They'd never seen a scarlet macaw except in a cage.
So this best-selling author and her ornithologist husband decided to
seek the magnificent bird in one of its last strongholds:
Corcovado National Park.
By Barbara Kingsolver and Steven Hopp
Picture a scarlet macaw: a fierce, full meter of royal
red feathers head to tail, a soldier's rainbow-colored epaulets, a skeptic's
eye staring from a naked white face, a beak that takes no prisoners.
Now examine the background of your mental image: Probably
it's a zoo or a pet shop, with not a trace of the truth of this bird's
natural life. How does it perch or forage or speak among its kind without
the demeaning mannerisms of captivity? How does it look in flight against
a blue sky? Few birds that inhabit the cultural imagination of Americans--north
and south--are so familiar and yet so poorly known.
As biologists who have increasingly turned our work toward
the preservation of biodiversity, we are both interested in and wary
of animals as symbols. If we could name the thing that kept pushing
us through Costa Rica in our rented jeep, on roads unfit for tourism
or good sense, it would have been, maybe, macaw expiation. Some sort
of penance for a lifetime of seeing this magnificent animal robbed of
its grace. We wanted to know this bird on its own terms.
As we climbed into the Talamanca Highlands on a serpentine,
pitted highway, the forest veiled the view ahead but promised something,
always, around the next bend. We were two days and 60 miles south of
San José, in a land where birds live up to the extravagances
of their names: purple-throated mountain gems, long-tailed silky flycatchers,
scintillant hummingbirds. At dawn we'd witnessed the red-green fireworks
of a resplendent quetzal as he burst from his nest cavity trailing his
tail-feather streamers. But no trace of scarlet yet, save for the scarlet-thighed
dacnis (yes, just his thighs--not his feet or legs). We had navigated
through an eerie morning mist in an elfin cloudforest and at noon found
ourselves among apple orchards on such steep slopes they seemed flung
there instead of planted. All of it was wondrous, but we'd not yet seen
a footprint of the beast we'd come here tracking.
Then a bend in the road revealed a tiny adobe school,
its bare-dirt yard buzzing with small, busy children. The Escuela del
Sol Feliz took us by surprise in such a remote place--but in Costa Rica,
where children matter more than an army, every tiny hamlet has at least
a one-room school. This one had turned its charges outdoors for the
day in their white-and-navy uniforms, and the schoolyard seemed to wave
with neat nautical flags. The children carried tins of paint and stood
on crates and boxes, painting a mural on the school's stucco face: humpbacked
but mostly four-legged cows, round green trees festooned with round
red apples, fantastic jungles dangling with monkeys and sloths. In the
center, oversize and unmistakable, was a scarlet macaw.
This portrait of the children's environment was a study
in homeland, combining important features of real and imaginary landscapes,
and while their macaw had more dignity than Long John Silver's, he was
still a fantasy. These children had picked apples and driven the family
cow across the road, and some may have seen monkeys. But it's unlikely
that a single one of them had ever laid eyes on a macaw.
Once, it was everywhere, in the lowlands at least, on
both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of this country. But in recent
decades Ara macao has been pushed into a handful of isolated refuges
as distant as legend from the School of the Happy Sun. Its celebrity
in the school's mural cheered us, because it seemed a kind of testimonial
to its importance in Costa Rica's iconography, and to the scattered,
growing efforts to teach children here to take their natural heritage
to heart. We'd come in search of both things: the scarlet macaw, and
some manifestation of hope for its persistence in the wild.
Our destination was Corcovado National Park, on the Osa
Peninsula, where roughly 1,000 scarlet macaws constitute the most viable
Central American population of this globally endangered bird. The Osa
is one of two large Costa Rican peninsulas extending into the Pacific;
both are biologically rich, with huge protected areas and sparse human
settlements. Corcovado, about one-tenth the size of Long Island, is
the richest preserve in a country known for biodiversity. Its bird count
is nearly 400 species; its 140 mammals include all six species of cats
and all four species of monkeys found in Central America. It has nearly
twice as many tree species as the United States and Canada combined.
The park was established by executive decree in 1975, but its boundaries
weren't finalized for nearly a decade, until after its hundreds of unofficial
residents could be relocated. Hardest to find were the gold prospectors--who
had a talent for vanishing into the forest--and the remnant feral livestock,
though the latter disappeared gradually with the help of jaguars.
For us, Corcovado would be the end of a road that was
growing less navigable by the minute. Our overnight destination was
Bosque del Cabo, a private nature lodge at the southern tip of the peninsula,
and our guidebook promised we'd cross seven small rivers to get there.
We hadn't realized we'd do it without the benefit of bridges. At the
bank of the first river, we plunged in with our jeep, fingers crossed,
cheered on by a farmer in rubber boots leading his mule across ahead
"This will be worth it," Steven insisted when
we reached the slightly more treacherous-looking second river. No bridge
in sight, no evidence that one had ever existed, though a sign advised:
puente en mal estado--bridge in a bad state. Yes, indeed. The code of
Costa Rican signs is a language of magnificent understatement; earlier
in the trip we were informed by a sign posted on a trail up a live volcano:
"Esteemed hiker, a person could sometimes be killed here by flying
Over the river safe and sound, with Golfo Dulce a steady
blue horizon on our left, we rattled on southward through small fincas
under the gaze of zebu cattle, with their worldly wattles and huge,
downcast ears. Between farms the road was shaded by unmanicured woodlots,
oil-palm groves, and the startling monoculture of orchard-row forests
planted for pulp. Seedeaters and grassquits lined the top wires of the
fences like intermittent commas in a run-on sentence.
At dusk, with seven rivers behind us, we pulled into the
mile-long driveway of Bosque del Cabo under the darkening canopy of
rainforest. The road tunneled between steep, muddy shoulders, but we
could smell the ocean. Our headlight beam caught a crab in the road,
dead center. We slid to a stop and scrambled out for a closer look at
this palm-size thing. A kid with a box of Crayolas couldn't have done
better: bright purple shell, red-orange legs, marigold-colored spots
at the base of the eyestalks. We dubbed it the "resplendent scarlet-thighed
crab" and nudged it out of the road. But we immediately encountered
more, and suddenly we were seriously outnumbered. Barbara surrendered
all dignity and walked ahead of the jeep at a crouch, waving her arms,
but as crab-herd she was fighting a losing battle against a mile-long
swarm. These land crabs migrate mysteriously in huge throngs between
ocean and forest, and on this moonlit night they caught us in a pulsing
sea of red that refused to part. They danced across the slick double
track of their flattened fellows, left by driv-ers ahead of us. We've
rarely traveled a longer, slower, crunchier mile than that one.
We slept that night in a thatched palapa, lulled by the
deep heartbeat of the Pacific surf against the cliff below us. At first
light we woke to the booming exchanges of howler monkeys roaring out
their ritual "Here I am!" to position their groups for a morning
of foraging. We sat on our little porch watching a coatimundi poking
his long snout into the pineapple patch. A group of chestnut-mandibled
toucans sallied into a palm, bouncing among the fronds. No macaws, though
we were in their range now. We walked out to meet this astonishing place,
prepared for anything--except the troop of spider monkeys that hurled
sticks from the boughs and leaped down at us using their prehensile
tails in a Yankee-go-home bungee-jumping display. Retreating toward
our lodge, we heard a parrotish squawk in the treetops that we recognized
from pet shops. Were they macaws?
"Sí, guacamayos," we were assured by
a gardener we found shaking his head over the raided pineapple patch.
Yes, he'd been seeing macaws lately, he said, usually in pairs, "Practicando
a casarse"--practicing to be married. This was April, the beginning
of the nesting season. Following courtship rituals, the macaw pairs
would settle into tree cavities, always more than 100 feet above the
ground, and lay their two-egg clutches. The young stay with the adults
for as long as two years; no more nesting occurs until after they have
dispersed. This combination of specialized habitat and slow reproduction
makes macaws especially vulnerable to an assembly of threats. The ravages
of aerial pesticide spraying have lately diminished, as banana companies
leave the country or switch to oil-palm production, but deforestation
remains a phenomenal peril. Of the macaws' original Costa Rican habitat,
only 20 percent still stands, all of it now protected. In addition to
the Osa population, some 330 birds survive in the Carara Biological
Reserve, to the north; scarlet macaws are also found in scattered pockets
from southern Mexico into Amazonian Brazil.
Dire habitat loss has become the norm for tropical species,
but macaws and parrots are further doomed by their own charm. The price
of beauty is high for a young scarlet macaw captured by a poacher, who
can sell it into the pet trade for as much as $400. (The fine for being
caught is about $325.) Since 1990, when the nearby town of Golfito was
allowed to begin collecting lower taxes on goods that come through its
port, employment from the import trade has grown and poaching has declined
noticeably. Farther north, however, in the economically undeveloped
Carara region, poaching is ubiquitous. Many local conservationists feel
the best hope is to develop alternative sources of income while educating
children about the long-term trade-offs of poaching, which could extinguish
a national emblem before they're old enough to become adept at climbing
100-foot trees. During our trip, we spoke with several educators whose
programs aim specifically at developing a family conscience about stealing
baby parrots and macaws from their nest holes--revising a culture in
which these birds have traditionally been harvested with no more moral
qualms than a hungry coatimundi brings to a pineapple patch.
El que quiera azul celeste, que le cueste, the Costa Ricans
say--If you want the blue sky, the price is high. The mix of hope and
fatalism in this dicho speaks perfectly of the macaw's fierce love of
freedom and touching vulnerability. We stood on the cliff near our palapa
above the ocean, scanning, hoping for a glimpse of scarlet that wasn't
there. Today we would complete our pilgrimage to Corcovado, where we
would see them flying against the blue sky or we would not. On a trip
like this, you revise your hopes: If we saw even one free bird, we decided,
that would be enough. We prepared to push on the final 10 miles to the
road's end at Carate, gateway to the Corcovado forest, home to the country's
last great breeding population of scarlet macaws.
Carate, although it appears on the map, is not a town.
It's a building. Mayor Morales's ramshackle pulpería serves the
southwestern quadrant of the peninsula as the singular hub of commerce:
He'll arrange delivery-truck passage back out to Puerto Jiménez,
buy gold you've mined, watch your vehicle while you hike, or simply
offer a theoretical restroom among the trees out back. Indoors, dangling
by wires from the ceiling, is a dazzling collection of bottles, driftwood,
bird's nests, car parts--the very definition of flotsam and jetsam,
if you can tell what floated in and what was jettisoned. Above the main
counter dangles the crown jewel of the collection: a mammalian vertebra
of a size generally seen only in museums. Under this Damocles bone we
purchased a soda and plotted our strategy for finding macaws. Outside,
on benches under a tree, we sat among the pulpería regulars,
who explained to us that there are no roads into the park, no hiking
trails, no wooden signboard maps declaring that you are here. Corcovado
is not the user-friendly kind of national park we're accustomed to.
How do you get in? You walk, and watch out for snakes. It's a thick
jungle; where's the best walking? The beach.
While we chatted, a pet spider monkey sidled up to Barbara.
Steven focused the camera. A barefoot girl nearby watched intently.
"Is he friendly?" Barbara asked in Spanish.
The girl grinned broadly. "Muerde." He bites.
Steven snapped the photo we now call "interspecific
The steep gray beach offered rugged access to the park.
The surf pounded hard on our left as we hiked, and to our right the
wall of jungle rose steeply up a rocky slope. A series of streams poured
down the rocks from the jungle into the Pacific. At the forest's edge
the towering trees were branchless trunks for their lowest 100 feet
or so. From this sparse, lofty canopy we began to hear macaws--not the
loud, familiar croak but a low conversational grumbling among small
foraging groups. We jockeyed for a view, catching glimpses of monkeylike
movement as they clambered around, pulling fruits from clusters at the
tips of branches. Macaws are seed predators, cracking the hearts of
fruit seeds or nuts. High above the ground is where you'll see them,
only and always, if you don't want bars for backdrop. Both the scarlet
and the other Costa Rican macaw, the great green, rely on large tracts
of mature trees for foraging, roosting, and nesting.
It's hard to believe something so large and red could
hide so well in foliage, backlit by the tropical sky, but they did.
We squinted, wondering if this was it--the view we'd been waiting for.
Suddenly a pair launched like rockets into the air. With powerful, rapid
wingbeats and tail feathers splayed like fingers, they swooped into
a neighboring tree and disappeared uncannily against the branches. We
waited. Soon another pair, then groups of three and five, began trading
places from tree to tree. Their white masks and scarlet shoulders flashed
in the sun. A grand game of Musical Trees seemed to be in progress as
we walked up the beach counting the birds that dived between trees.
All afternoon we walked crook-necked and open-mouthed
in awe. If these creatures are doomed, they don't act that way. El que
quiera azul celeste, que le cueste, but who could buy or possess such
avian magnificence against the blue sky? We stopped counting at 50.
We'd have settled for just one--we thought that's what we came for--but
we stayed through the change of tide and nearly till sunset because
of the way they perched and foraged and spoke among themselves, without
a care for a human's expectation. What held us there was the show of
pure, defiant survival: this audacious thing with feathers, this hope.
latest novel, Prodigal Summer, will be published in October 2000. Steven
Hopp is an ornithologist at the University of Arizona.
Where Macaws Fly Free
Seeing scarlet macaws requires a visit to their preferred
habitat: relatively undisturbed tracts of lowland rainforest. This habitat
is often remote, so you’ll need to do some advance planning. Several
likely options in Central and South America are listed below. They all
have excellent biodiversity, with an abundance of birds and other wildlife.
Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula is home to Central America’s
largest population of scarlet macaws. Fly to the Costa Rican capital,
San José, then take one of the local airlines, Sansa or Travel
Air. The following lodges routinely arrange transportation for their
guests, and most of their web sites include information on traveling.
The best time to visit is during the dry season, November to April.
Prices, in U.S. dollars, are peak season, per night, per person, double
occupancy, and include all meals. Details and extras (for instance,
guided tours) vary.
Bosque del Cabo Rainforest Lodge
Bosque del Cabo offers a magical blend of wilderness and wildlife
watching in a setting of peaceful pampering. Scarlet macaws and other
wildlife are easily seen in its private preserve ($104).
Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge
Casa Corcovado, at the southern boundary of Corcovado National Park,
donates 10 percent of its sales to a local conservation organization.
It’s accessible only by boat ($230–$265; includes transportation from
Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp
This 20-tent camp puts you at the southern boundary of Corcovado,
on a Pacific beach where scarlet macaws are frequently seen. The camp
is a 30-minute walk from Carate ($67).
Lapa Rios is set in a 1,008-acre private forest preserve (see "A
View With a Room," September-October 1999). The resort is dedicated
to local conservation, preservation, and education, and the lodge and
bungalows are a model of eco-responsible accommodations ($198).
Rainbow Adventures-Costa Rica
Set on the inland side of Golfo Dulce, Rainbow Adventure Lodge is
accessible only by boat. It is surrounded by an extensive stand of virgin
tropical forest near the Zoo Ave scarlet macaw release site (see below).
Choose a private cabin ($175) or a room in the lodge ($155).
Zoo Ave Wildlife Conservation Park and Education Center
Zoo Ave is the largest bird-rehabilitation and reintro-duction center
in Costa Rica. It specializes in rehabilitating birds recovered from
poachers or captivity and reintroducing them into the wild. So far the
group has released 19 scarlet macaws on the eastern shore of Golfo Dulce.
The goal is to establish a population of a dozen or so breeding pairs,
separate from Corcovado. Zoo Ave welcomes visitors to its headquarters,
near San José, where you can see macaws and other animals that
are considered unreleasable.
Many ecotourism companies offer trips to areas where scarlet
macaws are often seen. These have a particular focus on scarlet macaws.
Prices are per person, all-inclusive, departing from a city in the country
Ecotourism and Adventure Specialists
With a focus on the Mayan world, this company offers two Guatemala tours
that feature scarlet macaws. Accommodations are a combination of camping
and ecolodges (four-day trip from Guatemala City, $769).
The Lamanai Outpost Lodge and Field Research Center
Lamanai organizes cooperative endeavors between visitors and researcher/naturalists
in Belize. You can help with fieldwork in biology and archeology, learn
from professionals firsthand, and have plenty of free time. Timing is
flexible ($220 per night from Belize City).
This outfit offers small-group tours to some of the best natural
sites in Costa Rica, including the Osa Peninsula, with visits to a couple
of the lodges listed above (Tropical Trails Odyssey, eight-day trip
from San José, $1,895).
Wings Birding Tours
Wings lists several Costa Rica trips, including one to the Carara Biological
Preserve, home to the second-largest scarlet macaw population in Costa
Rica (12-day trip from San José, $2,690).
Victor Emanuel Nature Tours
VENT has a number of trips with likely scarlet macaw sightings, to Costa
Rica, Venezuela, and Peru. Its trip to Manu National Park in Peru visits
a clay riverbank where scarlet macaws and other parrots gather in spectacular
numbers. The parrots are thought to ingest the clay to offset the effects
of plant or seed toxins (nine-day Costa Rica trip, $2,095 from San José;
19-day Peru trip, $5,095 from Lima). --S.H.