The blue parrot came to rest on a bare sun-bleached branch that stuck out from the bushy crown of a craggy old caraiba tree. The magnificent old plant, some 25 meters tall, was one in a long ribbon of trees that fringed a winding creek. The parrot had chosen a high branch, a natural vantage point. From his lofty position, the bird scanned the flat thorny cactus scrub that lay around in all directions. He climbed to a branch slightly lower down, using his feet and beak, checking behind and above for airborne predators. When hawks were hunting, a second of relaxation could cost him his life. Once the parrot was satisfied he was safe, he cried out -- quite a harsh call, but thin, with a trilling quality. He received a distant reply, and then another.
Moments later, from around a bend in the creek, two parrots appeared, flying fast and strong above the treetops. They followed the line of the green-fringed channel, their long tails flexed and strained against the air, their flowing blue plumes acting as a rudder to steer a course toward the huge tree. They spread their tails, rotated their wings backwards, and fluttered to rest next to the bird already perched there. The thin branches swayed as they took the parrots' weight. The birds' scaly gray feet gripped tightly as the branches rocked gently back and forth. The parrots fluffed out their bodies and flight feathers and waggled their tails to ensure that their plumage lay correctly. This ritual ensured they would be ready for instant flight should they need to leave in a hurry. Finally, every feather in place, they settled down on the caraiba tree.
The trio were the adult male parrot who had first made the call and a pair of young adults. More chatter followed, then the birds indulged in friendly fencing with their hooked black bills. Their sharp yellowish eyes regarded one another carefully, their dark pupils dilating. Then, once more scanning the surrounding land, the first bird began to climb down the caraiba tree. Beneath it was a pool of muddy water.
As the first bird went lower, his companions nervously followed, very quiet now, anxious not to attract unwelcome attention. Going to the ground to drink was dangerous. It was a necessary daily chore, but they didn't like it. Not only were hawks still a threat, but snakes and other predators could catch them down there. There had recently been a population explosion among the local wild cats, and the parrots needed extra caution. They tilted their heads to get a better view of the ground, paying particular attention to the bushy cover at the edge of the creek.
They stopped once more and again checked for danger, then fluttered, one by one, the last five meters to the moist sandy ground of the creek bed. As they landed and cast shadows over the margins of the pool, tadpoles scattered into the murky brown water at the center. Whether the larvae of the frogs would progress to a terrestrial existence depended on more rain. This pool would evaporate soon under the hot tropical sun.
The parrots drank deep and fast. Taking their fill in seconds, they immediately flew back up to the bare top of the tree. They called once more, and then took off again down the creek calling loudly. Two kilometers upstream they stopped to perch in another of the tall trees. They knew that they would find food there. It was late in the day and dusk would soon fall, but a meal of the caraiba's seeds would see them through the night.
When the baking sunshine of the day was extinguished, a suffocating cloak of warmth rose from the parched earth. It was time to roost. Two of the birds, the pair, would spend the night in a hollow in one of the tall trees. They regularly slept there and felt safe. Their companion, the single male bird, perched atop a tall spiny cactus.
The tall trees that bordered the seasonally flooded creeks formed a rare green oasis. The rest of the woodland -- if you could call it woodland -- was mostly low and composed of tangled thickets of spindly thornbushes and cacti. There were baked open areas where little at all grew. It was a melancholy landscape, especially in the heat of the dry season, when the stillness and quiet gave a paradoxically wintry feeling. In all directions its vastness rolled in endless undulations toward an ever-receding horizon. Located in the interior of northeastern Brazil, these dry thorny woodlands -- the caatinga -- occupied an immense area, some 800,000 square kilometers in all -- considerably larger than the state of Texas, or about three times the size of the island of Great Britain. Amid sharp rocks, viciously spined cacti, the lancelike thorns of the bushes, and brutal, unrelenting heat, this peculiar place felt lonely, an isolated and forgotten corner of the world.
Drought turned the forest into a desolate and brittle chaos. Animals could hide in the shade, but the plants could not. Adapted to the desiccating climate, the plants eked out the precious water in whatever way they could. Some had thick waxy leaves, others potatolike tuber roots or fine hairs to scavenge moisture from the air. Most trees and shrubs were deciduous, and even those said to be evergreen lost their leaves in the worst droughts. And when the droughts dragged on, as they frequently did, there was death. Creatures that succumbed didn't rot; the dry heat drained their body fluids and mummified them. Sheep and goats killed by lack of food and water lay like specimens preserved for museum display.
The energy in the winds was small and the airstreams that came brought little rain. It was a harsh place and had become known as the backlands -- a forgotten country scorned by the outside world as a desolate wasteland fit only for goats and sheep.
In the good years dark clouds spawned violent thunderstorms that brought relief from the unforgiving drought. As the lifeless desert was for a short time banished, the caatinga became a brief paradise of green dotted with white, yellow, and red flowers. When the first rains fell, it was as if the drops of moisture were hitting the face of a red-hot iron. Flashed back into vapor, the first specks of water could not penetrate the earth. If the rain continued to fall, the baked red soil would first become darkly stained, damp, and then moistened. Tiny rivulets formed, then streams, and finally substantial bodies of water accumulated in the creeks.
What little rain there was fell in a four- or five-month period, generally from about November to April. Most of the year, even in "wet" years, it did not rain at all. But because the creeks that drained the land during the brief annual deluges retained some of the moisture in their deep fine soils, ribbons of tall green trees grew there -- little streaks of green in the great dry wilderness.
In this uncompromising environment, the blue parrots had made their home. Tested and honed by the punishing climate, their bodies and instincts had been molded into the alert exotic blue creatures that flew there now. Perhaps, like many other animals found in these tough lands, they had first evolved in kinder and wetter conditions, but now found themselves driven by thousands of years of climatic change to the precious few areas of moister habitat within the caatinga. The tree-lined creek was one such place.
Exquisite blue creatures some 60 centimeters long, darker above, slightly more turquoise below, their heads were paler and grayer, and at a distance sometimes appeared almost white. Depending on the angle and intensity of light, the birds sometimes showed a greenish cast. When they fluffed out their head feathers, they took on a different appearance and looked almost reptilian, an impression enhanced by their intense bare faces. Their outward resemblance to small dinosaurs reinforced the impression that these curious birds were descended from a remote past.
At first light the next day, the trio of blue parrots collected together once more at the top of the huge bare-branched tree and resumed their daily routine. Their first port of call was a fruiting faveleira tree down the creek toward the main river. As the parrots approached their destination and breakfast, they were greeted by a screeching flock of Blue-winged Macaws, a type of small macaw known locally as a maracana. These birds were already feeding in the dense green foliage of the fruit tree's crown. Despite their bright green plumage, their striking white faces, and red and blue patches, to an observer on the ground or even an aerial predator they were almost invisible.
These smaller and mainly green macaws shared the creekside woods with their larger blue cousins. Relations between the species were generally quite amicable, unless one of the smaller macaws sat on one of the favorite perches of the bigger ones. If they trespassed in this way, they would be angrily driven off. Although there were several other species of parrot living in the creek, the little maracanas were the only other kind of macaw. They were also the only other birds the bigger blue species deigned to have any social contact with.
Amid the chattering and bickering of the busy maracanas, a distant growl registered in the blue birds' finely tuned senses. The sound grew closer. It was a rare sound in this remote place -- the sound of a vehicle. The blue parrots knew that the approaching sound often meant trouble. Besides the hawks, wild cats, and snakes, the three blue macaws had come to know a still more deadly predator. And that lethal hunter was on the prowl again now. This predator stalked his prey by both night and day. This predator never gave up: If one method of capture failed, he tried a new one. He took babies from their nests and even stole eggs.
The birds fled upstream once more until they arrived at a tall caraiba tree with dense foliage covering the branches in its crown. They had already eaten well and felt able to rest. As the dazzling sun grew hotter, the parrots melted into the shadows to doze, preen, and chatter. They disappeared into the dappled light and shade cast by the long waxy leaves of the caraiba tree. Just as they relaxed, the birds were shocked to full alertness by a startling shrill screeching sound. It was the scream of a distressed parrot, a panic-laden cry made by a wounded bird facing a predator. The macaws' curiosity was aroused. They were compelled to respond to the call.
They fluttered to an opening in the caraiba's dense canopy to gain a better view of the creek. Finding no line of sight to the source of the sound, they cautiously flew toward it. The noise was coming from a bend in the creek some distance away. The three birds approached. As they drew nearer they could see on the ground a struggling parrot. It appeared unable to move from its place on the creek bed even though it was violently writhing. The single blue macaw approached while the pair remained at a distance. His natural caution overtaken, the parrot descended to a low perch closer to the bird struggling on the ground.
As he settled, two men burst forth and ran toward him. They crashed over dry sticks and leaves that lay on the sandy bed of the creek. Terrified, the macaw took to his wings, but he couldn't fly. The spot where he had perched was covered in bird lime, a glue substance used to trap birds. It had trapped him.
Seconds later he was inside a nylon net. The men snapped the branch he was involuntarily gripping and wound the mesh around it, trapping him. The bird's sharp hooked beak tore at the net, but it wouldn't give. Then the blue macaw, still inside the net and glued to the perch, was caged in a wire mesh-fronted crate. He lay panting on the floor covered in glue, tangled in the net where he had no choice but to grip the branch to which he was stuck. He called out, but there was no answer; his companions were already far away. It was the end of April 1987.
The trapper and his assistant sat on the huge fallen trunk of a dead caraiba tree and smiled. Dressed in modern city clothes, they had arrived in a four-wheel-drive vehicle -- a rare sight in this poor area where local transport was more often by horse or mule. They smoked cigarettes and talked for a while. Then they rose to their feet and approached the crate. One of the men put on thick leather gloves while his assistant opened the door. The gloved man picked up the bird, still inside the net, while his companion cut away the nylon with a penknife. The parrot's feet were prized from the broken branch and a scrap of cloth was used to clean some of the glue from its feet. The blue bird, paralyzed with fear, was put back into the crate and the door was once more wired fast.
The gloved man stood back and regarded his prize with obvious pleasure. The sight of the caged blue parrot took his thoughts back to when he was a boy of eleven. A neighbor had asked him to look after some young parrots he was raising. Soon after, the neighbor had had to leave the area and told the boy he could keep the birds. When they were ready for sale, he put them in a cart and took them around the streets in his town and found that they sold very well. The boy got some more parrots and, as time went by, became more knowledgeable and serious about his surprisingly lucrative vocation. By the time he was seventeen he had bought himself a secondhand car -- quite an achievement in this part of the world. He marveled at his good fortune -- the birds had helped him escape the grinding poverty suffered by the poor rural people in the caatinga. He was lucky enough to have a small house in town that he shared with his wife and three young children. He only came to the country for more parrots.
As the years went by, his reputation as a parrot dealer grew, first in Brazil and then internationally. If you wanted to buy a Brazilian macaw, he was your man. He had first caught some of the special blue caatinga macaws in the early 1980s, when he took a couple of babies from their nest. He traded the azure bundles of fluff for a car; this time it was brand new. Since then he had not looked back. It was easy money -- better still, it was big money. Capturing another of these special blue parrots was a real achievement.
All kinds of blue macaw were in big demand, but the trapper had caught this parrot to fulfill an order placed by a foreign collector. It would now travel via a series of dealers working as part of the criminal underworld of the international bird trade.
Unlike some common parrots, this one was not destined for a run-of-the-mill pet keeper but for an elite collector who would fully appreciate the rarity and value of such a trophy. Blue macaws fetched excellent prices, but the caatinga macaw was different. This bird was like a Rembrandt or a Picasso. Yet unlike a painting by a great master, this bird was a temporary treasure only. One day he would die, his value would be gone, and another would be demanded to replace him. No matter how many were caught, there was relentless demand for more.
As the long, hot dry season passed, the traumatic memory of the last trapping faded, but the surviving pair of blue parrots remained very nervous. Any people near the creek sent them into fast flight. The normal activities of the sparse local population -- the odd ranch hand passing by on horseback or people from one of the isolated houses nearby collecting leafy branches for their goats and sheep to eat -- created panic. The birds took no chances even with these casual visitors. They would take flight up the creek until they had traveled what they regarded as a safe distance.
The pair of blue parrots nested in a particular hole that had been used by their kind for generations. High up in one of the big trees, it had been formed by the fall of a huge branch some five decades before. Almost every year since then a pair of the blue parrots had laid their eggs in that same favorite refuge. The hollow was dry and the nesting area was some distance down into the tree from the exit to the outside world. It was just right -- the ideal place to raise babies. But such a location was valuable and the blue macaws didn't have an exclusive claim.
Most of the best tree holes in the creek were accounted for in some way. The woodpeckers, black vultures, the other parrots, like the maracanas, and even snakes liked to use tree cavities as well. Lately bees introduced from Africa had also moved into the creek. Swarms of these insects were especially dangerous when they wanted to take possession of a tree hole. They had stung parrots to death in order to take over a prime site.
With the arrival of the wet season, the birds spent more time around the nest hollow, both to defend it from unwanted squatters and to prepare themselves for breeding. A couple of weeks later, in mid-December, the female bird stayed inside during the day. She had laid three white eggs. They rested in the bottom of the hollow where she would now devote most of her time to maintaining the correct temperature and humidity for the tiny embryos to grow and then hatch.
One night, when the two parrots were asleep with their eggs in the nest hole, the drone of a vehicle was heard once more in the creek. The birds would not venture out; owls were a real danger after dark. They sat tight even when they heard scraping sounds on the outside of the tree. They heard whispering human voices by the hole and huddled silently. But when they felt a presence come inside, they fled. The female made her move for the entrance first. In the darkness all she could see was the gloomy disc of the predawn sky. She made for it, climbing the inside of the tree trunk, a familiar enough task in the day but in the near total darkness unnatural and frightening. As she spread her wings for flight, she became constrained. She was in a net. Something powerful and unyielding grasped her body. As she struggled to free herself from her captor, her mate struggled past and fluttered free of the hollow. He found his wings and took off down the creek into the darkness as fast as he could.
In the nest the three eggs lay smashed. The two trappers had reached inside for young birds in the hope that they could take baby macaws too -- they would fetch an even better price than the sleek adult bird. They were too early for that, however, and their clumsy groping in the dark broke the fragile white shells and spilled the contents into the base of the hollow. The blood-streaked yolks slowly congealed in the wood shavings at the bottom of the nest chamber. Disappointed not to find chicks, the trappers were pleased that they at least had caught one of the adult macaws before someone else did. It was Christmas Eve 1987. The capture of the blue parrot would certainly brighten the trappers' festivities.
The macaw soon found herself in a crate ready for loading into the back of the four-wheel-drive vehicle. It was now daylight and the men prepared for departure along the long dusty track that led back the main tarmac road. Just before leaving, they saw a man approaching on foot. He stopped and asked what they were doing.
The stranger seemed harmless enough, certainly not a policeman, so the trappers boasted about the valuable creature they had taken that morning. The man asked to see it. The chief trapper opened the rear door of the jeep and pulled an old blanket to one side revealing the blue bird in its crate. It recoiled at the sudden bright light and shrank back into the shadows. The man was impressed. He asked if he might take a photo of the gorgeous blue creature. After the trapper had shrugged his consent, the man took a Polaroid camera from his green bag, carefully composed his picture, and pressed the shutter. He waited a few moments, then peeled the paper backing from the print to reveal the image of the caged parrot.
He did not know it, but the image that was gradually appearing on the Polaroid as it dried in the warm morning air was of the last wild female of the blue caatinga parrots. After her capture, only her partner remained. He was the last Spix.
Copyright © 2002 by Tony Juniper
The Race to Save the World's Rarest Bird
The Race to Save the World's Rarest Bird
On June 3, 1817, Johann Baptist Ritter von Spix set sail for the New World on an expedition sponsored by the Bavarian Royal Academy of Sciences. What he found in Brazil's thorny caatinga woodlands would one day transform our understanding about evolution, survival, and -- in the case of the long-tailed blue parrot now known as "Spix's Macaw" -- extinction.
In this fascinating natural history, esteemed environmentalist Tony Juniper brings the caatinga bird beautifully to life. Not long after Spix's discovery, his parrot -- whose beauty, dexterity, and clear-eyed passion made it a favorite among scientists and bounty hunters alike -- had become more valuable than heroin, and worth thousands of dollars on the black market. By 1990, only one lone male was known to be living in the wild.
Spix's Macaw tells the tale of Juniper's race to save the species, from joining an international rescue operation in the caatinga to calling on private collectors to mate their illegal birds to waiting in vain for a hybrid nest of eggs to hatch. His story brings new meaning to Emily Dickinson's poem "Hope Is the Thing with Feathers."
A heart-stopping homage to the long, lonely flight of the last Spix's Macaw, this is a compassionate addition to the annals of nature literature and an environmental parable for our time.