Dead palm trees are a notorious pain. Difficult to access and a sloppy mess when it rains, these structures provide little stability and are an unreliable nesting choice. Parrot conservationists hate them, but Scarlet Macaws love them.
For three seasons now, Scarface and Elvira have managed to find perfectly dead palm trees to nest in. Each time we roll our eyes and “facepalm”. Despite our pre-emptive attempts to knock down dead palms and erect our own man-made imitations that are far sturdier, the pair continues to scheme against us. Their first choice of a dead palm in 2017 collapsed with 2-month-old Mary Ann inside, whom our staff were able to retrieve and bring to our captive site for care after unsuccessfully trying to reunite her with her parents. Their second dead palm in 2018 also collapsed with two fledgeling-aged chicks inside. One is believed to have successfully escaped and fledged, but both of their current fates are undetermined. That brings us to this year’s dead palm, which flooded after an intense night of rain, putting two chicks’ lives at risk.
After heavy rain and wind kept many of us awake with worry, our two field biologists, Alice and Bridget, went immediately to check on Scarface and Elvira’s nest near Camaronal. The pair were acting abnormally, perched at a distance whereas they would normally fly to the nest and vocalize angrily at human intruders. Using a GoPro camera attached to the end of a very long stick, the team were able to capture footage of the two chicks, both around a month old and sitting in a deep pool of water. One seemed to be moving around, but the other was relatively motionless. With the dead palm located on a steep hill and the nest cavity 8 meters high, accessing the nest to retrieve and care for the chicks was not going to be easy.
It was obvious Scarface and Elvira couldn’t enter the flooded nest to care for the chicks. Ladders, scaffolding, ropes and buckets were gathered and a rallying team of seven Macaw Recovery Network workers plus three good Samaritans were dispatched to the site to rescue the birds before they became too cold or weak. Once assembled at the nest site, we had to think strategically. Simply leaning a ladder against the tree could potentially cause it to fall over. We had to brace the tree and send up the smallest person with bird handling experience…
…With a piece of rope attached to a bucket clenched between my teeth, I found myself halfway up the ladder, breathing heavily while praying for the tree to remain upright. All the time hoping for the chicks to be alive and for Scarface and Elvira to keep their distance. Once at the nest, I could see the parents glaring at me from a nearby tree. I couldn’t properly see inside the cavity, so instead reached in blindly to feel for the chicks. I felt one move away at my touch and then felt around the debris-filled water for the second chick. Expecting to feel a stiff body, I gasped in shock when I felt it gently wiggle under my touch. “They’re both alive!” I exclaimed to the team below while still clamping the rope in my teeth. I took the rope out and pulled it to raise the towel-lined bucket up to me. I awkwardly scooped out the wiggly chicks and placed them gently in the bucket. Scarface and Elvira weren’t too pleased and swooped in multiple times to voice their displeasure at my intrusion, but thankfully never got too close.
We lowered the chicks to the ground and assessed their health. Both were visibly cold, wet and one seemed to have ingested a large amount of water. Skin on skin contact is the fastest way to increase body temperature, so Alice and Bridget were happy to lend their warm bellies in the name of conservation. Did I mention that the chicks smelled exactly like what you’d think a parrot-poo-filled pool would smell like?
We brought the chicks back to our on-site clinic, where I was able to weigh them and further assess their condition. Both seemed to be in relatively good health and we set up a brooder for them with comfy towels and fed them some warm chick formula to further aid in their recovery. With full crops, they snuggled up and took a well-deserved nap. While the chicks recovered, I took Alice and Bridget to investigate another nest with two known chicks. Unfortunately, it was even more heavily affected by flooding and neither chick survived. It seems even if we had gone there first, the water was too deep and the chicks would not have been alive. While is was a massive blow, we couldn’t dwell on it. Once again, we put our focus on the two chicks alive in the clinic and how we could reunite them with their parents.
*Slide for more photos
I love macaws, but hand-raising them in captivity is far less than ideal than the parents raising them in the wild. When Mary Ann’s nest collapsed in 2017, the staff tried to reunite her with Scarface and Elvira by putting up an artificial barrel nest in a tree near the original nest site. The parents, unfortunately, were very confused and never found Mary Ann, who we ended up having to bring back to the center. So we asked ourselves, “How can we do it differently this time?” Our Director, Sam, helped us come up with a plan. We had some spare nest boxes on site that we normally use for our captive breeding pairs, so we cleaned one up and fixed it on a tall metal platform that Alvaro, a local handyman, was able to weld together last-minute for us. At the end of the long day, the dry box was installed less than two meters away from the dead palm cavity. Hopefully, in placing it so close to the original nest, Scarface and Elvira would have a higher chance of success in finding the chicks the following day.
The chicks remained in the brooder overnight, having received more warm food just before bedtime. The next morning, Alice, Bridget and I headed to the nest site at 4:30AM with the chicks still napping. Scarface and Elvira were in a nearby tree, once again wary of our presence. We set up a ladder and I climbed up to the new (and sturdier) nest, to where we raised the bucket-o-chicks and I placed them carefully on a dry bed of wood shavings. I bid them good luck and we hid ourselves away at a safe distance.
Normal nest watches last around three hours, but when you’re trying to reunite chicks to their parents, it could be a multiple-day event. Bags of potato chips replaced normal meals as we hid and waited all day for them to reunite. Scarface and Elvira kept their distance for most of the morning. We hoped the chicks would vocalize and get their attention, which occasionally they did, but they were still wary.
The pair left at intervals throughout the day, following their normal foraging schedule and upon each return, would venture slightly closer to the new nest. They performed a few close flybys to scan the funny box but never landed. We were starting to lose hope that this would work, but then there was a subtle breakthrough. They starting to play around in the top of the dead palm and gradually made their way down to the cavity where they chewed the nest entrance and lingered less than two meters from their chicks. Frequently, Elvira would pause to crane her neck toward the new nest, obviously curious about the structure and the strangely familiar noises coming from it.
After leaving to forage once more, they returned and repeated their careful investigation of the odd box. We held our breath as Elvira finally flew to the top, where she tip-toed around and casually peeked over to glimpse inside. Scarface was still looking for his lost chicks inside the original nest. Poor guy, at least he was trying. Meanwhile, Elvira displayed her acrobatics and climbed down the side of the nest and cautiously eased herself along the front perch. None of us dared to blink lest we spook her and cause her to leave. She slowly peeked inside the nest, and as if in shock, we saw her wings give a quick flick upon discovering her two dry chicks eagerly awaiting her return.
After spending a few minutes greeting her chicks, Elvira and Scarface left to forage again, aware that their chicks were hungry. As evening approached and storm clouds were building, we started to worry that they had left the chicks entirely. Finally, they returned and as the rain started to fall, both parents took turns leaning in to feed them. We could hear the happy cries from the chicks as their crops became full. It was 6:00PM. A long day but we couldn’t hide our excitement and it was well worth the wait and effort.
Despite the happy reunion, continued monitoring of the nest was necessary. Both chicks looked healthy the next day, but unfortunately, the older of the two chicks must have fallen ill (likely from being in the previous water-filled nest), and passed away two days later. The younger of the two, however, continues to thrive even today. This is the chick that appeared motionless in the water-logged cavity and whose crop was full of water. She has continued to persevere despite a rough start in the wild, and we have lovingly named her Chica.
While we are sad that we could only save one chick, we are relieved that Chica will be raised in the wild by her parents and give further hope to the recovery of her species in this area. Given the history of the area, where deforestation took place on a large scale in order to make way for cattle farming, it’s no surprise that Scarlet Macaws are having to settle for poor housing options. Few large trees remain in this secondary forest, and the trees that are currently being allowed to grow back up will take years before they are large enough to accommodate a Scarlet Macaw pair and their chicks.
For the time being, we are making every effort to supplement their housing with artificial nests and have had success in varying degrees each season with that program. We hope to improve the design and placement of the boxes each season based on the data we’re gathering on “nest choice” for both captive and wild birds. Hopefully, by the time Chica is grown she will have the option to nest in a variety of reliable cavities, but until then we really just need to keep Scarface and Elvira away from dead palm trees.
*Chica’s original dead palm tree collapsed just a week after MRN staff rescued her.