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Costa Rica's Macaws
by Steve Ginsberg

Publication date: 2000

COSTA RICA -- Monteverde's resplendent quetzal is the avian magnet for ecotourists worldwide, but it is the Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) that is the country's most spectacularly endangered bird.

Despite its reputation as eco-nirvana, Costa Rica's deforestation and poaching for the pet trade have reduced the once abundant Scarlet Macaws to three breeding territories and less than 1,000 birds. Costa Rica's other macaw; the Great Green (Ara ambigua) is even more endangered down to an estimated 30 breeding pairs.

Hope for saving Costa Rica's macaws comes partially from an unlikely source---a retired American couple in their 70s with dwindling finances.

Margot and Richard Frisius came to Costa Rica in 1980 in the first wave of the American pensionado movement. Their plan was to enjoy their eight-acre ranch, the former estate of British botanist Sir Charles Lankester the bromeliad- laden Flor de Mayo. Richard's hobby was collecting macaws and he dreamed of owning each of the world's 16 species. Richard ran Pan Am's maintenance operation in Guyana and came to Costa Rica with just a few birds. His hobby grew into an obsessive mission to give something back to his adopted country.


Today there are over 200 scarlets in their three aviaries and another 30 great greens in another large cage. The Frisius run Central America's most ambitious captive breeding macaw program now a licensed zoological park in Alajuela just outside of San José. Their non-profit program called Amigos de las Aves is trying to achieve the unachievable. Breed scarlet macaws in captivity, reintroduce them into the wild and have those birds successfully breed. It has never been done.

I visited the Frisius in January 2004 and was startled by their sacrifice and unconditional love for these birds that act like red yellow and blue bulls in a china shop. Within seconds of stepping into an aviary filled with 20 young male scarlets, one was chomping at my belt buckle while a second on Richard's shoulder was screeching for attention drowning out Richard's stories. The pair would next fight for Richard's strokes.

The birds require immense psychological and physical nurturing and somehow on a $30,000 annual budget the Frisius have been able to breed the birds successfully. In 1999 they began reintroducing them in the wild and ultimately their conservation legacy hinges on the birds reproducing. Amigos de las Aves could serve as a blueprint for others in
the effort to save macaws throughout the Latin world.

They have successfully been breeding the scarlets in captivity for a decade and after rearing the first clutch by hand,successive clutches have been reared by the birds themselves. The Frisius are helped by Marti Everett a professional zookeeper from London and young, mostly European volunteers. To finance the project some birds have been sold, for $1,000 each, but much of the funding comes from private donations. Government permits are necessary to release and keep the birds but does not support the group financially.

The first scarlets bred in captivity were released in two carefully selected sites, large fincas (farms) in Caru on the Nicoya Peninsula and Tiskita Lodge near the Panamanian border on the Pacific Coast. There are 36 young birds in the wild today gaining jungle-smarts daily. They must figure out quickly how to stay alive in the wild.

"After releasing them they stayed close by because we were still feeding them seeds, but our workers climbed the trees and brought them their natural food. They saw the nuts in the trees and within a month they had transitioned to their natural food,"Richard recounts. "Now they are going 35 kilometers to feed and we got a call from a woman who thanked us. She had not seen scarlets flying above her home since she was a little girl."


Five pairs were observed sitting on nests last year but as yet their companionship has yet to produce young. So far this breeding season the birds are showing interest in nesting at both sites but no prolonged sitting in nests have been observed. Weather patterns have affected many birds nesting and breeding schedules this season so there is still hope among the Amigos that a breakthrough will occur this season.

Should the scarlets successfully breed in the wild, then the great greens will be reintroduced. They have also bred successfully in captivity but at much smaller rates one or two newborns per year. They need much greater privacy and must be screened.

Politics plays a big part in the success of the program as much as avian biology. The Pacheco government in power over a year has been pro-environment and has created a new national park in the north to encourage the protection of the great greens.

"The agricultural minister is for repopulating the country with the birds and we produce weekly reports. They allow us to release the birds and they encourage us to keep going,"said Everett.

For travelers the best places to see wild Scarlets are in the Carara Biological Reserve between Jaco Beach and San José and in the Osa Peninsula. I spent five days in the Osa hiking the trails in Corcovado National Park and on its fringes. Corcovado with its 30 miles of roadless coastline is among the nation's last Edens. Sustainable eco-lodges front the sea and it is a model for sustainable ecotourism development. A 12-foot long boa constrictor was on the grounds of Marenco Lodge where I stayed and poison dart frogs were common on the hiking trails.

Although there are several 100 scarlets in the park despite their spectacular size and colors they are not that easy to see. Unlike the raucous flights in the Amigos' cages, in the jungle pairs sit quietly just under the canopy feeding quietly on beach almonds. I needed a guide with sharp eyes and keen ears to point them out. Boa constrictors will hunt Scarlets so they learn how to remain inconspicuous.

Hopefully their young cousins in Caru and Tiskita will learn camouflage and the other rites of passage that they will imbue someday soon to their offspring. To visit or make donations to Amigos de las Aves visit their website


Steve Ginsberg (email) is a New Mexico-based writer whose novel 'The Gringo Always Pays' will be published in 2008 by Infinity Publishing. His previous features include Eco Travels in Oaxaca and Report from Uxpanapa.

UPDATE: Since this article was written, there has been successful reproduction in the wild by the released macaws at Kuru, as well as a fully functional flock at Tiskita, which has successfully adapted to a remote area of untouched rainforest.



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