The Scarlet Macaw, Belize’s Most Beautiful Bird

What is a Scarlet Macaw?

The scarlet macaw (Ara macao) is one of the largest and most recognizable parrot species in the world. Ranging in the wild from southern Mexico to northern Bolivia, these vibrantly colored birds are icons of the tropics, found from rainforests to subtropical lowlands and savannas. 

Scarlet macaws are easily identified by their bright red coloration, with vivid yellow and blue wing feathers, a white face, and a strong, curved beak. These birds can reach 14 inches (35.5 cm) in length, with long tail feathers ranging from third to a half the length of the body, males and females having the same size and coloration. They are zygodactyl, meaning that their feet have two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backward, helping them to grip and climb. (Zygodactyl feet are also seen in birds such as woodpeckers and owls; interestingly, the structure likely evolved separately multiple times, an example of convergent evolution.)

A scarlet macaw at the Belize Zoo.
A scarlet macaw at the Belize Zoo. Photo by Inspire EdVentures.

A scarlet macaw’s diet consists mostly of fruits and seeds, the latter of which they crack open easily with their large beaks; their diet makes them important seed spreaders in the rainforest ecosystem. They are also known to eat flowers, insects, and even clay. Scarlet macaws are diurnal (active in the daytime), and are found most often in the forest canopy or nesting in the hollows of trees. Though it may seem as though their vibrant colors would make them easy to spot, scarlet macaws are actually well-camouflaged among the rainforest’s thick vegetation; often, these birds are only seen by humans when flying above the canopy or across open spaces. 

Like most other parrots, scarlet macaws are social birds, living in flocks and communicating to one another with various calls and vocalizations. In captivity, scarlet macaws can even learn to mimic human speech. Predators of the scarlet macaw include snakes, large birds such as hawks and eagles, and even monkeys. Animals too small to eat an adult macaw may target the birds’ eggs or young instead. 

Scarlet macaws are monogamous, meaning that they remain with the same mate for life. Clutches number between one and four eggs, though more commonly one or two. After hatching, young macaws remain with their parents for up to two years, during which time the parents will not lay another clutch. Scarlet macaws live for up to 50 years in the wild, or over 70 years in captivity. 

Scarlet Macaws in Belize

The story of the scarlet macaw in Belize is a complicated one. Though scarlet macaws are listed as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List, this is in large part due to the extent of their range; scarlet macaw populations are decreasing worldwide, and those in Mexico and Central America are notably more vulnerable than those in South America.

A map of the scarlet macaw’s range, shown in red. Credit: VC-S, Wikimedia Commons.

Scarlet macaws in Mexico, Central America, and South America all face similar problems: poaching and habitat destruction. The word “poaching” may bring to mind hunting animals for fur, trophies, or meat; however, scarlet macaws are instead poached for sale in the pet trade. Macaw eggs or young hatchlings are even taken from nests and transported out of the country, including to the United States. For scarlet macaw populations as small and threatened as those in Belize and other Central American countries, even small-scale poaching poses an acute danger to the species’s survival in the wild. 

Additionally, like many other rainforest residents, scarlet macaws are threatened by habitat loss as the size of Central American and South American rainforests decrease. The IUCN Red List estimates that up to 35% of the scarlet macaw’s current habitat may disappear in the next 38 years, or three generations. Future population decline across the entirety of its range is estimated between over 10% to as much as 25% over the next three generations, largely attributed to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. 

So why are scarlet macaw populations in South America classified as Least Concern, while those in Central America and southern Mexico are driven towards extinction? One reason is a phenomenon known as population fragmentation. Fragmentation occurs when populations- groups of animals in the same species- become separated by large distances, often due to interruptions in their natural environments. For some species, population fragmentation can result from interruptions as small as a single road or river dividing a field in two; for others, fragmentation is the result of natural barriers or large-scale environmental destruction. 

Small, isolated populations often experience less genetic diversity and greater vulnerability to extinction than large, more interconnected populations. In the case of the scarlet macaw, fragmentation has led to isolated populations in Central America and southern Mexico, and these populations are rapidly declining. In fact, according to the IUCN Red List, scarlet macaws may now be extinct across much of their former Mexican and Central American range. 

A pair of scarlet macaws in Peru. Credit: Murray Foubister

Despite these mounting threats, the fight to save the scarlet macaw is alive and well in Belize. In 1989, less than 30 individual scarlet macaws were believed to exist in the entire country. Because the species as a whole was listed as Least Concern, Belize’s scarlet macaws were unprotected by environmental conservation laws. However, in 1994, the Central American scarlet macaw was recognized as a distinct subspecies, Ara macao cyanoptera. (The South American subspecies is now known as Ara macao macao.) 

Ara macao cyanoptera is identified by color variation- it is missing the green “stripe” separating yellow and blue wing feathers seen on Ara macao macao– as well as being slightly larger than the South American birds. In his paper identifying the subspecies, Dr. David Weidenfeld of the American Bird Conservancy noted that the Central American scarlet macaw was already extinct in El Salvador, with only small populations found in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Ara macao cyanoptera was, and continues to be, classified as an endangered subspecies. 

Today, due to years of conservation, as many as 250 scarlet macaws can be found in Belize, with multiple organizations dedicated to their protection. One example is the Belize Bird Conservancy operates the Scarlet Macaw Project, which includes efforts to monitor wild scarlet macaw nests to prevent poaching. Inspire EdVentures partners at the Belize Zoo rescue and care for injured or poached scarlet macaws, with those unable to return to the wild becoming ambassador birds teaching the public about their amazing species. To learn more about scarlet macaws and support conservation of Belize’s wildlife, visit the Belize Zoo with us at Belize Zoo Live!

Article by Kayla Windelspecht.

References and Further Reading

Scarlet Macaws at the Belize Zoo

Scarlet Macaws at Animalia

Scarlet Macaws at the Rainforest Alliance

Scarlet Macaws at BirdLife International

Scarlet Macaws at the IUCN Red List

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw by Bruce Barcott, a novel detailing Belize Zoo founder Sharon Matola’s efforts in protecting Belize’s scarlet macaws

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