Scarlet Macaws Released Into Guatemalan Nature Reserve

The chicks were hand-raised by conservationists before their release.

scarlet macaws released in Guatemala
The birds were placed in flight cages, which are left open so they can fly away.

Wildlife Conservation Society - Guatemala

After being hand-raised by conservationists, 26 young scarlet macaws were recently released back into the wild into Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR). Once low-birth weight chicks that likely wouldn’t have survived on their own, the healthy birds flew off into the tropical forest.

The release was part of continuing efforts by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP) to save the scarlet macaw population by boosting their numbers in the reserve.

Found in the tropical forests of Mexico, Central America, and South America, the bright red birds face threats from habitat loss and poaching. Their population numbers are decreasing, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. There are estimated to be fewer than 50,000 scarlet macaws remaining.

Due to the work of conservationists, there are now about 300 scarlet macaws (Ara macao) in the Guatemalan reserve.

In preparation for the recent release, some of the birds were fitted with VHF transmitters in order to track their movements in the wild. The birds were then placed in flight cages, which are left open to allow them to fly into the forest when they were ready. In addition, some chicks are placed in wild nests when available.

“All of us were very excited the day of the release – including the macaw chicks. It was the first time that we had this many chicks inside the flight cage,” Rony Garcia-Anleu, director of the biological research department at WCS Guatemala, tells Treehugger. “The atmosphere was one of great joy and hope.”

The birds had been hand-fed and cared for by conservationists in field labs until they were healthy enough to be released.

“The flight cage was open at 10 a.m., and at 2:00 p.m. there were already several macaws flying high above our camp,” Garcia-Anleu says. “I can't explain the excitement we all felt to see macaws that we raised since they were little chicks or incubated in our camp having a second chance to live free in the jungle.”

Conservationists say this year’s work is particularly important because the area has experienced an increase in forest fires and illegal ranching that contribute to the birds’ habitat loss. The team has also faced challenges conducting fieldwork during the pandemic.

scarlet macaw in flight cage
A scarlet macaw waits to be released. Wildlife Conservation Society - Guatemala

In addition to hand-rearing faltering chicks as part of the macaw monitoring and recovery program, there are other conservation efforts being made to save the birds. Conservationists are enlarging natural cavities in trees to create potential nests, installing falcon-proof artificial nests, and preventing and fighting infestation by Africanized bees in other nesting cavities. The bees compete with the macaws for nesting cavities and can kill young chicks.

Although WCS has been working with scarlet macaws in the reserve for more than two decades, they still know little about their survivorship rates and how they use the habitat. The birds have been able to destroy most tracking transmitters with their powerful beaks. But some initial data shows that the birds take part in long migrations between breeding and feeding sites, sometimes traveling as far as Mexico.