Military macaw, © Maria Elena Sanchez

Guarding the Military Macaw

The military macaw (Ara militaris) is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN and has been endangered in Mexico since 1991. It was once widespread throughout Mexico from the states of Sonora (neighboring Arizona) south to Guerrero on the Pacific side, and from Tamaulipas and Nuevo León (neighboring Texas) south to Queretaro and Oaxaca on the eastern side. Today, this bird only exists in very small, fragmented areas isolated from one another because habitat destruction and capture for the pet trade have eliminated the populations from wide areas of several Mexican states.

Military macaw, © Maria Elena Sanchez

Military macaws are large birds, reaching up to 30 inches from beak to the tip of their tail feathers.

The most recent field survey of the military macaw in Mexico estimated a population as low as 3,072 individuals in seven aggregated populations. The second largest of these populations occurs in the states of Nayarit and Jalisco in the Pacific, which also harbors the largest nesting population. The military macaw nests high up in large trees in rain and temperate forests, but hunting and trapping have decimated many nesting populations, and cornered them into nesting in inaccessible cavities in canyon walls in some parts of Mexico.

Capture of this species is illegal – in fact, no capture has been allowed for the past 35 years. Nevertheless, the military macaw is still one of the most sought after parrot species in Mexico for the illegal pet trade. It is the fourth most seized species by the Environmental Enforcement Agency (similar to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and it is the most seized of the endangered parrot species in Mexico. Although a total trade ban was decreed for all 22 Mexican parrots in 2008, the situation has not changed for the military macaw; in fact for many years the annual seizure trend has been climbing, proving that illegal trade in this species has not been abated.

The military macaw is sought after because of its large size and colorful plumage. It is the cheapest of all macaws native and foreign, legal or illegal, being offered for sale in Mexico, with prices ranging from as low as $100 US dollars up to $500 dollars. In some cases, the price of a military macaw is even lower than the price for an Amazona species of half its size, like the endangered yellow-headed or yellow-naped parrots.

Nesting tree, © Carlos Bonilla

A nesting tree, chopped down to give poachers easy access to nestlings.

Poachers illegally capture these birds as nestlings, juveniles and adults, but one of the biggest problems this species faces is loss of nesting trees when poachers cut them down to reach the nestlings more easily. Adequate nests for this large species are in very short supply in rain or temperate forests, which means the majority of breeding pairs do not nest during the breeding season. Adult breeding pairs of military macaws must wait many years before a nest becomes available for them. The destruction of a nesting tree affects the whole population, reducing the number of breeding pairs nesting in a given year and the number of new young macaws being hatched.

Defenders of Wildlife partnered with a team of scientists working in the Bahia de Banderas region in the state of Jalisco on the Pacific coast in a program to monitor nests of the military macaw. Our purpose was to study their breeding, but most importantly to dissuade poaching. The presence of our investigators around the nesting tree area, taking notes of the coming and going of the macaw parents, was enough to convince would-be poachers to stay away. The nest monitoring program for the 2013-2014 season was successful and no monitored nest was poached. The project monitored a total of 14 nests, from which 15 macaw chicks survived the nesting season. One of the successful nests had been poached constantly for the last ten years, and this is the first time it has produced chicks that left the nest on their own!

Of other nesting sites that have been studied in Western Mexico, this one is now the most productive of them all, making it the most important nesting site for the military macaw. And all because of the protection we were able to provide for the nests.

Military macaw poster, © Defenders of WildlifeWe are accompanying this project with a very extensive on-the-ground environmental and information campaign by distributing posters, comic and coloring books for children, which convey information on the species, its plight and the many ways communities can benefit economically by helping to keep them safe. Municipal authorities have joined the program, and are distributing posters while local NGOs are providing lectures in schools for children using our comic and coloring books.

We are also providing the area with its own quick bird ID guide to promote birdwatching projects that in turn provide income to the local landowners where the nests are. We are hoping to fund this program for several years until the local communities fully understand and accept the importance of helping this species survive and thrive amongst them, so that they can all benefit from this beautiful and magnificent macaw flying free in the sky.

If you visit Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco to enjoy its beaches, do hire a bird watching tour to see the military macaws. Your money will help fund conservation programs in the area.


Juan Carlos Cantu is the Manager of Mexico Programs for Defenders of Wildlife


10 Responses to “Guarding the Military Macaw”

  1. Alexander Yeung

    These amazing birds habits and it ecosystem need to be protected from poacher and greedy people. Let save the military macaw from extinct.

  2. Lynn Porter

    I am owned by two parrots. Make no mistale. they love me, but when I break a birdie rule, I pay for it. I have seen the heinous manner in which the parrots of Mexico are imported-Stuffed into tires that are on a running car-feathers torn, beaks broken. We have breeders in the United States who are allowed to sell these magnificent birds. The worst part is the destruction of nesting sites in Mexico. Wild-caught macaws never forget nor forgive those who trapped them and smuggled them into the US. They CAN”T become pets: They are wild and will always be so. Stop this!!!!!!!

  3. Paulette Kaplan

    It is overwhelming sad to see poaching is still occurring,especially when I see so many cast aside macaws in sanctuaries. I imagine 99% of poached macaws are neglected for their whole lives or surrendered to sanctuaries if you can find one that is still able to accommodate any more. I wonder if photos of these birds with their feather plucked bodies could be publicly displayed. This may help to portray the ultimate outcome of these beautiful creatures?

  4. Bruce Griffith

    The crux of all evil , is of course Money ‘ untill all nations can rid their criminal elements and protect their people and give every one not just jobs but employment that allows the parent’s to keep a roof over their heads so that the children also can go to school and get the education every child should be given , so that they don’t have to work in fields along side the parents just so they can feed the family will the illegal trafficing of the beautiful birds that deserve to live in their lives in the wild in their natural habitats’ and through the efforts of people and orginazations like yours that are fighting to provide these exotic birds a safe habitat and educating the people of the need of all wild life to live and thrive verses hunting them in to extinction, So they will always be here for every one to learn about and enjoy visiting them in their own enviroment or in controlled safe protected and humane zoo’s for people around the world to enjoy for ever. Yet first and foremost the work has to continue to help these beautiful exotic birds from being poached into extinction and through the good you do in the educating and protection efforts they have a good chance in turning this problem around and saving these birds for every one to learn about and enjoy for many life times to come.

  5. John Sully

    I agree with the comments of Lynn Porter and Alexander Yeung. The destruction of the parrots’ habitat and capture of these wild birds is selfish, thoughtless, and immoral. Mexican and U.S. authorities must work harder to stop the trade of these parrots!!!1

  6. Janet

    My next door neighbor has a military macaw in a cage on his deck. Is there anything I can do to help rescue the bird. And no, reasoning won’t help here. A good friend has a bird sanctuary here in Mexico and she has rehabilitated 9 macaws. One of them a female stayed at her ranch for three years, eating carrots from our pockets. She just flew off, to join up with a flock of macaws that were passing through. At least that is what we hope.
    Can I legally get my neighbor’s macaw out of the cage and into the sancturay.

  7. Kelly

    I hope those who own parrots and other wild animals are the main cause of these animals’ suffering and destruction. The greedy animal dealers make no money once their is no demand. I hope parrot owners who read this will make efforts to stop this cruel trade. Whether your bird is captive-bred or not, owning these animals and showing them off promotes the trade and capture of these animals and their suffering. It’s disgusting to think of the parrots living in misery because of people who want them, but will discard them after a few years by the MILLIONS in the U.S. alone.

You May also be interested in