Macaws are members of the New World parrot family, remarkable for their vividly bright plumage and long tails. With a natural range that extends from Mexico, through Central America and down into tropical and subtropical South America, macaws are divided by scientists into a total of six genera. They tend to inhabit rainforests, but can also be found in savannah and woodland habitats.
Across different species, their proportionately larger beaks and the much longer tails which in some species can give them an overall body length of up to one meter (three feet), set macaws apart from other members of the parrot family. Fascinatingly, the facial feather patterns of macaws are as individual as a human fingerprint, a feature which has proved very useful in scientific research conducted into macaw feeding and reproductive behavior.
Macaws are extremely intelligent and highly social birds and some species have been known to mimic human speech. They tend to gather in flocks of between ten and thirty individuals. Their squawks can be heard across tropical and subtropical forests, as they vocalize to communicate, mark their territory, and identify each other. Macaws are believed to live for up to sixty years in the wild and breeding pairs mate for life, sharing food even outside the breeding season, and engaging in mutual grooming. During the breeding season, the female will incubate the eggs, while the male forages for food.
Parrots as a whole are among the world’s most threatened bird species. Of the 146 species of parrot known to exist in the Americas, a total of 46 are thought to be at risk of extinction. In addition to pressure such as habitat loss, parrots and macaws have long been victims of the international pet trade. Within the parrot family, historically macaws have been particularly sought after as pets, by virtue of their bright plumage, social nature, and –in the cases of certain species- their ability to mimic human speech.
As a result of this pressure exerted by the pet trade, most macaw species are now classified as endangered in the wild, and some species are thought to be extinct.
Because the Tambopata area is home to the highest concentration of clay licks known to exist anywhere in the Amazon basin, it is also home to healthy populations of macaws. Biologists have recorded examples of macaws embarking upon flights of more than 100 kilometers in order to feed at a clay lick.
Scientists have for many years assumed that macaws feed on clay deposits at exposed riverbank cliffs known as clay licks in order to combat the toxins, such as naturally occurring tannins, which the birds ingest along with their largely fruit-, nut- and plant-based diet. However, more recent studies have proposed that macaws may be feeding on clay in order to enrich their sodium-deprived diet. Researchers in the Tambopata area have noted that in other regions of the globe members of the parrot family also ingest toxins, but that it is only in the sodium-poor western Amazon region that they engage in clay lick activities.
Species of macaw that can be seen at the clay licks located within Tambopata National Reserve include 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).