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Costa Rica Without Macaws

by Richard Garrigues

Think of the tropics. Now, name a tropical bird. I'm betting a lot of you said, "Parrot." Well, okay, maybe many thought of toucans, too. But there's no denying that parrots and their relatives are evocative of the world's tropics.

Of the more than 330 members of the parrot family, a mere 16 species live in Costa Rica. Most of these are adorned in various shades of green with splotches of primary colors on their heads and/or wings, although the largest among them is the vividly colored Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao), known locally as lapa roja.

Once widespread throughout the lowland and foothill regions of the country, macaw populations have decreased alarmingly during this century. By 1950, they had disappeared from the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, and over the past four decades their status in Guanacaste has declined from abundant to (at best) uncommon and local in the Tempisque Basin (i.e. Palo Verde). Today, your best chances of seeing Scarlet Macaws in the wild are on the Osa Peninsula and at Carara Biological Reserve.

Loss of habitat through deforestation and removal of young birds from nests for the pet trade have had a devastating effect on these birds. Personally, I have never been able to understand why anyone would want a bird like this for a pet. Never mind all the blaring racket that macaws make, just take a look at that beak! I mean, why would you want something that, as Stiles and Skutch describe in the introduction to this family in Birds of Costa Rica, "combines the destructive powers of an ice pick (the sharp-pointed upper mandible), a chisel (the sharp-edged lower mandible), a file (the ridged inner surface of the upper mandible), and a vise" anywhere near your living room furniture?

After all, a heliconia plant with a bright red and yellow inflorescence will give any room a tropical highlight without all the ear-splitting noise and with no threat to furniture, appliances, fingers, earlobes or whatever else should happen to be within reach. Still, untold numbers of macaws (and other parrots and parakeets) are snatched from their nests each year to satisfy this strange human urge.

From the point of view of many tropical tree species, however, the demise of Scarlet Macaws surely brings no tears. Macaws, like other members of the parrot family, are essentially seed predators.

To the casual observer it may appear that when they are feeding they are eating fruit. Closer observation, however, reveals that they are using their powerful beaks to tear through the nearly ripe covering in order to get at the maturing seed(s) inside. The aforementioned characteristics of the birds' huge bills are all part of an evolutionary design to enable them to rip into the hardest seedcoats that nature has devised. Try, for example, to get at the seed of a beach almond tree (Terminalia catappa), a medium-sized tree with spreading horizontal branches commonly found along beaches. It's not easy, yet the macaws relish this species and process the seeds with ease.

There is no evidence that macaws ever, even inadvertently, perform the service of seed disperser for the trees. Either the fruit is dropped from where a bird is feeding (whether because it slipped from the bird's grasp or was actively rejected) and lands near the base of the parent tree, or the seeds are crushed and consumed. In neither case does the tree benefit.

But let's not allow human concepts of morality to become the issue. Because jaguars eat other animals should we advocate their extermination? No, predators, and even parasites, are part of all natural systems.

The Scarlet Macaws that feed and nest in and around the Carara Biological Reserve roost each evening in nearby coastal mangroves where they probably receive some added protection from predators and very likely obtain salts by licking the exudates off the leaves of black mangroves (Avicennia germinans). It's a thrilling sight to stand by the Tarcoles River bridge in the late afternoon and watch group after group of paired macaws heading for the mangroves, literally flying into the sunset.

Think of the tropics. Now, think of them without macaws...

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