Aug 22

The Hyacinth Macaw

A Hyacinth Macaw sits at a water trough in the Pantanal of Brazil.

A cobalt color zipped just above the ground and around the small building. It was big, maybe 2 meters across and half as long. I ducked left to go around the opposite side of the structure so perhaps the sun would be behind me. We were in the small community of Porto Jofre along the Rio Cuiaba in the Pantanal. There, on a cement water trough, at the end of the building, sat a Hyacinth Macaw.

It dipped its massive black bill into the water for a drink, then sat back up. This bird was even more giant than I’d imagined from my readings—at least a meter from its head to the tip of that long flowing tail. The body was chunky, cocker spaniel size, but with wings with a violet tinge. Bare yellow skin showed around the eye, and a little yellow hugged the base of the lower mandible.

Water drips from the bill of a Hyacinth Macaw.
The Hyacinth Macaw raises its head, and water drips from the bill tip.

Birdlife International lists this macaw as vulnerable, one notch below endangered. Their population has plummeted because of the pet trade and loss of habitat. Sadly, poachers might have captured 10,000 individuals during the 1980s for pets, and their numbers fell to an estimated 3,000 wild ones. The stronghold for this species is here in the Pantanal, and two other small groups, still declining, survive in East Amazonia and the Gerais. For a while, scientists listed it as endangered, but they think their numbers have somewhat stabilized right now in the Pantanal. Conservation initiatives and ecotourism have helped. Our Brazilian guide, Paulo, told us that the absence of ecotourism during the two years of severe Covid was problematic. But, at least we were here now, supporting the local economy.

This parrot leans over to take a drink from a water trough,

The macaw drank a second time, and water dripped from the hook on the upper mandible when it raised its head. The bill was massive, maybe 3 or 4 inches from top to bottom at the back. The front edge of the lower mandible looked razor sharp. It could probably snip my finger off without any effort.

This parrot, the largest in the world, is tied closely to various palm trees, and they need that massive bill to crack the palm nuts. Here in the Pantanal, evidently, Attalea phalerata and Acrocomia totai are the two most crucial palm species. One book said the seed of Acrocomia was as hard as a stone, yet this bird can crack it with that bill. Apparently, tapirs eat the fallen fruit whole but don’t digest the nut, passing it through their digestive system and dispersing it to new areas. Macaws, though, crack the seed to get at the inside. These parrots will eat other things, including snails.

The head of a Hyacinth Macaw.
A headshot of a Hyacinth Macaw in the Pantanal of Brazil.

My eyes fell to its feet, sprawled across the cement. Two toes pointed forward and two backward, zygodactyl feet, and a smile came to my lips. I hadn’t thought of that term in a long time. Occasionally, my early career as a research ornithologist pops back out. These toe arrangements allow parrots to hold food in one foot while they use the bill to peel and crack a morsel. One of the nails was white while all the rest were black; it made me wonder if this bird had damaged its nail or if this was just normal variation. So many questions!

A Hyacinth Macaw takes off and flies across Port Jofre in the Pantanal of Brazil.
A Hyacinth Macaw leaps into the air to fly across the town along the Pantanal.

The hyacinth pivoted and shot into the air, its massive wings drawing down, lifting the bird several feet off the ground. It flew right in front of me. The yellow around the eye and along the lower mandible glowed in the sun, and the giant hooked beak projected down and back. Its feet were folded under its tail coverts, and the long tail flowed behind it. The underside of the primaries and secondaries looked grayish rather than the blue of the other feathers.

It landed in a tree across the opening, and the breath left my lungs. For some reason, I’d held it when the macaw took off. It sat beside its mate, and the two leaned forward, looking back at me. Adult Hyacinth Macaws are always paired, which is the most common way of seeing them. Paulo told me of a few places he knew about where we might see small flocks, but neither was scheduled for this trip. A good reason to come back.

A flying Hyacinth Macaw
A Hyacinth Macaw in full flight near the Rio Cuiaba in Port Jofre, Pantanal, Brazil.

14 Responses to “The Hyacinth Macaw”

  1. Joan says:

    What a magical bird! It’s my favorite macaw. Blue is so enchanting. There is a whole book about the color blue in nature, titled, Blue. It’s fascinating. How wonderful that you got to see these birds.

    I once saw hyacinth macaws in Florida, at some touristy place, maybe Sunken Gardens, or something like that. I was shocked, could not believe my eyes, to see these birds in an enclosure there. My only hope was that they were captive bred. Do you know if these are bred in captivity? Is there a place to reintroduce more to the wild?

    Long may they live!

    • Thanks, Joan. I don’t know if they are breeding them in captivity. Many parrots do breed well, and they may be. When I was a graduate student, Bush Gardens in Tampa had a big breeding program for parrots. I don’t know if they have these. They do have a nest box program in the Pantanal to give them more nest site options. We saw several put high in trees. They need a big tree to have a big enough cavity so the nest box program has helped. I agree, I hope they live and thrive.

  2. Barbara Bancroft says:

    Wow, so big, magnificent bird!

  3. Sandra Brennan says:

    Beautiful pictures, Tom.

  4. Danielle says:

    Note to self: stay far away from macaw beaks and feet! Still trying to wrap myself around the size comparison to a cocker spaniel. Thanks for sharing, Tom.

  5. Gene says:

    I’ve heard that the hyacinth macaws are absolute sweethearts. Even more so than other types of macaws. I live in Wisconsin and there is an older woman a couple miles away from me who has one. I walked by her house one day and she was on her front porch with the macaw on her shoulder. I was just in complete awe of how beautiful that bird was! The eyes with the yellow around them were absolutely captivating!
    I truly hope that the number of wild hyacinths can start to grow because it would be such a terrible loss for something so beautiful and special to become extinct.

    • They have been protecting them in the Pantanal and I think that has helped a lot. We saw a few nest boxes put up for them and apparently they will use them if there isn’t a good natural cavity nearby. I agree, they are beautiful and I hope, too, that their numbers keep improving.

  6. Whatever action to protect these birds must be done before it’s too late, land acquisitions, stiff punishments for poachers, more money for protection. A specific transparent site for donations, how and where the money is spent to avoid corruption. I’d be happy to donate and support the cause that oversees increased numbers in the wild.

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