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In the wild or as pets, macaws are magnificent birds with unique colors, intimate personalities, and an incredible ability to mimic sounds; they even star in movies. But the blue macaw varieties are truly exceptional.
They have monochromatic blue plumage, an extraordinary appearance akin to human fingerprints, and are the most prominent and widespread.
The monochromatic blue-colored macaws include the Hyacinth macaw, the Glaucous macaw, Lear’s macaw, and the extremely rare Spix’s macaw. Besides the Hyacinth and Lear’s predominantly blue varieties, the other two forms—Spix’s and Glaucous macaws—are blue-grey.
The species range in size from small to very large, and they come in a light powdery blue to an indigo blue color. And each blue macaw has a unique origin, habitat, lifestyle, diet, mating habits, and conservation status.
Still, one question abounds: Do these stunning birds have more in common than their blue color? To better understand the blue macaw and its conservation status, let’s look at an in-depth overview of its four species.
The Glamorous Macaws Sneak Preview
|Hyacinth Macaw||Spix’s Macaw||Lear’s Macaw||Glaucous Macaw|
|Scientific name||Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus||Cyanopsitta spixii||Anodorhynchus leari||Anodorhynchus glaucus|
|Place of Origin||Eastern and Central South America||Brazil||Brazil||South America|
|Range||Brazil, Pantanal, Bolivia||Juazeiro, Parnagua||Bahia||Bolivia
|Habitat||Savannah, Grasslands, Swamps
|Arid thorn areas (Caatinga)||Gallery forests|
|Color||Ultramarine blue||Blue-gray||Striking blue||Blue-gray|
|Size||100 cms||55 cms||75 cms||70 cms|
|Weight||1.7kg||300 grams||950 grams||750 grams|
|Sexual maturity||7 – 10 years||Seven years||2–4 years||Five years|
|Incubation||25 – 30 days||25-28 days||Up to 28 days||3-to-4 weeks|
|Clutch size||Two eggs||2-to-3 eggs||2-to-3 eggs||2-to-3 eggs|
|Fledgling duration||Four months||Two months||Three months||Three months|
|Diet||Nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables||Grains, fruits, nuts||Licursi palm nuts, seeds, corn, fruits, flowers, vegetables||Butia yatay palm nuts, fruits, vegetables, berries|
|Lifespan||Up to 60 years||25–50 years||30-60 years||16–20 years old|
Hunting for the illegal pet trade
|Conservation Status||Vulnerable (VN)||Critically Endangered||Endangered||Critically Endangered-Possibly Extinct|
Are Blue Macaws Actually Blue?
According to various theories and studies, blue-plumaged birds are not essentially blue, but human eyes perceive them as blue.
So no bird has blue plumage.
Unlike other colored birds, blue birds do not get their color from carotenoid pigments in bird food. No bird can make the color blue from pigments because blue pigments from food, like blueberries, get destroyed during digestion.
But why does the bird appear blue? Because of melanin pigment crystals and tiny air pockets, light waves interact with feathers to create the blue color effect. Melanin pigment crystals absorb other wavelengths while deflecting blue light instead of reflecting it.
The scattered blue light is what we see.
You can also do a simple experiment at home to prove that the azure color of birds comes from their feather structure rather than pigment. Take some feathers from blue birds and colored birds, destroy them, and observe what happens. Colored birds’ feathers keep their color, while blue birds’ feathers become black.
The blue macaw’s feather structure easily crumbles, causing it to lose its color and pizzazz.
The Four Species of Blue Macaw Parrots
The four species of blue macaws include Hyacinth, Spix’s, Lear’s, and Glaucous. Now let’s look at the different blue macaw parrots in greater detail.
Hyacinth Macaws: The Biggest Macaw Parrot
Native to Eastern and Central South America, the hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) majorly inhabits Brazil, Pantanal, and Bolivia. You’ll likely find them along savannahs, grasslands, swamps, forests, and the riparian.
The hyacinth macaw is the giant parrot in the macaw family and is as long as a baseball bat. Its plumage is stunning cobalt blue with brilliant yellow around the eyes and base of the beak.
It is important to note that although they are loud, they are very social and will make the best pets for those who are patient with them. Their diet ranges from nuts, seeds, and fruits.
They are also monogamous and breed for life with a lifelong partner. Their breeding season occurs during the wet month of July through December.
They have a long lifespan of up to 60 years and are classified as vulnerable by IUCN.
Physical Appearance and Description of Hyacinth Macaw
Even as a budding birder, you can never miss a hyacinth macaw. This bird has an iconic ultramarine blue plumage contrasting its yellow eye ring and bill base. Except for its light gray neck, it has entirely blue plumage.
Naturally, macaws do not have feathers around their eyes or on extensive areas of the sides of their heads. And so the hyacinth macaws have a bare yellow ring around the eye and the base of its bill.
Hyacinth macaws are as long as baseball bats, with their tails accounting for half of that size. It has about three feet long and has a wingspan of between 39 and 43 cm.
A full-grown hyacinth macaw weighs about 1.7kgs. Even so, it is not the heaviest parrot: the Kakapo owl parrot is.
With a large, hooked, hinged beak, this macaw has the leverage to crack even the hardest nuts. And, like all macaws, this blue beauty’s beak enhances its grasp and grip during climbing.
Its foot formation is zygodactyl; two feet in front and two at the back, which also helps with grasping when the macaw is climbing.
While mature male and female hyacinth macaws have a striking resemblance, juveniles have a pale upper beak and a short tail.
Origin, Range, and Habitat of Hyacinth Macaw
Like most macaws, the hyacinth variety is native to the neotropics. They are native to Central and Eastern South America, primarily in eastern Bolivia, northeastern Paraguay, Brazil, and the Pantanal.
In Brazil, you can spot the hyacinth macaw in cerrado regions in Tocantins, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Piaui, Goias, Maranhao, Minas Gerais, and Bahia. Also, you’ll find them along the Tapajos River, Tocantins River, Xingu River, and Marajo Island. It is not uncommon to find fragmented populations in places I’ve not mentioned.
For the hyacinth macaw, dense and humid habitats are a big no-no. In areas where these habitats are typical, they stick to the edges and along rivers. They prefer to camp in semi-open wooded regions.
These blue plumage birds thrive in forests that experience dry seasons and grow tall, closed canopy trees.
Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus inhabits cerrado, savannah grasslands, palm savannahs, palm groves, deciduous woodlands, dry thorn forests, swamps, and riparian areas throughout its range.
Breeding and Monogamy Behavior of Hyacinth Macaw
At seven to ten years old, hyacinths reach sexual maturity late compared to other macaw species.
They then seek a partner and begin copulating. Macaws are monogamous by nature. After losing their partners, Hyacinths may replace them, but they stay with them forever.
The macaws copulate all year long, but they mate only during the wet season: between July and December. Usually, they nest in palm tree cavities, but sometimes they nest in cliff cavities.
Females usually lay two eggs, the second coming a few days after the first. With a 90% hatch rate, she incubates and hatches her eggs after 25 – 30 days. The cock feeds and preens the hen during incubation.
Only the dominant hatchling survives, while the other dies from starvation.
After the eggs hatch, the female feeds and cares for the hatchlings alone for a week. The male follows afterward.
Blue macaws have low reproduction rates. And for every one hundred mating pairs, only seven to twenty-five chicks survive to adulthood. Even worse, skunks, coatis, jays, crows, and snakes feast on macaw eggs whenever they can.
A chick becomes a fledgling at four months and stays with its parents for six months.
Diets of Hyacinth Macaw
Hyacinths usually eat nuts, seeds, and vegetables as primary food sources. Specifically, they like nuts from the bocaiuva and Arcuri’s palms.
The Lifespan of Hyacinth Macaw
Hyacinths are among the longest-lived birds. These birds can live up to 30 years in the wild. They live up to 60 years in captivity, even outliving their owners when well taken care of.
Natural Predators and Threats to Hyacinth
Like blue and gold macaws, Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus make great pets and even better companions. Thus, humans hunt them for their beautiful feathers and to use them as illegal pets.
The second most significant threat to hyacinth macaws includes snakes, skunks, toucans, crows, and jays that eat their eggs.
Other threats include habitat destruction, low reproduction rate, climate change, diseases, and the use of pesticides in agriculture.
Conservation Status of Hyacinth Macaw
Because of habitat loss, hunting, and low reproductive rates, the number of these neotropical birds has steadily decreased over the decades.
Hyacinth macaw numbers are also declining because of climate change. Fluctuations in temperature kill macaw eggs and hatchlings, while floods destroy their habitats.
Today, the population size for hyacinth macaws in the wild ranges between 2500 and 5000.
IUCN’s Red List of threatened species classifies hyacinth macaws as Vulnerable (VU). They will probably become endangered if the conditions threatening their survival and reproduction don’t change.
Spix’s Macaws – The Blue Macaw that Inspired the Movie ‘Rio’
If you have watched the animated movie Rio, you know it depicts a true story about the plight of the Spix’s macaw species.
The Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) is a rare blue-gray parrot with bright blue wings, a tail, and an ash-gray crown.
Indigenous to Brazil, these little blue parrots inhabited Juazeiro and Parnagua. You’d sight them flying in small flocks in forests, shrublands, woodlands, and the riparian.
Like most of their counterparts, the Spix’s macaws mate monogamously. And their breeding season lasts somewhere between August and March.
The hen lays two to three eggs and incubates them for 28 days. Chicks will fledge after two months and mature sexually at seven years old.
While cocks and hens look alike, juveniles have a darker shade of blue on their plumage compared to adults.
On the IUCN Red List, the Cyanopsitta spixii is classified as CR (Critically Endangered) and only exists in captivity. A Spix’s macaw will live between 25 and 50 years.
The Spix’s Macaw Physical Appearance and Description
In its elegance, the Spix’s macaw has an all gray-blue plumage, sapphire wings and tail, and a blue ash crown. Unlike the others of its kind, the eye ring color of the Spix’s parrot and the area below its beak is dark gray.
They also have a dark, hooked beak that enhances its grip, cracks nuts, and tears fruits. Its feet are zygodactyl and dark grayish.
The smallest of the blue macaws, the Cyanopsitta spixii, is about 55 cm long from head to tail, with the tail alone being about 25cm. In flight, its wingspan can extend up to 30 cm. An adult macaw weighs roughly 300 grams.
Besides the female being slightly smaller than the cock, you cannot tell them apart from looking. However, it is easy to tell a juvenile from a mature Spix’s bird because youngsters. have dark blue plumage, brown irises (adult macaws have yellowish irises), and a white stripe (culmen) down their beaks.
Origin, Range, and Habitat of the Spix’s Macaw
Spix’s macaws are native to the interior and northeast Brazil. Before extinction, their populations previously occurred in Juazeiro (north-east Bahia) and Parnagua (southern Piaui).
Historically, they occurred along the Rio Sao Francisco drainage basin within the shrub lands (Caatinga) in the interior of Brazil. It’s here that the Spix’s macaw bird was last seen.
They also existed in the northeast Piaui, northeastern Goias, and southern Maranhao. And although they were last sighted in the 1960s in Pernambuco, they also occurred there.
Their habitat choices were woodlands, forests, shrublands, and riparian, specifically carabeira trees, because they relied on them for food, roosting, and nesting.
Mating, Nesting, and Breeding of Spix’s Macaw
Akin to all macaws, these little blue birds commit to only one mate all their lives: although they may replace their partners in cases of death.
After attaining sexual maturity at age seven, males compete against each other for females and nesting spots.
Spix’s parrots nest in natural cavities in large, mature caraibeira trees. And while these birds do not burrow cavity nests; they use their beaks to widen and adjust them.
For breeding macaws in the wild, breeding seasons begin in November and end around March. Spix’s parrots in captivity breed as early as August.
On average, the female lays two to three eggs, and in the wake of 28 days, after successful incubation, the eggs hatch into tiny, fragile, featherless chicks. Nestlings look up to their parents for food and care before they fledge after two months. Fledglings will stick around their parents’ nest for three months before they decamp.
Diet of Spix’s Macaw
Nuts, seeds, and fruits are a delicacy for the Cyanopsitta spixii. They particularly like seeds from the carabeira and nuts from the barauna and licuri palms.
In captivity, however, they’ll eat various seeds, nuts, fruits, flowers, cactus flesh, leaves, and tree bark.
Conservation Status of Spix’s Macaw
The Spix’s macaws are now nonexistent in the wild because of habitat loss and the illegal pet trade.
Since they heavily relied on the carabeira trees for food, their destruction meant a decline in the number of the Spix’s. Today, Spix’s parrots exist only in captivity.
The IUCN Red List categorizes Spix’s macaws as CR (Critically Endangered) in the list of threatened species. They’re at extreme risk of extinction.
Also known as the indigo macaw, Lear’s macaw (Anodorhynchus leari) is an all-blue parrot with a yellow patch beneath its beak. Despite being shy, they are very noisy.
Details about its nativity are vague, but they occupy Bahia: a small region to the northeast of Brazil. Arid thorn forests are Lear’s macaw’s choice of habitat.
Juveniles arrive at sexual maturity at two or four years and find a lifetime mate. Usually, the female will lay two to three eggs, incubate and hatch them after approximately 28 days.
Brooding sizes for these macaws are two. The hen will cater to the chick’s needs until they achieve independence at three months old. Their diet comprises nuts, fruits, and seeds.
A Lear’s macaw life expectancy is 30-60 years, but it all depends on the care they receive. They are at risk of extinction from hunting and habitat destruction.
Lear’s Macaws Colors and Markings
Living up to its nickname, the indigo macaw has a striking blue plumage with a tinge of green on the head, neck, and underparts. The eye ring and the base of the beak have a standout, contrasting orange-yellow color. The underside of its tail and wings appear blackish.
You can easily mistake a Lear’s macaw for a hyacinth macaw. But, compared to the hyacinths, they’re relatively smaller and have lesser facial markings. Against the Glaucous macaw, who also has some likeness with Lear’s macaw, the former has a more grayish head and is paler.
Another notable feature in these macaw species is a black, strong, and hooked beak. Macaws use their robust beaks to break nuts and tear fruits. Its tongue has a yellow stripe, while its feet are dark gray and zygodactyl.
In adulthood, a Lear’s macaw will weigh up to 950 grams and grow to a length of nearly 75cm. The sizes of its body and tail are equal.
It’s hard to tell a male Lear’s macaw from the female one based on looks. However, you can distinguish an adult macaw from a juvenile macaw in how juveniles have a less blue plumage coloration. Adult Lear’s macaws have a true blue to purple-blue plumage coloration.
Lear’s Macaw: Origin, Range, and Habitat
Before 1978, the existence and whereabouts of the Indigo macaw in the wild was elusive. Only a few people knew of its existence. In 1978, ornithologist Helmut Sick discovered a wild population in Bahia, the interior northeast of Brazil. And, until its discovery, many thought of them as a variant of their look-alike, the hyacinth macaws.
After their discovery, they gained an official species status alongside the name of the English bird painter and poet Edward Lear, who first illustrated the bird.
Further, the IUCN established two breeding colonies of the Lear’s, which occur in Toca Velha and Serra Branca, south of the Raso Da Catarina plateau in northeast Bahia. It is where you will find this endangered species today.
Unlike their counterparts, the hyacinths, who prefer lush habitats, the choice of habitat for indigo macaws is the Brazilian Caatinga—savannas and shrub lands. They remain in this habitat all year round.
Indigo macaws are diurnal birds that pair up in flocks of eight to thirty when foraging for food and shading in trees.
They roost and nest in pre-existing natural cavities on red limestone cliffs. Efforts to increase their populations include artificial excavation of cavities on cliffs within their range.
Lear’s Macaw Breeding
Congruent to other macaws, the indigo macaws mate monogamously and for eternity with their partners. Only death makes them part—they may replace a mate in death scenarios.
Lear’s macaw juveniles hit sexual maturity at age two to four. Afterward, they seek their lifetime partner, find a nesting place, and begin breeding.
As a nesting place, these parrots fancy cavities on the walls of sandstone cliffs. It doesn’t matter whether the holes are naturally occurring or created by other animals, as long as they’re vacant. In some scenarios, they build their nests by softening the sandstone with saliva, creating a crevice with their beak, and scraping the dirt with their feet.
The Lear’s macaws nest in clusters to form a good defense against egg predators. Still, it’s not uncommon for mated pairs to roost in a group and leave during the nesting season.
Their mating seasons run from the beginning of the year till May. Although, they may begin as early as December or as late as February and end in April.
Ordinarily, the female will lay one to two eggs, sometimes three, and sit on them for close to 28 days.
After she hatches, she takes up the role of feeding and warming for her young ones solitarily. During this period, she’ll spend shorter periods outside searching for food.
Whereas unlikely, all the chicks will fledge. Lear’s macaws’ brooding size is usually two: the other chicks die from starvation while the fittest survive.
At the age of approximately three months, the chicks graduate to fledglings. They will continue to roost with their parents for some time before they move out.
Compared to other macaw species, these parrots are less prolific; their reproduction rates are low. This factor worsens the already low number of Lear’s macaws.
Diet of Lear’s Macaw
Licuri palm nuts are a primary delicacy for Lear’s macaws: one macaw can eat up to 350 such nuts daily.
Indigo macaws depend on the licuri palm nuts so much that it would direly affect its population if a wildfire wiped out all licuri palm nut trees.
When licuri palm nuts are scarce, these parrots will feed on corn, seeds, legumes, unripe fruits, agave flowers, and vegetables.
Lear’s Macaw Lifespan
A well-tended indigo macaw might surpass the usual 60 years lifespan. Those in the wild live between the ages of 30-50.
Conservation Status and Population of Lear’s Macaw
According to CITES I, Lear’s macaws are an endangered species. The danger of its extinction looms, and the following factors are to blame.
- Habitat Loss – Licuri palm nut trees, a food source for the indigo parrots, are constantly being felled to pave the way for livestock grazing. Livestock tramples on young palms (below eight years old) and kills them.
- Hunting – Given that these magnificent parrots are rare, they’re predisposed to massive hunting for the illegal pet trade. Most will pay a dime to own a Lear’s macaw.
Luckily, conservation efforts alongside strict laws guarding this macaw species have seen an increment in the number of Indigo macaws in the wild.
For instance, it is illegal to trade Lear’s macaw in Brazil; only a few exist outside Brazil. You may also need licensing and follow special laws to keep, sell, buy, export, or import a Lear’s macaw parrot.
Also, conservation programs to protect and grow the licuri palm trees and guard its breeding sites have seen a significant rise in the number of indigo macaws.
According to IUCN, the population of Lear’s macaws is approximately 1,120, and they rank as EN (Endangered) on the list of threatened species.
The Glaucous Macaw
Obscure and possibly extinct, the glaucous macaw (Anodorhynchus glaucus) is a turquoise-blue and gray South American parrot. Its plumage coloration conflicts with its eye ring and beak’s base yellow color.
Historically Glaucous macaws occurred in Brazil, north Argentina, south Paraguay, and northeast Uruguay. Their main comping sites were along rivers.
Glaucous macaw’s main delicacy includes Yatay palm nuts, snails, insects, vegetables, and fruits.
Like all macaw species, these parrots are monogamous and mate for life. Ordinarily, the female lays two to three eggs and incubates for five weeks. The chicks will fledge after nearly three months and mature sexually at about five years old. These neotropical parrots prefer to nest in cavities on cliffs and palms.
Male macaws have flatter heads, while female macaws have narrower beaks.
Out of the four species of blue macaws, the Glaucous macaws have the shortest lifespan—its lifespan is between sixteen and twenty years. IUCN categorizes the Glaucous parrot as Critically Endangered – Possibly Extinct.
Origin and Habitat of the Glaucous Macaw
Glaucous macaws are indigenous to the north of Argentina, northeast Uruguay, south Paraguay, the Chaco and Ilano areas of Bolivia, and Brazil.
Not much information about this south American’s bird origin, range, or habitat exists, but they inhabited center ranges of large streams and gallery forests with cliffs and Butia yatay palms.
Glaucous Macaw Appearance
Categorized as one of the South American parrots, the Glaucous macaw is a blue and gray parrot with a yellow mandible and eye rings.
Feather color on the tail, back, wings, and neck assume a turquoise-blue/blue-green color, while the top of the head has a grayish hue. Its inner tail is gray. The yellow bracketing its mouth (in a crescent shape) is paler than the yellow surrounding its dark-brown iris.
Familiar to all macaws, the Glaucous macaw has a strong, dark, hooked beak that enhances grip and comes in handy when foraging for food. Equally, its dark feet assume a zygodactyl foot formation, which also enhances grip and is helpful to the bird when feeding.
An adult glaucous parrot will grow to a length of up to 70 cm from head to tail and attain a wingspan of 85-95cm. A mature macaw weighs approximately 750 grams, while chicks weigh about 18g.
You can tell a female macaw from a male macaw from how males have flatter heads while females have narrower beaks.
Diet of Glaucous Macaw
Butia yatay palm nuts is a go-to choice of food for the glaucous macaw. However, they can also eat fruits, vegetables, and berries.
The Lifespan of Glaucous Macaw
Much information on how long the Anodorhynchus Glaucus can live is ambiguous; some say it can live up to 20 years. Generally, large macaws have a long lifespan of 50–60 years; there is no reason this wouldn’t apply to Glaucous macaws.
The Extinction of the Glaucous Macaws
At the onset of the 19th century, a significant population of the Glaucous macaws was still present in the savannah and sub-tropics of Brazil.
However, towards the end of the same century, researchers observed that these macaw numbers had dropped so critically that none were present in the wild.
The last known live glaucous macaw species (thought to be from Brazil) was exhibited in Buenos Aires Zoological Gardens in 1936. After that, researchers and ornithologists tried but found no evidence of the species in the wild.
In 2018, a study citing bird extinction patterns conveyed heavy destruction of this macaw’s habitat and its inexistence in the wild.
Although few, local reports and sustained rumors of their sightings indicate glaucous macaws in captivity. Because of these findings, the population status of glaucous macaws went from extinct to critically endangered – possibly extinct. Brazilian law now protects them.
Blue Macaws: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: The Spix’s macaw, a member of the blue macaws, is the rarest macaw parrot worldwide. Spix’s macaws are on the verge of extinction and are present only in captivity.
Answer: Accordant with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, blue macaws, classify in the Red List as follows:
Hyacinth macaws – Vulnerable (They are likely to go extinct if the conditions threatening their survival and reproduction persist.)
Spix’s macaws – Critically Endangered
Lear’s macaws – Endangered
Glaucous macaws – Critically Endangered – Possibly Extinct
Answer: Belonging to the blue macaw family, the hyacinth macaw is the largest macaw within the macaw species. Weighing approximately 1.7kgs and being as long as a baseball bat, the hyacinth macaw is the largest of the macaw species and the largest flying parrot.
The Unmatched Blue Macaws
All four species of blue macaws are beautiful and unique in their ways, and they once roamed the world in huge numbers, probably in millions.
But, with the beautiful blue macaws now on the brink of extinction in the wild and only a handful in captivity, we can only speculate on what went wrong. How can we reverse what is driving the magnificent azure macaws and others to extinction?
Luckily, conservation projects are currently underway to restore their populations. And, as an avid birder, I long for the day I’ll hop out with my binoculars with high hopes of sighting either a Spix’s, Lear’s, Glaucous, or the Hyacinth macaw in large numbers in the wild.
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