February 01, 2013

When It’s Macaw Breeding Season, Researchers Get To Action

A seven-week-old scarlet macaw nestling getting weighed. Doesn't it look like it's smiling?
Image by Phil Torres

Researchers take measurements on a 1-week-old macaw chick.
Image by Phil Torres

The Tambopata Research Center has hosted world-renowned macaw research for 20 years now, with researchers analyzing macaw activity, monitoring the fruiting trees they feed on, and overall keeping an eye on the macaw population.

But this time of year is a special time of year for the researchers. As rainy season comes into effect, the macaws start laying eggs and the researchers begin closely monitoring the nests and measuring the chicks as they develop.

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Researcher Jordan Harrison climbs
up to a macaw nest. Image by Phil Torres.

If their research wasn’t cool enough already, they use technical tree climbing techniques to go up 30m-40m into the trees to gain access to the nests. Pretty awesome science if you ask me.

Into the Field

I had the pleasure of joining them and observing one of their morning climbs and chick measurements. In fact, any visitor to the lodges, including tourists, can tag along with the researchers in this activity.

It involves a team of at least three researchers, one doing the climbing, chick removing, and nest check while the others take the chick (which has been lowered in a bucket) and record size, weight, and other observational data.

The chick I was lucky enough to see was a one-week-old red and green macaw. One of the strangest looking creatures I’ve ever seen, it’s hard to imagine it will turn into one of the most beautiful birds in the rainforest.

The chick was plump and healthy by all accounts, and after the measurements were done the chick was raised back up, put back in its nest to await its parents return with a crop-full of food.

peru amazon rainforest
A one-week old red-and-green macaw chick getting weighed by researchers.
Image by Phil Torres
Why Do the Research?
Macaw populations are at risk for a variety of reasons. Habitat destruction and the illegal pet trade have taken a tole on wild populations. Some species also require a specific type of tree to nest in, and at times those trees come under high demand from loggers.

By studying these populations, their breeding, and their genetics, researchers can arm themselves with the knowledge necessary to keep populations from going extinct. The information gathered here in non-threatenedTambopata- for example, successful artificial nest designs-  can be used in areas where macaws are endangered, like Costa Rica and Mexico.

Led by Dr. Donald Brightsmith, this project has published many breakthrough studies, including figuring out why macaws eat clay (for the salt!), what influences nestling survival (macaw fights!), and why they lay four eggs but only raise one or two young.

Red and green macaws gather on a claylick along the Tambopata. Hard to believe the above chick will turn into something so stunning. Image by Jeff Cremer.
To volunteer as a researcher for this project, visit http://macawproject.org/

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