BirdLife: The Magazine September 2017 - Page 58

PREVENTING EXTINCTIONS ROAD TO RECOVERY It was nearly wiped out by the cagebird trade — and habitat loss, driven by large-scale cattle ranching, threatened to deliver the final blow. But a bold, ever-evolving nest box programme is spearheading the Blue-throated Macaw’s long, slow recovery Alex Dale F ound only in the Llanos de Moxos — a tropical savanna in northern Bolivia and one of South America’s largest grassland flood- plains — the striking Blue-throated Macaw Ara glaucogularis was nearly trapped to extinction in the 1970s and 1980s to fuel demand for the illegal cagebird trade. In 1984, the live export of the species from Bolivia was banned, which reduced (if not entirely elimi- nated) the most immediate threat to the species’ survival. Yet today, more than three decades on, the Blue-throated Macaw still finds itself on the edge of oblivion. In the 1980s, over 1,200 wild-caught Blue- throated Macaws were estimated to have been exported from Bolivia, suggesting that the spe- cies was once fairly numerous in the country. However, the population has failed to rebound to anywhere near those levels in the years since. All that remains today are a few isolated sub-populations that, in total, are estimated to number between 250-300 individuals — precar- ious enough for the species to be assessed by BirdLife as Critically Endangered. The main challenge the species faces now is habitat loss. The entirety of its known breeding range is situated on what is now private cattle ranches, and the resultant tree-felling and burn- ing has left the Blue-throated Macaws — picky nesters by necessity — short on viable options. Blue-throated Macaws prefer trees with spa- cious cavities to nest in, but 150 years of cat- tle-ranching has resulted in the clearing of most of the larger trees in the region. The beleaguered species has been recorded to suffer a high rate of nesting failures in recent years, with predation from species such as Southern Caracara Cara- cara plancus and Toco Toucan Ramphastos toco cited as one of the main factors. However, since 2006 Asociacion Armonía (BirdLife in Bolivia), the Blue-throated Macaw Species Guardian, has been working to boost the species’ nesting options. With support from the Loro Parque Fundación, Bird Endowment — Nido Adoptivo — The Beni-Factor ™ and the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Armonía has erected numerous next boxes across the southern part of the Blue-throated Macaw’s breeding range, to great effect. In the eleven years since the programme has been running, 71 chicks have successfully hatched — a significant number for a species with such a tiny estimated adult population. Armonía is now working to improve and expand upon this programme. In 2014, 67 nest boxes were installed at a potentially successful site in the Barba Azul Nature Reserve. Recent sight- ings of 118 macaws in the reserve, a record high, indicate that there has been a healthy increase of the population at the reserve. However, the majority of these birds only use Barba Azul from May to November, where they forage and roost, but do not breed. It is hoped that in time, these intelligent birds will adjust to the presence of these artificial cavities and begin breeding within this protected area. But for the moment, when the rainy season starts and the savannas begin to flood, the Blue-throated Macaws leave. Which leads to an important question: where do they go? It was a line of thinking that, this past Febru- ary, lead to the sensational discovery of a brand new breeding area. This year, nine Blue-throated Macaw chicks fledged from Armonía’s nest boxes — one of which represented a significant milestone in attempts to save this Critically Endangered spe- cies — the first-ever second-generation nest box fledging. Both of its parents were themselves hatched in a nest box seven years ago, and the pair have now returned to raise their own off- spring in the same boxes. “Macaws are intelligent birds and much of their behaviour is learned from their parents”, says Bennett Hennessey, Development Director, Armonía. “We are confident that once a macaw pair breeds in a nest box, their offspring will learn this behaviour.” The expedition’s roots can be traced back to January 2016, when conservation programme manager Gustavo Sánchez Ávila discovered 15 roosting birds north of Barba Azul Nature Reserve during an expedition supported by Loro Parque Fundación. With this evidence in hand, Armonía with support from American Bird Con- servancy and The Cincinnati Zoo kicked off the search for the suspected breeding grounds to the northwest of the reserve. The nesting period of the Blue-throated Macaw coincides with the region’s November to April rainy season. During this time, the savanna is mostly flooded. Inundations halt most vehicu- lar traffic to these areas, therefore the Armonía SEPTEMBER 2017 • BIRDLIFE Blue-throated Macaw chicks in one of the nest boxes. Photo Aiden McCormick 0 “ONCE A MACAW PAIR BREEDS IN A NEST BOX, THEIR OFFSPRING SHOULD LEARN THIS BEHAVIOUR” A pair of macaws on top of a single nest cavity in a royal palm snag. Photo Tjalle Boorsma 2 expedition had no other choice but to venture into the wilderness on horseback. A demanding 130 km (70 mi) horse ride led the team deep into the flooded grasslands. 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