As a highlight of an ecotourism adventure in the Amazon forests of Peru, a macaw clay lick in the early hours of the morning is something which has to be seen to be believed. As the first rays of sunlight hit the riverbank, hundreds of parrots and macaws from ten or more species arrive in pairs or large flocks. With a flapping of wings and ear-splitting squawks, they come to consume small portions of clay vital to their intestinal health.
In the most accessible unspoiled forests easily accessed from Cusco or Lima, two major macaw clay licks can be visited in guided excursions from our own Tambopata Ecolodge. These clay licks receive birds that come together to feed every day from throughout the surrounding forest, creating a pageant of color and sound like no other in the natural world. Biologists have found that some macaws fly over 100 kilometers to feed on the mineral deposits that neutralize the toxins in the nuts and fruits essential to their diet.
It is usually the smaller parrot species which arrive first at clay licks. These include black-hooded parakeets (Nandayus nenday), mealy parrots (Amazona farinosa), blue-headed parrots (Pionus menstruus) and orange-cheeked parrots (Pyrilia barrabandi). They are quickly followed by species of macaw, including the blue and yellow macaw (Ara ararauna), scarlet macaw (Ara macao), red-and-green macaw (Ara chloropterus), blue-headed macaw (Primolius couloni), chestnut-fronted macaw (Ara severus) and red-bellied macaw (Orthopsittaca manilatus). Seemingly from one moment to the next, up to five hundred parrots and macaws may turn up to feed.
The precise reason for this behavior has been the subject of intense research, and scientists have discovered that the clay contained in certain riverside cliff faces contains salts and minerals essential to the birds’ diet. It is believed that parrots and macaws consume small quantities of clay in order to counteract the toxins present in the fruits and nuts on which they feed. Many of the fruits and nuts of the rainforest, particularly when they are unripe, defend themselves from predators by deploying a range of toxic chemicals, and the clay particles consumed by parrots and macaws are small enough to flush out these toxins before they are absorbed by the organism.
In Tambopata National Reserve, the remote Chuncho clay lick is a 2-3 hour boat ride from our jungle eco-lodge. Guests are invited to stay at the lodge’s excellently equipped campsite, in anticipation of the following morning’s event. In addition to parrots and macaws, this riverside clay deposit is also visited regularly by parakeets, monkeys, deer, tapir and peccaries (see our rainforest ADVENTURE itinerary here).
Colorado, the world’s largest known clay lick, is a 4-hour boat ride upriver from Tambopata Ecolodge, deep in the heart of the National Reserve. Macaws and parrots often gather in huge numbers at this isolated riverbank, in what is indisputably one of the greatest displays the forests of South America can offer visitors (Check out our rainforest JOURNEY and rainforest EXPEDITION itineraries).
According to the macaw expert Donald Brightsmith (http://www.macawproject.org/), it is in June, July and August that macaw species need less clay to counter the toxic effects of the fruit that forms part of their diet. However, these circumstances lead to a reduction in the total number of birds that visit the clay lick, rather than a reduction in the number of visiting species, meaning that it is also possible to see macaws at this time of year. And because clay lick excursions take visitors deep into the National Reserve, they also offer an excellent opportunity to sight large mammals at riverbanks and other water sources within the forest, particularly during the drier months of June, July and August (See a jaguar sighting here).