Parrots – Natural histories of extraordinary species that changed our world
When most of us think of pets, a dog or cat is usually the first animal to come to mind. But to many medieval Europeans, cats were the agents of Satan, while dogs were working animals, bred for specific jobs such as herding, guarding, vermin control and hunting. Until about 300 years ago cagebirds were the animal companion of choice. Poorer households kept sparrows, canaries and finches; but the most sought after were parrots (called ‘popinjays’ before 1500). Kept as pets for over 4,000 years, they have been listed (as prized possessions) in Egyptian papyri and celebrated in many ancient artworks. The Roman poet Ovid’s elegy for his mistress’s dead parrot that opens the chapter uses the extreme language and imagery of epic poetry to deliberately comic effect, but what comes across is a noisily real bird with a nasal voice, loyal and affectionate, too busy gossiping to eat much. The poet’s affection for it is palpable.
Kings and popes kept parrots as status symbols, perhaps also because they enjoyed the company of an avian equivalent of a court jester, which could say what it liked to the all-powerful ruler. For similar reasons parrots have formed a popular subject for writers ever since. The poet John Skelton, Henry VIII’s court poet, wrote a long satire called Speke Parrot (Speak Parrot) in which a mad parrot rants about the excesses of Cardinal Wolsey, warning the king emphatically: ‘His wolf’s head, wan, blue as lead, gapeth over the crown.’ Henry had a parrot rare in Tudor England, an African grey parrot from Congo, a highly social and intelligent species whose high level of cognition allows them to assign meanings to different sounds, and their wide range of vocalisation allows them to do this for a lot of objects. They are also known to employ cause-and-effect thinking. For instance, if an African grey observes someone running towards a ringing telephone, they are highly likely to imitate the sound later, just to catch your attention. By using a parrot as a mouthpiece, Skelton could get away with expressing dangerously extreme opinions. It wouldn’t have been much of a leap for his readers to see his implication that if Henry’s parrot could really talk he’d be warning the king about Wolsey.
And as the years passed, it wasn’t just the great and the good who kept parrots any more. Robinson Crusoe caught one to keep him company in his long exile on his desert island: ‘I did, after some painstaking, catch a young parrot … but it was some years before I could make him speak; however, at last I taught him to call me by name very familiarly.’ Long John Silver, antihero of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) had one, named Captain Flint in mockery of his former captain – despite, or perhaps because, it was a female.
‘Now that bird,’ Silver would say, ‘is, may be, two hundred years old, Hawkins – they lives for ever mostly, and if anybody’s seen more wickedness it must be the devil himself. She’s sailed with England – the great Cap’n England, the pirate. She’s been at Madagascar, and at Malabar, and Surinam, and Providence, and Portobello … She was at the boarding of the Viceroy of the Indies out of Goa, she was, and to look at her you would think she was a babby.’
But as he points out, the problem for poor Captain Flint is that she’s been tainted by her association with humanity, and that while she swears a blue streak, she is completely innocent of its meaning. No image of a pirate has been complete ever since without a parrot, shouting, ‘Pieces of Eight, Pieces of Eight,’ from its perch on their shoulder.
When it comes to the images of parrots themselves and how we see them, they found a champion in an unlikely Victorian artist.
The twentieth of twenty-one children (and youngest to survive), Edward Lear had a childhood marked by a series of epileptic seizures, asthma, bronchitis and depression. The Lear family were so poverty-stricken that when Edward was just four, he and his eldest sister Anne (who was twenty-one years older than him) had to move out of the family home in north London and fend for themselves. During these early years he developed a love of – some might say obsession with – the natural world, especially birds.
His artistic talent soon became apparent. By sixteen he was making a living as a serious ‘ornithological draughtsman’ employed by the Zoological Society, publishing his first book, Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots, when he was just twenty. Should you have a cool $275,000 to spare you can purchase, from an upmarket New York gallery, one of just a hundred or so surviving copies of the first edition, with its forty-two beautiful lithographs of some of the world’s most colourful birds.
The reasons Lear chose parrots for his first book were a combination of the practical, the aesthetic and the commercial. Parrots were widely kept as cagebirds, and so the impecunious artist did not have to travel further than London Zoo to enjoy close-up views of his subjects. They were beautiful, brightly coloured and charismatic, ideal for an artist still trying out his technique. And they were popular: wealthy aristocrats and merchants delighted in owning these intelligent creatures, which were not only very striking in appearance, but could also imitate human speech and many other sounds.
Where Lear differed from previous wildlife artists was in his insistence on working from live birds rather than museum specimens. It is this – along with the vivid reds, yellows, blues and greens he used – that gives the portraits such dynamism and energy, especially compared with the rather stiff previous bird illustrations.
In Parrot Culture, cultural historian Bruce Thomas Boehrer praises Lear for his ability to capture the nature of the living bird, especially in his lithograph of the scarlet macaw:
This is a classic instance of Lear’s innovative postures; avoiding a standard side-on view, the macaw turns its back on the viewer as if oblivious to him … But the best touch of all is the bird’s gaze, which slyly, unexpectedly strays back to the viewer it seems at first to be ignoring. This is the parrot’s equivalent of a nudge and a wink – a humorous suggestion that … its neglect of the audience may be both spontaneous and studied at the same time.
Despite huge critical acclaim, Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae was a commercial failure, but it did launch the young Lear’s career as a bird artist. For the remainder of his long lifetime he pursued his passions for art and writing, becoming professor of drawing to the young Queen Victoria, illustrating several volumes of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poetry, and travelling extensively in Europe, Egypt, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India.
All this art, travel, ornithology and passion for nature runs as a serious undercurrent through his much better-known nonsense verse:
There was an old man of Dunrose;
A parrot seized hold of his nose.
When he grew melancholy,
They said, ‘His name’s Polly’,
Which soothed that old man of Dunrose.
In almost two centuries since Edward Lear first produced his celebrated work on parrots, these charismatic birds have remained highly popular – not just among ornithologists, but with the public at large.
Although the world’s 360 or so different species of parrots and cockatoos are mostly confined to the tropical, subtropical and equatorial regions of Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia and Australasia, their ubiquity as cagebirds (and the subsequent establishment of feral populations of some species) means that they are familiar to almost everyone.
Parrots fall into two main family groups: ‘true parrots’, with roughly 330 species; and cockatoos, distinctive birds found only in Australasia, with about 20 species. Some authorities also separate the four endemic species of New Zealand parrots such as the kea and kakapo, which are very different in both appearance and behaviour from other parrots.
In the wild, parrots are a highly adaptable group of birds, found in a range of habitats from tropical rainforests to oceanic islands, deserts to grasslands, and in the case of several species introduced to Europe and North America (and those that have become adapted to this new and productive habitat in their native range), parks and gardens.
They are thought to have evolved around 66 million years ago, about the time of the last great extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. Recent evolutionary studies have revealed that their closest relatives are the songbirds (Passeriformes) and, more surprisingly, the falcons (Falconiformes), which have now been separated from other birds of prey such as vultures, hawks and eagles.
Parrots are also very variable in size, with a greater difference in length between the largest and smallest than any other order of birds. At one end of the scale is the minuscule buff-faced pygmy-parrot of northern New Guinea, which at just 8 centimetres long, and weighing 10–15 grams, is smaller (though slightly heavier) than a wren. At the other end of the scale is the massive hyacinth macaw of the Pantanal in South America, which weighs in at up to 1.7 kilos and measures 1 metre from beak to tail. Although shorter in length, the flightless kakapo is even heavier, weighing up to 3 kilos – about the same as a medium-sized goose.
With such a range of size and habitat, it’s hardly surprising that parrots vary dramatically in appearance, differences reflected in their names. There are lovebirds and lorikeets, fig-parrots and parakeets, macaws and amazons, rosellas and racquet-tails – the latter named after their protruding tail-feathers.
Some parrots are common and widespread: the parakeets that fly noisily around the London skies like a green version of the Red Arrows can also be found in many cities around the world, as well as their native India and Africa, while budgerigars can be seen in flocks numbering tens of thousands at waterholes in the Australian outback.
Others are so rare they are almost mythical, such as the night parrot, a nocturnal Australian desert-dwelling species so elusive that there have only been a handful of sightings in the past few decades – mostly involving birds found dead.
Parrots don’t just live in pristine natural habits: one species, the aptly named rainbow lorikeet, has become one of Australia’s commonest and most familiar garden birds. These multicoloured small parrots – a little larger than a blackbird – look as if they have been painted by a child let loose with a colouring set, sporting a purplish-blue head and belly, reddish-orange breast, green wings and a bright red bill. They roam in pairs or small flocks around suburban Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane (and have accidentally been introduced into Perth and Auckland), showing surprising aggression towards any other birds competing with them for food.
But large or small, common or rare, what all these very varied species of parrot have in common is their powerful, curved bills and upright posture. They also have ‘zygodactyl’ feet, with two toes pointing forward and two back, allowing them to grip objects and clamber along tree branches or through dense foliage (a feature they share with woodpeckers, cuckoos and some species of owl).
Parrots mostly feed on seeds, fruits, nuts and flower buds; though some also feed on invertebrates, and several species regularly eat clay, which helps them absorb any potentially dangerous toxins in the fruit or seeds they have eaten.
Despite their diversity, their breeding habits are surprisingly uniform. Apart from a handful of species, including the monk parakeet of South America (which builds a huge nest out of twigs), they mostly nest in holes or hollows – either in trees or, in the case of the burrowing parrot, also from South America, in the ground, in colonies that may number many thousands of birds. They are mostly monogamous, with strong pair bonds, and as with many species that nest in holes, where darkness means there is no need for camouflage, they lay white eggs.
Parrots rival crows as the world’s most intelligent birds, being able to learn language, use tools, and learn from their mistakes – aspects that put them on a par with dolphins and primates. They are also among the world’s longest-lived birds, especially in captivity: Cookie, a male Major Mitchell’s cockatoo at a zoo near Chicago, USA, turned eighty in June 2013 and is still going strong; while Cocky, a sulphur-crested cockatoo from Sydney, died in 1916, allegedly in his 120th year. In the wild, parrots and cockatoos struggle to live so long, but nevertheless can reach forty or fifty years old.
Today the worldwide trade in parrots involves an estimated million or more birds every year, most transported in such poor conditions that they often die before they arrive at their destination. This trade is nothing new. Parrots have been kept in captivity since the time of the ancient Egyptians and early Chinese and Indian civilisations, and were popular pets among the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the fourth century BC Alexander the Great brought a parrot home from his travels to India; this was probably a ring-necked parakeet, though his name was later given to another similar but larger Asian species, the Alexandrine parakeet. Soon afterwards Aristotle noted in his Historia Animalium (the first proper published work on natural history) that parrots could speak in ‘human tongue’, especially, he noted, after they have drunk wine.
Parrots were liked because they were intelligent and mischievous, with the Romans teaching them to perform tricks: a painting found at Herculaneum (the city next to Pompeii destroyed in the famous eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79) shows a parakeet in a harness, drawing a tiny chariot whose passenger is a grasshopper. Perhaps, as the use of parrots as comedy material today (most notably by Monty Python) shows, we haven’t changed our views of these birds a lot since then.
The Romans also ate parrots – especially their tongues – maybe assuming this would give them greater eloquence. In the third century BC the boy Emperor Elagabalus served the severed heads of parrots at gargantuan feasts, and also to his captive lions (just before releasing the beasts to attack his unsuspecting guests). Pliny the Elder gave instructions on how to teach parrots to talk, which bizarrely included hitting them over the head with an iron bar.
The age of exploration, from Marco Polo in the thirteenth century through to Vasco da Gama, Magellan and Columbus during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, brought many opportunities to collect parrots from around the world and bring them back to Europe, where they were the subject of both curiosity and commercial trade. Pope Martin V appointed a ‘Keeper of the Parrots’ to look after his collection of birds. In the early sixteenth century Pope Leo X paraded his South American parrots, a gift from Manuel I, King of Portugal, through the streets of Rome.
Parrots feature prominently in medieval and Renaissance art, especially depictions of the Garden of Eden, such as Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Adam and Eve. More widely, they were used as shorthand images for Paradise, and indeed still are, in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publication the Watchtower. The Virgin Mary is often depicted with a parrot, as in Rubens’s The Holy Family with Parrot, from 1614. Incidentally, the familiar name ‘Polly’, which we still associate with parrots (partly because of its alliterative qualities) is a familiar version of the name Mary.
During the Victorian era, the keeping of parrots went from being the preserve of the rich and powerful to within reach of ordinary families, when a small species from Australia with the bizarre name ‘budgerigar’ (a corruption of a native Aboriginal word) was first brought to Europe.
In the wild, budgerigars are nomadic, following seasonal rains to find food and then breed. Their original shades are green and yellow, with black barring across the back, but selective breeding has produced a wide range of colours including blue, white and pink specimens. Easy to breed and keep, and excellent vocal mimics, budgies (as they were soon nicknamed) quickly became very popular cagebirds, and remain so today; they are said to be the third commonest pet in the world, after dogs and cats.
But birds kept in cages – especially those as intelligent and resourceful as parrots – tend to find their way out; and as a result of accidental escapes and deliberate releases of pet birds, several species of parrot are now firmly established in feral colonies in places where native parrots never lived.
In London, and other parts of south-east England (and sometimes beyond), feral flocks of ring-necked (also known as rose-ringed) parakeets are a familiar sight as they shoot across the evening sky. As they pass, they utter a call more familiar from the soundtracks of films such as Slumdog Millionaire, Gandhi and a host of lesser-known Bollywood movies, making a walk in Hyde Park on a sultry summer’s evening feel like a stroll through the leafier streets of Mumbai.
They are not just in London: ring-necked parakeets have colonised Antwerp and Amsterdam, Tunis and Tokyo, Brussels and Barcelona, Los Angeles and even Hawaii. And they’re not the only species to have done so: their close relative the monk parakeet, originally from South America, has also established free-flying colonies in various cities around the world, including around the set of the BBC’s soap opera EastEnders, at Elstree Studios, north of London.
The origin of the UK’s ring-necked parakeets is the subject of more urban myths than perhaps any other bird. One story claims that they escaped from the set of the 1951 Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn movie The African Queen; another that they were released by legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix in 1969. Whatever their origin (and it is far more likely that they were simply set free by, or escaped from, pet owners or traders), they have not only survived but thrived. Coming from northern India, they are perfectly adapted to our cold winters, and a plentiful supply of food – both natural and that provided by us in the form of nuts and seeds – means that their numbers are booming.
The jury is still out as to whether they will displace native bird species, or prove destructive to commercial fruit growers. But for many Londoners, the sight of these flying green birds brings a welcome whiff of the exotic into their humdrum daily lives.
Ring-necked parakeets are just one of dozens of parrot species kept in captivity, ranging from the smaller budgies and lovebirds to enormous cockatoos and macaws. In some ways, this is rather odd, as many parrots – especially the larger ones – do not make good pets, being temperamental and easily bored, as well as noisy and destructive. And yet parrots have been kept in captivity longer than almost any other wild animal, and over the centuries tens of millions have been taken from the wild and brought to the western world to be kept in cages.
Perhaps the main reason why such potentially difficult birds are so adored and cherished is that, unlike dogs and cats, hamsters and white mice, they talk back. Language is often thought of as a uniquely human gift, and yet many parrot species are able to mimic human speech – including individual people’s voices – so accurately that they can fool even their owners. But are they simply clever mimics, reproducing what they hear in what we might dismiss as ‘parrot fashion’, or are they intelligent enough to know what they are actually saying?
That’s what US scientist Irene Pepperberg has spent her life trying to find out. Pepperberg closely studied an African grey parrot named Alex from 1977, when Alex was one year old, to 2007, when he died. The name ‘Alex’ was not chosen at random or on a whim; it is an acronym for ‘Avian Language Experiment’ (later changed to Avian Learning Experiment), a clue to Pepperberg’s relentlessly practical approach.
She set out to prove that parrots do not simply repeat what they hear, but have the capability to learn language and then use it proactively to communicate their wishes and needs; even to ask abstract questions. Until her experiments began, it was widely believed that only advanced primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas (and of course humans) had the ability to use language.
Yet over time, Alex acquired a vocabulary of more than a hundred words; learned to identify fifty objects and recognise several different shapes and colours; and understand concepts such as ‘bigger and smaller’, ‘over and under’. He even learned to say ‘I’m sorry’ when he sensed that a human being was annoyed. And every night, when Pepperberg left her laboratory to go home, Alex would call out: ‘You be good. See you tomorrow. I love you.’
Not everyone in the scientific community agreed with Pepperberg that Alex’s language skills were any more than subtle conditioning; that in effect she was helping him to get the answers to her questions right by subtle and perhaps subconscious gestures. However the majority of scientists have accepted that Alex did show genuine intelligence, learning and language skills, at about the level of a four- or five-year-old child.
Alex isn’t the only example of a parrot acquiring an extensive vocabulary. During his brief eight-year lifespan from 1954 to 1962, a budgie named Sparkie learned 10 nursery rhymes, almost 400 sentences and over 500 different words. After winning the BBC International Cage Word Contest in 1958 he was disqualified the following year for being too good.
Sparkie had been trained by his owner, Mrs Mattie Williams. He featured in adverts for birdseed, appeared on the BBC Tonight programme, and even made a bestselling record. When he died he was stuffed and presented to the Hancock Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne, where he can still be seen today.
Inspiring though the stories of Alex and Sparkie may be, it must be admitted that the popularity of parrots as pets has not only brought them to the forefront of our consciousness, but has also led to the decline and disappearance of many species from the wild.
In his book Extinct Birds, Errol Fuller features the paradise parrot of Australia, the Cuban red macaw, the glaucous macaw of South America, and North America’s only native parrot species, the Carolina parakeet, which was found in large numbers until the middle of the nineteenth century, and may even have survived until the mid-twentieth.
Fuller also notes – as do Julian P. Hume and Michael Walters in their book, also entitled Extinct Birds – the existence of dozens of ‘hypothetical species’ of parrots, now also extinct. Some of these may have been hybrids of two more familiar species, others inaccurate descriptions of escaped cagebirds or birds only glimpsed for a few moments, and mistakenly identified. But surely at least some were genuine species, which disappeared before scientists could even describe them properly.
These enigmatic creatures include the unicoloured lory, whose existence is solely based on the description of a now lost skin from a collection in Amsterdam; the crested Mexican parrot, dismissed by one ornithologist as ‘an imaginary bird’; and David Livingstone’s parrot from South Africa, ‘known only from Livingstone’s inadequate account’.
Most intriguing of all, perhaps, is a parrot that does not even have a name, and for which the only evidence that it ever existed at all is an enigmatic watercolour by eighteenth-century naturalist and bird artist George Edwards, known as ‘the father of British ornithology’. The painting, which he completed in July 1764, is of a large, strikingly pinkish-red parrot with blue wings and white spotting and streaking. The title simply states: ‘A very uncommon parrot from Jamaica. Drawn from Nature the size of life’.
The reverse of the picture gives more detail, with a description of how Edwards obtained the bird, which was lent to him by Dr Alexander Russell, having been ‘Shot in Jamaica and brought Dryed to England’. Sadly the specimen itself has long vanished, so the only evidence this parrot ever existed is this single painting.
We know far more about the life, habits and eventual disappearance of two other species of parrot: the Carolina parakeet of North America, and Spix’s macaw from Brazil. Indeed both species join the dodo, great auk and passenger pigeon as a select collection of species for which entire books have been devoted to their decline and fall.
Although it was never anything like as abundant and ubiquitous as the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet was nevertheless a common, widespread and familiar species to the early settlers of North America. Its noisy and colourful flocks ranged across the south-eastern part of the continent from New England in the north to Florida in the south, and as far west as Colorado. It had the northernmost natural range of any of the world’s parrots, though today other species such as the ring-necked parakeet have established feral populations further north.
The Carolina parakeet lived in large flocks of up to 300 individuals, nesting in holes in trees (as do most parakeets) and feeding on seeds and fruits, including those from trees planted by the settlers in orchards and backyards. Its grace and beauty can be seen in one of bird artist John James Audubon’s most famous paintings, which depicts a flock of seven birds – six adults and a juvenile – feeding on cockleburs, a member of the daisy family with hard spiny fruits that not only stick to clothing but are also toxic to many animals; though not, evidently, to the parakeets.
Audubon’s painting captures both the colours of the birds – pale green bodies, darker backs and wings and red and yellow heads – but also their acrobatic grace as they clamber around the plant. But even by Audubon’s time, the species was in trouble, as he described in his Journal of 1831: ‘Our Parakeets are very rapidly diminishing in number; and in some districts, where twenty-five years ago they were plentiful, scarcely any are now to be seen.’
Numbers continued to fall, records became fewer and further between, and following the last reported sighting of a flock of a dozen or so birds at a creek in Florida in 1904, the Carolina parakeet seemed to have vanished from the wild. A pair of parakeets called Incas and Lady Jane managed to hang on at Cincinnati Zoo (coincidentally the home of the last known passenger pigeon, Martha) until 1917 and 1918, and the species was formally declared extinct in 1939.
Its demise was explained by a number of reasons, all directly or indirectly caused by humans: shooting and trapping (the birds were considered a pest), disease, and possibly competition from introduced honeybees competing for nest sites. But as with so many stories of extinct birds, that may not be the end of the tale. Declaring a species extinct in the wild is not as simple as it sounds; after all, you cannot prove the total absence of one or two individuals, which might be hanging on undiscovered in a hard-to-reach location.
And as history shows, many species have been rediscovered long after they were supposed to be extinct: most famously, perhaps, a large, flightless species of rail from New Zealand’s South Island known as the takahe (which looked like a giant moorhen), officially declared extinct after what were thought to be the last four specimens were taken in 1898, only for a population to be rediscovered half a century later in 1948.
Long after the Carolina parakeet had apparently vanished from the wild, sightings of this attractive (and you might think unmistakable) bird continued to surface. These included a flock of no fewer than thirty parakeets near Fort Drum Creek, Florida, in 1920, three nesting pairs in Okeechobee County (also Florida) in 1924, and two independent reports of birds flying overhead in the Santee River area of South Carolina as late as 1938. The problem with all these records, however, is that by this time several parakeet species were already at large in Florida, so there is a chance that the observers mistook feral birds for what they thought were Carolina parakeets.
More intriguingly, however, an ornithologist and park ranger named Oscar Baynard continued to report sightings of small flocks of Carolina parakeets in Florida well into the 1930s, and possibly even later; he was both an experienced observer and an ‘unimpeachably honest’ man, so it is highly unlikely that he was either mistaken or making up the sightings.
Ironically southern Florida – especially the city of Miami – is today home to more than twenty different species of non-native parrot, reviled by some but loved by many. Yet the Carolina parakeet – the one native species that, had it survived just a little longer, might have been saved by radical conservation measures – has gone for ever.
The fate of this beautiful and unique parrot has taught us the salutary lesson that no species – however common and widespread – is immune to the pressures that led to this bird’s disappearance; and that parrots are even more at risk than others, with ninety species – roughly one-quarter of all the world’s parrots – now considered vulnerable to extinction. So it is somewhat ironic that when the very last wild individual of another species of parrot, Spix’s macaw, died in the year 2000, it did not disappear from the planet altogether; and that the trade in rare parrots that was its nemesis may yet prove to be its saviour.
One day in 1819 the German naturalist and collector Johann Baptist Ritter von Spix was out on the banks of the Rio Sao Francisco in a remote region of north-eastern Brazil, when he came across an unfamiliar bird – a medium-sized parrot with a cobalt-blue plumage and a greyish head.
He took aim and fired, and the bird fell dead to the ground. Many years later, it was found to be a new species of macaw, which although it had been sighted as early as the 1630s, had never been formally described or named. As is traditional, the species was eventually named (by the Emperor Napoleon’s nephew, Charles Bonaparte) after its discoverer: Spix’s macaw.
Spix’s macaw was never very common or widespread; indeed after that first sighting it wasn’t seen again for another eighty-four years. It was quite a fussy bird as parrots go, living in the very specialised habitat of dry tropical forest, and being entirely dependent on a single species of tree – the Caraibeira – for its food, nesting holes and roosting places. During the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this specialised habitat was destroyed by deforestation; compounded by the taking of wild birds to sell to wealthy private collectors – a trade that became more and more profitable as Spix’s macaw became ever more rare.
The Brazilian government banned exports of this and other scarce parrot species in 1967, but the reality was that only a handful of legal traders were stopped; the much larger illegal trade in macaws and other parrots continued unabated.
By 1990 only a single male Spix’s macaw could be found in the wild, close to where Spix had shot the original specimen more than 170 years earlier. Poignantly, in the absence of a female, it had paired with a different species, a blue-winged macaw. Ten years later, in October 2000, this lone bird vanished, and Spix’s macaw was declared extinct in the wild.
But this did not mean that the species shared the fate of the dodo, passenger pigeon or Carolina parakeet, for one simple reason. Its popularity among cagebird enthusiasts meant that there were still a number of Spix’s macaws alive in captivity. Yet with just fifteen known individuals, time was of the essence. Unless a breeding programme could be set up, the species was surely doomed to see out its last days behind bars.
Today, there are about a hundred Spix’s macaws in captivity, eighty-three of which are involved in the captive breeding programme. But these descend from just seven wild birds taken from two nests, so there is a genetic bottleneck. Time will tell if the ultimate dream of the conservationists – to release these birds back into a newly restored habitat so that a wild population can be re-established – will ever bear fruit.
The story of Spix’s macaw is an apt parable for our long and close relationship with parrots. During the 5,000 years or so since they have lived alongside us, we have taught them to speak and eaten their tongues; kept them in cages and accidentally released them back into the wild, thousands of miles from their original home; and most ironically of all, driven some species to the edge of extinction (and sometimes beyond), only to spend time, effort and millions of dollars trying to save them, using birds already held in captivity.
In January 1888, at the age of seventy-five, artist and poet Edward Lear died at his villa in San Remo, on the Mediterranean coast of Italy. Despite his fame, few travelled to attend his funeral, which was described by the wife of his physician as ‘a sad, lonely affair’.
Yet his name lives on; and not simply through his verse and those extraordinary images of parrots he painted as a young man. For one particular species of South American parrot, Anodorhynchus leari, is named after him: Lear’s macaw. Once considered to be a smaller and paler form of the world’s largest parrot, the hyacinth macaw, and known only from museum specimens collected in the nineteenth century, Lear’s macaw was finally given its rightful status when it was rediscovered in the heart of north-eastern Brazil in 1978. However, it was soon realised that the species was critically endangered. By 1983 there were thought to be just sixty Lear’s macaws remaining in the wild, all in a tiny area of the province of Bahia, not far from where the last Spix’s macaw was found. But in a rare success story among the world’s endangered parrot species, by 2010 the population had risen to an estimated 1,100 birds, thanks to concerted efforts to prevent hunting and trapping, and the restoration of its forest habitat. Although Edward Lear never actually got the chance to see his macaw, he would surely celebrate the fact that at least one parrot species may have a bright future.
If you should meet a crocodile,
Don’t take a stick and poke him;
Ignore the welcome in his smile,
Be careful not to stroke him.
For as he sleeps upon the Nile,
He thinner gets and thinner;
And whene’er you meet a crocodile
He’s ready for his dinner.