SCARLET MACAW (ARA MACAO), LAPA ROJA Flock after flock of spectacular red, blue, and gold scarlet macaws squawk overhead on their return from forested feeding places to communal roosting sites in mangroves along the Pacific coast. The silhouettes of these largest of the Neotropical parrots are unforgettable, with their long, pointed tails stretched out behind and their rhythmic wing movements. I have observed them many times near the Tarcoles River and Carara Biological Reserve. You can, too-it's a daily occurrence in early morning and late afternoon.
The Osa Peninsula also offers good opportunities to see large numbers of these lowland forest birds, while only a few still exist in dry forest around Palo Verde. Once they were plentiful along both coasts, but destruction of lowland forest and capture for the pet trade have put them on the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) endangered species list.
Noisy while flying, macaws are fairly silent when feeding in the canopy. With large, powerful bills they extract nuts and seeds from unripe fruit, their main food, though they also eat leaves and fruit pulp. They are actually seed predators, not seed dispersers since they digest plant embryos. You might hear the sound of the discarded pieces of seeds or fruit falling from the canopy to the ground as you walk on trails in Carara or on the Osa.
Macaws reach sexual maturity at five years of age, and a macaw pair may maintain a monogamous partnership for years. Nesting is from December to July, with the female laying one or two eggs high in cavities in tall trees. They tend to reuse the same trees year after year.
Several approaches to protecting the species are underway in Costa Rica, one being placement of boxes that serve as artificial nesting sites. Lack of suitable nesting trees is a problem in some areas; the boxes are put where they can be watched to reduce poaching of chicks. Unfortunately, selling macaws is extremely lucrative for someone living in an economically depressed rural area.
In a pilot project developed by the Pro Iguana Verde Foundation and approved by the Ministry of Environment and Energy, scarlet macaws are being raised in captivity and released into the wild, rescuing a limited number of eggs from nests that are regularly poached. So far the birds released into the wild have come from the rescued eggs, from chicks confiscated by park rangers at Carara, and from chicks born in captivity to macaws that cannot be set free because of injuries. Until freed birds learn to fend for themselves by contact with wild macaws, park rangers continue to provide food at feeding stations. (In the wild, a chick stays with its mother during its first
year.) The controversial program has critics who express concerns about the possible introduction of domestic diseases into wild populations and removal of eggs from nests.
The only other macaw in Costa Rica, except in captivity, is the endangered
great green macaw currently the focus of an effort to protect almendro
(tonka bean) trees, whose fruits it favors. Some estimates put the number of
breeding pairs of green macaws in Costa Rica at 30 to 35 pairs. One of the focal
areas is the Sarapiqui region in north central Costa Rica.
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