"Fun Facts" with image of scarlet macaw "How You Can Help" Image of feathers in wild bird products.
"Watch a Short Macaw Movie" with an image of a film camera "Addressing Conservation Threats" with an image of a macaw in a bag

Scarlet Macaws

Scarlet macaws are iconic animals in the tropical forests of Mexico, Central America, and South America. Soaring through the canopy, these large parrots fill the forests with their loud vocalizations, crack nuts and unripened fruits with their powerful beaks, and spend hours preening the feathers of their lifelong mates. For centuries, humans have admired these birds for their intelligence and beauty, characterized by bright red, yellow, and blue feathers.

Wild scarlet macaws are imperiled in parts of their range. While they retain a foothold in South America, they are endangered in much of Mexico and Central America, where only a few thousand scarlet macaws remain. A key threat to scarlet macaws is habitat loss. In recent decades, these iconic birds have also been captured and removed from the wild in large numbers to supply the pet trade, despite numerous national and international laws making it illegal to sell wild-caught scarlet macaws.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has supported long-term efforts to conserve scarlet macaws in both Mexico and Honduras with grants. In Mexico, a project in Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve has led to reforestation of over 50 hectares of scarlet macaw habitat and reintroduction of 123 birds to the wild to date. In Honduras, a project in the Moskitia Region has led to an 80% reduction in the number of poached birds and nests through community engagement, in what is now the largest community-patrolled parrot conservation area in Latin America.

A close-up of a pair of scarlet macaws. Credit: / USFWS / Christi Lowe Productions

Credit: USFWS / Christi Lowe Productions

Background on Scarlet Macaws


Historic and Current Range

Two subspecies of scarlet macaws are recognized: Ara macao cyanoptera macaws live in parts of Mexico and northern Central America, and Ara macao macao can be found from central Nicaragua to Brazil. With only a few thousand individuals left, the northern subspecies is endangered in Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama, and Honduras. This subspecies has disappeared entirely from El Salvador. The southern subspecies remains common in South America, although some populations are declining.

Appearance

Scarlet macaws are one of the largest macaw species, averaging 2.7 feet (33 inches) in length. Males and females have similar plumage, being covered mostly in large red feathers, with yellow and blue feathers on their wings. They have large curved bills and a featherless area around their face, and their eyes are either light yellow (for adults) or grey (for juveniles).

Diet, Behavior, Reproduction, and Lifespan

Scarlet macaws are mostly vegetarian, predominantly eating nuts, seeds, leaves, and fruits. They occasionally eat insects. Their large and flexible beaks allow them to access unripened fruits and tough nuts that are not possible for most other birds to eat. They can sometimes be found on riverbanks eating clay (a behavior known as geophagy), thought to help them digest harsh, toxic plant materials.

A variety of species, including scarlet macaws eating at a clay lick in Peru Tambopata National Reserve. Credit: Simon Kiacz / Creative Commons

A variety of species, including scarlet macaws eating at a clay lick in Peru's Tambopata National Reserve. Credit: Simon Kiacz / Creative Commons

A scarlet macaw in a tree cavity.
Credit: Nicola Flanagan / Creative Commons

A scarlet macaw in a tree cavity.
Credit: Nicola Flanagan / Creative Commons

As highly social animals, scarlet macaws are rarely alone in the wild. They live in family groups or in pairs, and they form lifelong monogamous bonds with their mates. While many parrots remain with their mate only during the breeding season, scarlet macaw pairs stay together year-round. Both parents teach and care for their chicks. They typically nest in natural or previously excavated cavities in trees, where the female will incubate a clutch of 1-2 eggs for an average of 28 days. After hatching, both parents feed the chicks 4 to 15 times a day, by regurgitating food for the hatchlings. Chicks fledge from the nest after 3 to 4 months (120-137 days) but stay with their parents for up to 1 year -- a time of significant learning about how to survive in the forest.

Scarlet macaws are raucous communicators, emitting harsh “rrahhh” vocalizations that other birds can hear from several miles away.

They can live up to 50 years in the wild and 75 years in captivity.

Conservation Status

Since the scarlet macaw is widely distributed and thought to be relatively tolerant of degraded habitat, this species is considered of “least concern” by the IUCN (2016). However, in 2019 scarlet macaws received protection under the United States Endangered Species Act (ESA). The northern subspecies of the parrot has been listed as endangered and a distinct population segment (DPS) of the southern subspecies (A. m. macao) as threatened. The Service has also added the southern subspecies (and subspecies crosses) of the scarlet macaw to an existing special rule for parrots under section 4(d) of the ESA. This continues to provide needed protections while allowing for interstate commerce and the import and export of certain captive-bred birds provided the requirements of the Wild Bird Conservation Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) are met. The scarlet macaw is protected by both this important U.S. conservation law and the international conservation agreement.

Two scarlet macaw chicks are shown in two blue bags that they were put in for transport.

A pair of scarlet macaw chicks rescued from poachers in Belize. Credit: Friends for Conservation Development

Addressing Threats to Scarlet Macaw Conservation

The main drivers of scarlet macaw declines are habitat loss and poaching for the illegal pet trade. Like many parrots, scarlet macaws depend on trees for feeding and nesting, making them vulnerable to deforestation. Scarlet macaws also have a low reproductive rate (having only 1-2 chicks every other year), so removing parrots from the wild for the illegal trade can have devastating effects on the population. Humans have used scarlet macaws for centuries, featuring their bright feathers in ceremonial garments as early as 900 CE; some communities in Mexico and New Mexico even housed scarlet macaws in breeding centers (to harvest their feathers) over 1000 years ago. Today, however, the demand for scarlet macaws as pets has reached such unsustainable levels that the birds are suffering steep declines in some regions. Many birds destined for the pet trade die during capture and transport.

A community play features scarlet macaws near Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve. Credit: Bosque Anitguo AC

A community play features scarlet macaws near Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve. Credit: Bosque Anitguo AC


Reintroducing Scarlet Macaws
in Mexico’s Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve

Members of the reintroduction team help transport scarlet macaws.
Credit: Bosque Antiguo AC

Members of the reintroduction team help transport scarlet macaws.
Credit: Bosque Antiguo AC

Habitat loss and poaching for the illegal pet trade have reduced the scarlet macaw population in Mexico to 250 individuals distributed in two geographically isolated areas. In 2013, the organization Bosque Antiguo AC and partners launched an effort to conserve scarlet macaws in Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve with the goal of creating a self-sustaining population of 500 wild individuals by 2026.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has supported this effort with several grants, and to date 132 macaws have been reintroduced into the biosphere reserve in six release events, aiming to bolster the wild population of macaws. Ongoing monitoring of the population indicates that approximately 85% of reintroduced birds have survived, which is a very high rate of success. In 2018, there was a significant milestone: a wild chick was the first to be born in the wild in Mexico in 50 years.

Part of what has made the project successful is how it engages local communities to be a part of the long-term solution for conserving macaws, rather than poaching them. For instance, reforestation of 50 hectares of land with native trees and plants has provided a benefit to macaws with additional habitat, while also creating a landscape that will have future economic value to communities for forest products and potential ecotourism. Similarly, the project includes pilot programs and training with local community members to adopt beekeeping and farming of agouti as additional potential sources of revenue that have a reduced environmental impact on the forest landscape.

A wild scarlet macaw sits outside of a rescue center for macaws in the small town of Mabita, Honduras. Credit: Art Howard / Christi Lowe Productions


Combating the Trafficking of Scarlet Macaws
in Honduras’ Moskitia Region

A member of a patrol climbs a tree to check a scarlet macaw nest.
Credit: Art Howard / Christi Lowe Productions

A member of a patrol climbs a tree to check a scarlet macaw nest.
Credit: Art Howard / Christi Lowe Productions

Despite Honduras issuing a national decree prohibiting the commercialization of wildlife in 1990, as well as declaring the scarlet macaw the Honduran national bird in 1993, trafficking remains an enormous threat to the survival of the species in Honduras. This iconic species puts a spotlight on the wildlife trafficking crisis in Latin America, in a similar way that elephants and rhinoceroses, and pangolins do for other parts of the world. Fewer than 1,500 scarlet macaws are left throughout Central America, and 500 are estimated to live in the remote region known as La Moskitia.

In 2010, the organizations INCEBIO and One Earth Conservation joined forces with the communities of Mabita and Rus Rus after recognizing that almost 100% of scarlet macaw nests on their lands were being poached for the illegal wildlife trade. Over several years, they built trust and engaged several communities in the region to launch paid community patrols to monitor and protect the nests, as well as establish a rescue center for confiscated birds. Prior to the implementation of the community patrols, eggs and chicks from every known nest were poached.

The patrols have been effective, with an estimated 80% reduction in the number of eggs and chicks poached since the project began. The income provided to communities to conserve the birds, rather than poach them, was a key factor in changing the trend, as well as the trust built in protecting an iconic species for the community. In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported the project with a grant to expand the patrols to new communities in the region. It is now the largest community-patrolled parrot conservation area in Latin America.

A scarlet macaw shown sitting in a tree. Credit: USFWS / Christi Lowe Productions

Credit: USFWS / Christi Lowe Productions

Film Showcases Effort to Combat Trafficking of Scarlet Macaws

In the dangerous Moskitia region of Honduras, poachers seek out the chicks and eggs of wild scarlet macaws. Their goal: Sell them in the lucrative illegal pet trade. To counter the traffickers, brave community members have united to patrol and protect the nests, recognizing that in some ways, their own fates are tied to those of the birds. Poachers and Protectors: The Story of Scarlet Macaws in Honduras puts a spotlight on the wildlife trafficking crisis in Latin America, and introduces us to some of the heroes who are willing to risk it all for these iconic birds. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service International Affairs Central America Program has supported INCEBIOOne Earth Conservation and their community partners in this critical conservation effort. Our financial support has helped make this initiative the largest community-patrolled parrot conservation area in Latin America. Prior to the implementation of the community patrols, eggs and chicks from every known nest were poached. The patrols have been effective, with an estimated 80 percent reduction in the number of eggs and chicks poached since the project began. Learn more about our efforts to protect scarlet macaws. 

Poachers and Protectors: The Story of Scarlet Macaws in Honduras was produced by Christi Lowe Productions and premiered at the 2019 Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital. 

Watch the short film below in English, Spanish or with audio descriptions:

English Version:

 

Spanish Version:

Audio-described Version:

Wildlife products with wild bird feathers. Credit: Sarah Metzer / USFWS

When traveling abroad, please know that Items containing wild parrot feathers are generally prohibited from import into the U.S. Credit: Sarah Metzer / USFWS

How You Can Help

A scarlet macaw in captivity.Credit: Loz Pycock / Creative Commons

Credit: Loz Pycock / Creative Commons

People who are concerned about macaws can help by supporting the conservation of macaws in the wild and by complying with wildlife laws. You help conserve macaws by learning about and supporting organizations that protect macaws and their habitat in the wild. Our partners at Bosque Antiguo AC, INCEBIO, and One Earth Conservation and many other organizations work to reverse the decline of macaws and preserve them in the wild. When traveling abroad, please know that items containing wild parrot feathers are generally prohibited from import into the U.S. Learn more from our Be Informed, Buy Informed Travel Guides.

Interested in Pet Ownership? Please Read This

If you are interested in a macaw as a pet, please know that as awesome as they are, parrots are are a lifelong (nearly permanent) commitment. Some live for more than 70 years, often outliving their owners. Parrots are also highly social and noisy animals that require specialized daily husbandry, expensive veterinary care, and a lot of attention. If you do decide to become a bird owner, confirm that your prospective pet is a legal and captive-bred bird. The trade in some wild-caught parrots is illegal under international law, so conduct careful research to avoid buying into the illegal wildlife trade. Pet macaws in need of homes may also be available through animal adoption organizations.

Fun Facts

Get to Know Scarlet Macaws graphic includes a photo of a scarlet macaw and the fun facts stated in the text below. Eyes: Scarlet macaws have excellent vision. Their eyes also indicate age. Brain: scarlet macaws have a high capacity for learning. Young macaws spend up to a year with their parents, learning how to navigate the forest and handle tough foods. Feathers: Scarlet macaws do not moult their feathers until after their young leave the nest. Parenting takes all of their energy! Feet: scarlet macaws tend to be "left-handed." They typically use their left foot to pick up objects. Mouth: They sometimes eat clay from riverbanks, which may neutralize toxic plant compounds. Beak: macaws use their powerful bill to eat unripened fruits and to serve as an "extra grip" when climbing.