Macaws Flying Free: A Visit to the Ara Project

Since before we moved to Costa Rica, we have been closely following an organization called the Ara Project and their efforts to breed and release endangered Scarlet and Great Green Macaw parrots into the wild. Some of you might remember that we did a fundraiser called Help Save the Macaws when our book was first published in 2012. That campaign was to help build a new facility on the southern Nicoya Peninsula. For a long time we’ve wanted to visit that facility but have never lived close enough to make the trip—until now. This post shares our experience at the amazing Punta Islita breeding center and release site.

 

Scarlet Macaw in Costa Rica Image

Getting to Punta Islita

We arrived in the small town of Punta Islita after a bumpy hour and a half long ride from Nosara. It was our first drive that far down the Nicoya and we weren’t entirely sure we were going to make it. There was a river crossing but luckily the water was low since it was still early in the rainy season. After crossing the Rio Oro and traversing up and down some steep, jungle-lined hills, we finally arrived. We scoped out the town and visited Museo Islita, a charming Open Air Contemporary Art Museum, then sat down for lunch at Hotel Punta Islita, a resort right on the beach, and one of the only places around. Afterwards, it was time to meet the birds.

Meeting the Macaws

We headed up the hill and through a large gate to the Ara Project’s breeding center. Our host, Juan Carlos, an avian specialist and the Project’s site manager, greeted us warmly but didn’t waste any time introducing us to the almost 100 parrots. Dozens of Scarlet Macaws were flying in the surrounding trees and others squawked from large enclosures, which serve as a nursery and school for these colorful birds. While holding Precious, a resident Great Green Macaw, on his arm Juan Carlos taught us about these magnificent birds. Here are some of the many fascinating things we learned about Scarlet and Great Green Macaws.

  • Macaws live for 70-80 years.
  • They form bonding pairs when they are young and stay paired for life.
  • Nests are made in hollow trees and often the Macaws will widen old woodpecker holes to build them.
  • 2-3 eggs are laid but only one chick, the strongest, is kept and nurtured by the parents.
  • Macaws play an important ecological role in seed dispersal in the jungle.
  • The range of Macaws in Costa Rica has been drastically diminished by development/deforestation, agriculture, and the illegal pet trade.
  • Fewer than 1,000 Great Green Macaws are thought to still live in the wild. The range of Great Green Macaws is severely restricted because their primary food source, the mountain almond, is almost non-existent. For this reason, the Ara Project releases Great Greens in Manzanillo on the Caribbean coast, one of the only places in Costa Rica where mountain almond trees remain.

 

Great Green Macaw in Costa Rica Image

Precious

 

Now that we knew a little about the birds, Juan Carlos led us higher up the hill to the education center. Here he explained what the breeding center was all about. Most people think that the Project rehabilitates Macaws and releases them back into the wild, but that is not true. Instead, a number of resident pairs are specifically bred in captivity. Since the parents will care for only one of the hatchlings, the Punta Islita team, which consists only of Juan Carlos, two veterinarians, and two volunteers, care for the remaining chicks. This is more than a full time job for the small staff, as the hungry chicks demand food around the clock, hourly at first, and then every few hours. Eventually though the young chicks grow and are taught by the staff which foods to eat on their own. When they are more independent, they are released, eating in the wild around Punta Islita (for Scarlet Macaws) and Manzanillo (for Great Greens). To help the birds adapt, food is supplemented at designated feeders. The other chicks, raised by the breeding pairs, stay in captivity to become the future breeding pairs.

 

Scarlet Macaw Enclosure Image

One of the newly built Macaw enclosures

 

While inside the education center, we also learned what the birds eat and saw samples of the different seeds like Wild Almond, Guanacaste, Naked Indian, and African Palm. We learned that food supplies are limited in the wild due to deforestation and development, and that the staff goes out daily to collect enough food to meet the demand of the ravenous birds.

After our lesson, Juan Carlos then opened the back door and led us outside. His timing was strategic as the staff was about to fill the supplemental feeders. All around us, Scarlet Macaws flew between trees, loudly announcing to one another that the feast was about to begin. They had flown back to the center from the surrounding forest, eager for the daily gathering.

 

Scarlet Macaw Feeder Image

Scarlet Macaws gather on a feeding platform

 

For us, seeing these magnificent parrots in flight instead of behind the bars of a cage is truly a magical experience. To date, the Ara Project has released around 80 Scarlet Macaws and 32 Great Green Macaws back into the jungles of Costa Rica and there are dozens more waiting in the wings (pun intended). Impressively, there is an 85-90% success rate on releases, and at the Project’s first release site, Scarlet Macaws are now even breeding in the wild. To help keep those birds safe, the organization reaches out to area schools and educates local children in the hopes that they will grow to respect and protect future populations.

How to Visit

We couldn’t have been more impressed with the work done by the dedicated staff at the Ara Project. If you’d like to visit the Punta Islita or Manzanillo release sites, afternoon tours are available with prior notice. A $20 donation is recommended to support the work of the Project. For reservations, email admin@thearaproject.org. Volunteer opportunities are also available for those wanting to lend a helping hand. Visit the Ara Project’s website for more information or email volunteer@thearaproject.org.

While some progress has been made towards increasing the Macaw population, the Project still needs funding to build more enclosures and has a constant demand for supplies. Visit the Project’s website to make a donation or to see what’s on their Wish List.

Post by: Jennifer Turnbull-Houde & Matthew Houde

 

2 Comments

  1. When I came to the picture of the wild macaws feeding I very nearly cried. I am passionate about western australias own endangered black cockatoos – I had the privelage to be present at a recent carnabys cockatoo re-release (wild birds that came in to kaarakin sick or injured).
    It is true that the carnabys and baudins are not so poor off (in terms of numbers) as the green macaws are… we are fighting for it to never get that far.
    I just wanted to say what an inspiration it is to read of people in other countires doing the same thing for other endangered parrots.
    Right now we only release wild birds (well, re-release), but we plan to have a breed for release program up and running some time in the future.
    Seeing your success with breed for release makes me hopeful that we will be able to achieve this one day too :)
    Is there a plan in place to revegetate and plant more mountain almond trees for future macaw populations?

    Reply
  2. Hi Erika,
    Thank you for your comment and your passion for the parrots! Yes there are some programs here in Costa Rica that are planting trees like the mountain almond and other species of plants that are eaten by Macaws. To my knowledge they are not specific just to the Macaws but are more aimed at reforestation with the purpose of providing food and habitat for a variety of wildlife. Two that we know of are Community Carbon Trees Costa Rica and Rainsong Wildlife Sanctuary. The Costa Rican Government also has some kind of program in place that pays landowners to reforest large tracts of land. Additionally, during our visit to the Ara Project, Juan Carlos said that they have some studies planned on the surrounding forest to take an inventory of what is available for the released birds. You can probably get more information directly from them. Thanks again for your comment and good luck with the Cockatoos!

    Reply

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