behavior and cognitive problems occur, lifespans decrease, health problems increase, and diseases are more likely to occur.

It’s hard and quick to regain genetic diversity once it’s lost in a population. With that being said, some parrot species have survived a genetic bottleneck, such as kakapos. There’s still a chance for blue macaws.

Specifically, Spix’s macaws have difficulty overcoming this bottleneck. However, scientists are doing their best by using microsatellite genetic analysis to match the birds with the most desirable genetic combinations.

Dr. Purchase and his team have collaborated with several scientists around the world to address the problem of inbreeding. Dr. Purchase received microsatellite genetic analyses from Cornell University coupled with data from Sao Paolo University.

Despite this, parrots are notoriously picky when it comes to choosing mates, which can be detrimental to conservation efforts that aim to increase the population of these birds.

Artificial insemination was one of the methods used by Spix’s macaw team to ‘grow the population.’ Additionally, this technique was used to increase the representation of rare genetic characteristics in future generations.

  • Pet Industry

Pets are our beloved companions. However, the pet industry is not without its flaws. Exotic pets are more popular, which means animals are removed from the wild into unsuitable habitats.

Unlike other macaws, this bird is so small that it has become a popular exotic pet. Since 1967, Brazil has criminalized the capture of Spix’s macaws. However, despite this law, poachers continued to capture and sell them illegally.

Even though macaws are beautiful, they serve a much greater purpose in the rainforest than in a home.

In addition to their diet, Macaws play an important role in maintaining the ecosystem of the rainforest. Macaws encourage tree growth and biodiversity by scattering seeds throughout the rainforest.

What Does the Blue Macaw’s Future Look Like?

Blue Macaws are not out of the woods yet and they have a long way to go. Before we can claim that the problem is solved, there is still a lot of heavy lifting to be done. Nevertheless, the species’ situation has improved since 22 years ago.

However, the project extends beyond the release of 20 birds into the wild. To make a difference for one species, hundreds of individuals worked together on this project.

The work embodied what conservation is all about–imagining a world in which humans and nature coexist and thrive together as one.

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