Originally published in the Northwest Exotic Bird Club Newsletter, February 2012 edition
Like many parrot lovers, I was both delighted and distressed by the movie Rio released in 2011 by Twentieth Century Fox, which is up for an Oscar in the Best Song category this February. Ostensibly a delightful children’s tale, the film is based on the real story of the Spix’s Macaw, a species now extinct in the wild thanks to human greed and vanity, and whose numbers have dwindled to less than 100 individuals. The tale of Rio is based on the unlikely discovery of a lone Spix’s Macaw named Presley in Colorado in 2002. Curious after seeing the movie, I decided to try to find out what had happened to Presley since his repatriation to Brazil ten years ago. Was he still alive? Was he ever paired with a mate? Had he successfully fathered any chicks? My initial inquiries about Presley’s recent history met only dead ends—the people I contacted either did not know or did not respond. Finally Dr. James Gilardi, executive director of the World Parrot Trust, graciously agreed to speak with me about Presley. He also put me in touch with Presley’s current caretakers, Bill and Linda Wittkoff of the Lymington Foundation in Brazil. This article describes the current challenges facing both Presley and the Spix’s Macaw.
The 2011 release of the animated film Rio brought much-needed attention to the plight of endangered species everywhere. The movie tells the story of Blu and Jewel, two blue Macaws, purportedly the last male and female representatives of their kind. In the film, an alert ornithologist discovers Blu living as a pet in an American home, and persuades his human companion to allow the bird to travel to Brazil to meet Jewel, the last surviving female, in an attempt to rescue their species from certain extinction.
This much of Rio is based on a true story. In 1990 when international efforts began to rescue the Spix’s Macaw from extinction, only eighteen parrots available for breeding purposes could be found. Because these birds had all been poached from a near-decimated wild population in Brazil, they were scattered across the globe, geographically isolated from each other. Most were genetically related, and nearly all were in the hands of private individuals who had no obligation to participate in a breeding program. Tragically, as the century rolled over in 2000, the last known Spix’s Macaw living in the wild disappeared. So it was like a miracle when, in 2002, avian veterinarian Mischelle Muck of Colorado was contacted to examine an ailing blue Macaw named Presley and recognized it as a Spix’s. An inspiring subject for a Hollywood movie indeed.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but as of 2011, there were approximately 78 Spix’s Macaws in existence. Unfortunately the sheer increase in numbers does not tell the whole story. Efforts to expand the Spix’s population face particularly daunting challenges. Persuading governments and private owners to cooperate for the good of the species has proved problematic and unreliable. Only a handful of wild-caught, more genetically diverse birds survive, many of whom have kidneys permanently damaged by the dehydration they suffered when they were smuggled out of their native habitat in Brazil. Most of these wild-caught individuals are now older and incapable of breeding.
Most worrisome of all, the Spix’s population suffers sorely from inbreeding, which preserves harmful genes, causes the gender ratio of the chicks to be unbalanced, and makes it much more difficult to breed individuals that are themselves fertile. Contrary to the hopeful ending of Rio, the ultimate survival of the Spix’s Macaw is by no means a sure thing.
The accidental discovery ten years ago of Presley, a wild-caught, genetically diverse individual, was a beacon of light in the Spix’s darkest hour. Mischelle Muck was contacted to examine Presley who was suffering from depression and ill health after he lost his companion of many years, an Amazon parrot. With the help of Dr. James Gilardi and the World Parrot Trust, Presley was eventually returned to his native homeland in Brazil. Hopes were high. Said Gilardi ten years ago, “In 15 years, there is every likelihood we will be talking about Presley having reproduced . . . in some way, he will contribute to the continuation of his species.”
Rio ends on a happily-ever-after note as Blu and Jewel dance away to a jungle beat, safe in a protected forest setting with their burgeoning family. Presley’s story also earned a happy ending for Twentieth Century Fox, grossing nearly half a billion dollars in ticket sales worldwide. Sadly, his real story is far different.
Once repatriated, Presley became the property of the Brazilian government, with decisions regarding his life and breeding relegated to the government’s wildlife agency. He was sent to live with caretakers Bill and Linda Wittkoff, the founders and proprietors of the Lymington Foundation, a conservation and breeding facility near Sao Paolo. This couple watched over Presley’s health and oversaw the first breeding effort. A female Spix’s named Flor, one of only two Spix’s ever hatched in captivity in Brazil, was eventually brought in as a mate for Presley. Linda Wittkoff reports that the pair lived contentedly together for one breeding season, during which they produced two clutches and thirteen eggs. She says that Presley was a good father, watching over Flor and defending their nest. Tragically, the eggs were infertile and none of them hatched. Flor was eventually separated from Presley and removed to be mated with a proven fertile male Spix’s from the population in Germany.
There have been no attempts to mate Presley since. It therefore remains an open question as to whether Presley himself is capable of producing offspring, as he has never been paired with a proven female. But Wittkoff believes that it is unlikely that there will be any further attempts to breed Presley--that the Brazilian government is deterred by his age and the dearth of fertile female Spix’s in Brazil. He has some liver problems and can no longer fly, but is still strong enough to hang from the top of his cage and flap his wings. Wittkoff was happy to know that someone, at least, was concerned with his present fate. “Presley has been somewhat forgotten, I'm afraid,” she told me.
The challenges presented by Presley’s health pale in comparison to those presented by his human custodians in the government however. Many avenues remain open and yet untried. Proven fertile females could be brought to live with Presley from other collections. Dr. Gilardi points out that artificial insemination procedures in parrots have been proven successful. Another option would be to collect and freeze sperm samples from Presley; though still in the experimental stages, Gilardi estimates that tailoring a.i. techniques to the Spix’s Macaw would require little more than a few months and a few thousand dollars.
What is certain is that the fate of the Spix’s Macaw lies entirely in human hands. Cooperation amongst the owners of the existing birds with breeding efforts is necessary but not sufficient. There is far too little motivation and cooperation amongst the existing holders of Spix’s Macaws: “far more conversation than conservation,” as Gilardi said in a press release concerning Presley’s discovery in 2002. Presley is an aging bird, and time is running out. But because of the geographical and personal divides, it may soon be too late to ensure that Presley’s invaluable genetic heritage is passed on to future generations. If there is any hope left for capitalizing on the miracle of Presley’s discovery--for introducing his irreplaceable genetic diversity to this small population--it must be done soon. Action must be taken, and quickly, in order to rescue this most rare and precious of species from extinction.
Fri May 25, 2012 at 7:11 PM PT: Update 5-15-2012: This article has now appeared in the Parrot Society of Australia's "Parrots Magazine," and the magazine for the Parrot Society of New Zealand in slightly altered form. It will also be appearing in the next issue of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators "Flyer" magazine.