Are Blue Macaws Extinct? 2024 (Not Yet)

Last Updated on February 11, 2024 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?

No, blue macaws aren’t extinct. The Little Blue Macaw, or Spix’s Macaw, sadly vanished from its natural home in 2019 because people were hunting them for pets, their homes were disappearing, and other species were causing problems. The very last one living free was spotted way back in 2000. Fortunately, a breeding and rehabilitation program in northeastern Brazil has resulted in the Blue Macaw making a comeback in the wild. After a while, they had almost 200 of these macaws living safe and sound. In 2022, they set free 52 of them into the wild. Now, in 2024, the blue macaws in captivity are almost 160 strong. It’s like giving these beautiful birds a second chance at life, and it’s working!

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 Back from Extinction?

Yes, blue macaws are back from extinction. 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 2024 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.

Acknowledging Role of Biologist Ariane Ferreira in Spix Macaw Conservation

Ariane Ferreira, a biologist, has played a crucial role in saving the Spix’s Macaw, a bird declared extinct in the wild in 2000. Her efforts earned recognition from UNESCO, and she was among the 13 researchers honored with the MAB Young Scientists Award. Ferreira focuses on overseeing the return of the Spix’s Macaw to the Caatinga Biosphere Reserve.

Her key task involves using a “Population Viability Analysis” (PVA) for Spix’s Macaw. This analysis is vital for figuring out if the macaw population can thrive amidst natural challenges and external threats. Additionally, it helps determine the specific needs for successfully reintroducing the species into its natural environment. 

To carry out the PVA, Ferreira utilized specialized software like Vortex and RangeShiftR, along with biological and environmental data from surveys and information from the field team managing the species’ reintroduction.

Ferreira’s valuable research has found its way into scientific journals, including Bird Conservation International, contributing significantly to understanding the Spix’s Macaw’s chances of survival. Her work is pivotal in the ongoing mission to reintroduce this endangered species into its natural home and secure its future.

The MAB Young Scientists Award, bestowed upon Ferreira by UNESCO, supports young researchers like her involved in biosphere reserves worldwide. This award, in the form of research grants, acknowledges Ferreira’s exceptional dedication to Spix’s Macaw conservation, marking a significant achievement in her career.

How has the blue macaw been saved from extinction?

To save the Spix’s Macaw from disappearing forever, people are doing a bunch of things to protect them. This is super important because these birds are already considered gone from their natural homes. Let’s talk about the main things folks are doing to bring back the Spix’s Macaw:

1. Captive Breeding Programs

Breeding Spix’s Macaws in captivity is a crucial part of their conservation plan. The goal is to carefully manage the captive group to ensure a diverse gene pool and to increase their overall population. Leading organizations, such as Al-Wabra Wildlife Preservation (AWWP), the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP) in Germany, and the Loro Parque Foundation, are actively involved in this mission.

 The Loro Parque Foundation, for instance, has generously contributed $700,000 to support Spix’s Macaw Recovery Project. According to the latest updates, there are now more than 125 Spix’s Macaws in the breeding group, and the total number in captivity has reached 110 birds.

2. Habitat Restoration and Protection

Restoring and protecting the environment are crucial actions in saving the Spix’s Macaw, a bird species that no longer exists in the wild. One initiative making a difference is Spix’s Macaw Habitat Purchase and Restoration Project. It’s all about securing and bringing back the places where these birds used to live. One specific spot they’re focusing on is the Gangorra Farm, now part of the Spix’s Macaw Reserve at Concordia Farm. This teamwork involves Parrots International, the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP) in Germany, and the Brazilian Government, all working together to eventually reintroduce the Spix’s Macaw.

Another important effort is the Spix Macaw Restoration Project, aiming to restore 17,000 hectares of natural forest along rivers in the Caatinga region of Brazil. This area is special to Brazil and is where the Spix’s Macaw naturally belongs. The project, led by the Brazilian government and private groups globally, not only brings back the habitat but also figures out better ways to manage the land, considering the challenges of climate change. Local communities are part of this too, getting job opportunities and improving their lives while making the environment stronger.

All of these actions are part of a bigger plan to bring back the Spix’s Macaw to its natural home. It includes buying and fixing habitats, as well as moving captive Spix’s Macaws to establish a strong, self-sufficient wild population. The success of these projects is crucial for the survival of the Spix’s Macaw, and it all depends on making sure their home is safe and sound.

3. Reintroduction Projects

The Spix’s Macaw Re-Introduction Project and the Spix’s Macaw Recovery Project are big steps in bringing back the Spix’s Macaw, a bird that doesn’t exist in the wild anymore. They’re focusing on putting these birds back where they belong, in the Curaçá region of Northeast Brazil. The main goal is to make a group of Spix’s Macaws that can live on their own and have babies in the wild.

To make this happen, there are a few important things these projects are working on. First, they want to create a modern place to breed and bring back Spix’s Macaws. This place is meant to have a bunch of different Spix’s Macaws so they have lots of different genes. That’s important to keep the species going strong. Right now, in 2021, there are about 170 Spix’s Macaws in the world, mostly living in captivity.

Second, the projects are all about making sure the home of Spix’s Macaws is safe and sound. They’re working on bringing back a big chunk of natural forest along rivers—about 17,000 hectares. This is because the places where Spix’s Macaws used to live got much smaller because of people cutting down trees and building things.

Third, the projects want to let go of at least 10 to 20 Spix’s Macaws into the wild every year. They started trying this out in June 2022, and they plan to keep doing it for the next 20 years. It’s a big deal because it’s been more than 20 years since these birds were last seen living freely.

All of these projects are thanks to a bunch of people and groups working together. They’re showing us that when we really try, we can make a difference for animals like the Spix’s Macaw. It gives us hope that we can help endangered species survive and thrive again.

4. Community Engagement

A key element in conserving nature is engaging the local community, especially in the case of Spix’s Macaw reintroduction. Local folks understand the environment and its inhabitants well, and their active involvement can significantly boost conservation initiatives. In the Spix’s Macaw program, officials have included local communities in various ways. 

This led to the construction of rural schools and the restoration of an old theater, directly addressing the needs of the people. Additionally, the project aims to enhance local income by creating jobs, thus improving the quality of life and the environment for the community.

In the town of Curaça, the Spix’s Macaw holds special significance in the local culture, and the community eagerly awaits its return. People of all ages are being educated about the importance of safeguarding this exceptionally rare blue parrot and its habitat. 

Furthermore, Spix’s Macaw reintroduction program actively involves local communities in protecting and restoring the macaw’s natural home. This involves establishing protected areas and implementing best practices for land management to counter the impact of harmful activities.

5. Research and Monitoring

Research and monitoring play a crucial role in the conservation of the Spix’s Macaw, especially since it is considered extinct in the wild and efforts are ongoing to reintroduce it to its natural habitat. The goal is to understand the specific needs of the species, ensure the success of reintroduction initiatives, and keep track of the well-being of the reintroduced populations.

 A notable example highlighting the importance of research is the work of biologist Ariane Ferreira, who monitors the Spix’s Macaw reintroduction in the Caatinga Biosphere Reserve. Her efforts have earned her an MAB Young Scientists Award from UNESCO, recognizing her valuable contribution to Spix’s Macaw conservation projects.

Research activities, led by Ferreira and others, involve studying the macaws’ behavior, health, and habitat preferences, along with the ecological dynamics of the Caatinga region where the birds are reintroduced. These insights are crucial for making informed decisions about habitat restoration, managing reintroduced populations, and addressing potential threats to their survival. 

Continuous monitoring is vital to track the success of reintroduced populations, observing their adaptation to the wild, breeding success, and interactions with the environment. Such efforts are essential for the early identification of issues and implementing necessary interventions to ensure the long-term survival of the Spix’s Macaw in its natural habitat.

6. Financial and International Support

Conserving the Spix’s Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) involves substantial international collaborations and significant financial backing, recognizing the bird’s extinction in the wild and the intricate challenges tied to its recovery. 

A crucial funding source stems from private owners known as Holders, who have invested millions in their captive breeding centers. These investments are pivotal for maintaining and expanding the captive Spix’s Macaw population, forming the foundation for reintroduction into its natural habitat.

The Brazilian government also plays a notable role, providing funds and support for projects like Spix’s Macaw Re-Introduction Project and Spix’s Macaw Recovery Project, focusing on reintroducing the bird in the Curaçá region of Northeast Brazil. 

International organizations like the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP) in Germany and the Loro Parque Foundation contribute funding and support across various aspects, including captive breeding, habitat restoration, and community engagement initiatives.

Despite the financial backing and support, the Spix’s Macaw reintroduction faces challenges and controversies. Habitat degradation from human activities like agriculture and grazing poses a significant threat. Poaching for the illegal pet trade is another major concern, alongside potential disruptions from climate change. 

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.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

Challenges and Controversies

Controversies arise from concerns about transparency and effectiveness in certain captive breeding programs, sparking debates about the roles of private owners and international organizations. Calls persist for increased participation from local communities and public institutions in conservation efforts.

1. Habitat Degradation: The reintroduction of Spix’s Macaws faces a substantial challenge in habitat degradation. Human activities, such as agriculture and grazing, particularly by goats and cows, have severely impacted the birds’ natural habitat in the Caatinga woodland of Brazil. Proposed wind energy development in the area may further disrupt the habitat, leading to a near-total loss of the bird’s nesting environment.

2. Poaching: Poaching poses a significant threat, as Spix’s Macaws are highly sought after in the illegal pet trade due to their rarity and beauty. The capture of adults, fledglings, and eggs for local zoos or smuggling to foreign zoos and wealthy private collectors remains a persistent issue. The current black market value of captive birds is substantially higher than in the past, exacerbating the challenge.

3. Climate Change: Climate change presents another potential threat to Spix’s Macaws. Alterations in climate patterns could disrupt their habitat, complicating efforts to reintroduce the bird into its natural environment.

4. Funding and Management Controversies: Controversies surround the funding and management of some of Spix’s Macaw conservation projects. The bird has been utilized as a political and fundraising tool, leading to misinformation and disputes. Management issues, particularly in captive breeding programs, have sparked criticism and skepticism. International trade-related controversies, such as the transfer of Spix’s Macaws to other countries, have raised concerns among conservationists.

These challenges and controversies underscore the intricate nature of conservation work, emphasizing the necessity for meticulous planning, robust regulations, and international cooperation to ensure the successful reintroduction and survival of endangered species like the Spix’s Macaw.

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.




  • Dr. Anees Ashraf

    He is a veterinarian by profession currently working in a vet clinic. He loves to treat and breed parrots to produce different mututions.

    View all posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *