When is a species extinct, even though living members still exist? Before we can look at an answer to this grave and tantalizing question, let’s look at the Spix’s Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii). This gray-headed, blue-bodied bird was thought to be gone from the wild until 1990, though some still remained in private hand in captivity around the world (and still do). Then, traveling in the forests near Curaca, Brazil, two ornithologists spotted one lone male Spix, the last of its kind to have known life at the tops of the trees. It was the only Spix on earth eating a diet perfectly suited to its nature. It was the only Spix which knew the local seasonal variations in fruits, and in water, as any farmer would know his own land. This was the only living Spix which knew, from its own experience and from watching the experiences of others, what living threats to its survival were all around.
The Riddle of the Spix
First appeared in "Original Flying Machine" magazine
(copyright 2000, 2001)
When is a species extinct, even though living members still exist? Before we can look at an answer to this grave and tantalizing question, let’s look at the Spix’s Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii). This gray-headed, blue-bodied bird was thought to be gone from the wild until 1990, though some still remained in private hand in captivity around the world (and still do). Then, traveling in the forests near Curaca, Brazil, two ornithologists spotted one lone male Spix, the last of its kind to have known life at the tops of the trees. It was the only Spix on earth eating a diet perfectly suited to its nature. It was the only Spix which knew the local seasonal variations in fruits, and in water, as any farmer would know his own land. This was the only living Spix which knew, from its own experience and from watching the experiences of others, what living threats to its survival were all around. The dangers he faced include both avian and terrestrial predators, including humans. “He has all the species’ wildlife memory,” says a representative of Ibama, Brazil’s environmental agency. “The hope is that he teaches other Spix’s macaws to seek food, nest, and seek refuge from predators.”
Such was the plan: to convince owners of captive macaws to send their birds back into the wild, to live with this Spix, and learn from him the ways of the wild. The biologists and aviculturists hoped to repopulate the jungle with this regal blue species. But they had not counted on the fact that negotiations among the top rare-bird collectors who held Spix’s in captivity would prove to be difficult, as it was the Spix’s rarity which gave it its value as a collector’s piece. It has often been described as the “rarest bird in the world,” and so many owners were not willing to give up their bird in the hand, even for two in the bush. Negotiations and plans stalled and dragged on, while the last wild Spix lived its life of challenge in the forest, and each day grew older.
But why is a tutor so necessary, if we want to release captive birds into the wild? Won’t instinct be enough to guide them? Experience teaches us that this will not necessarily be so, as in the case of the reintroduction campaign thick-billed parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha). Thick-bills born in captivity were released into a part of their historical range the southwestern U.S., and all were wiped out by hunger, and by predators. Without the knowledge that previous generations of parrot parents had passed down to their young, the captive-reared thick-bills were as doomed in the hills of Arizona as any New Yorker dropped on the plains of Africa would be.
After tragedy had befallen the released thick-bills, as it had similarly the California Condors before them, wildlife biologist Noel Snyder drew up a new plan with a greater likelihood of success. Instead of using captive parrots for reintroduction, when possible wild parrots would be translocated, and bring with them their wits, their craft of being parrots. To date, the wild thick-bills reintroduced into the Arizona hills have made it their home, and though they do not yet constitute a viable population, hopes are still high that they may one-day flock high in the pines again.
But the mere presence of parrots in an area, even in abundance, is no guarantee of its persistence. Parrots can live for a very long time, certainly longer than it takes humans to clear a landscape; to introduce new, invasive species; and selectively cut down the largest tress, the very trees needed by the parrots for the ample cavities they provide for nesting. Thus, even the presence of hundreds of parrots flying overhead is no assurance that they are not doomed as a population, for if no new youngsters are being recruited through successful breeding, each day the flock will face the challenges of its habit, and all will grow older, until none are left. Such is the story of so many parrot species once common and now rare, like the Thick-billed Parrot, or the Blue-throated Macaw (Ara glaucogularis); or those species now gone forever, like the Yellow-headed Macaw (Ara gossei; extinct circa 1765), the Dominican Macaw (Ara atwodi; extinct circa 1800), or the Green and Yellow Macaw (Ara erythrocephala; extinct circa 1842). The list goes on and on, and too often the story is the same. Capture for pets, clearing of the land, introduction of invasive pests, in deadly combination, lead to the same result.
There are still about forty-two living Spix’s Macaws in captivity. Not all have been incorporated into the breeding program spearheaded by Loro Parque, the largest holder of living Spix’s, but those that are in the program may bring their numbers back from the ultimate brink of extinction. But the chicks produced by any captive breeding program, even if chicks can be hatched in plentitude, are lacking the sophisticated knowledge to make it in the wild that they might only learn from one of their own kind. And that possibility, dreamed about ever since the last wild Spix’s male was discovered in 1990, has passed. On December 1, 2000, Ibama reported that the last known Spix’s in the wild had disappeared. While early reports were tentative, suggesting that he might have left the area in search of food (though he had never left the area for more than 15 days previously), he has not reappeared, and it is generally accepted that he has perished, and with him goes perhaps some crucial survival skill that only he remembered.
The Spix’s recovery effort goes on, however. “I am very saddened about the possible loss of the last wild bird, but it’s certainly not the end of the recovery effort, “ explains Yves de Soye, Director of the Loro Parque Fundacion, “I have a lot of hope left, if we really manage to get the programme refocused.” The new focus may include wild cross-fostering, whereby Spix’s eggs or even chicks are placed into wild nests of ecologically-similar species, such as the Iliger’s Macaw, who will act as their adoptive parents, and impart the knowledge that their big brains are designed to hold. So, to return to our initial questions, when is a species extinct, even though living members still exist? It may be too early to tell for this species. They may never fly again in flocks, but could persist (if they do) in scattered remnants in captivity throughout the world. Or, Young Spix’s might one day fill the Amazon forests with their raucous laughter, if they can relearn the survival arts of their species afresh, with our help. That is the riddle of the Spix.
For more information:
You can learn about the status of your favorite species in the Parrot Action Plan, which documents both the current status of parrot species and the efforts currently underway for their protection, or called for in the near future. It can be downloaded from the World Parrot Trust at http://www.worldparrottrust.org/PAP/paphome.htm. Please consider giving the WPT your support in its efforts.
For information about the lives of wild parrots, your can go to http://www.sneakerfish.com/parrots. I’ve produced a one-hour documentary on the lives of wild parrots in the video “Stalking the Wild Amazons.” You can also hear the wondrous calls of wild parrots on this site, and an original composition entitle “Fly Parrot Fly,” which relates in song the plight of wild parrots everywhere.