Wild Parrots: Our Special Trip to the Tambopata Research Center in Peru

Phoenix Landing was recently welcomed as special guests of Dr. Donald Brightsmith, Director of the Macaw Project at the Tambopata Research Center (TRC) in southeastern Peru.   For 11 years from this remote site, Dr. Brightsmith has been conducting a wide variety of important research and conservation studies regarding wild parrots, and several specifically regarding the largest claylick in the world where parrots spend their early dawn hours eating clay chunks.   The parrots most common in this area include severe, scarlet, blue and gold, and greenwing macaws; white bellied caiques; mealy Amazons; a variety of conures; pionus parrots; and the rare blue headed macaws.  We saw them all and many other species of birds as well, it was a true bird-lovers paradise.

It is darn near impossible to find the words to describe the experience of seeing parrots in the wild — they were beautiful and free and busy of course; but they were also frivolous, and grouchy, and romantic, and ever so social, and loud, loud, loud!  We were privileged to see them interact as parents, mates, adversaries, and friends.  They live robust active lives, full of challenges and fun, and their intelligence radiates.   If you ever thought your captive parrot needed more to do physically, mentally and/or socially, I’m SURE you were right.

To reach the Tambopata Research Center, we traveled east across Peru by plane, and up the Tambopata river in a small boat for a total of 7 hours, deep into the jungle.  In the spirit of true eco-tourism, lunch on the boat was served wrapped in leaves, what fun!

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Richard Weger, DVM

The lodge is nestled into the jungle and built of eco-friendly cane walls, curtained doors and thatched roofs.  Your room faces the open jungle so the bed is covered with mosquito netting.  It is a blend of simple comfort and a true jungle experience.

Being deep in a large national reserve, far removed from populated areas, the forest at TRC is hundreds of years old.  This makes for a huge biodiversity of animal life, and the plant life is equally remarkable.  Here we are standing under a super-sized tree. Don’t forget it can be dark in the jungle, since the trees are fighting for access to the sunlight above.

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Frank Rutowski, DVM; Richard Weger, DVM; Mary Ault;
Karen Regan, DVM; Leslie Mapes; Ann Brooks

It is in large ironwood trees like this that the macaws find cavities for their nests.  These are very precious commodities, and worth fighting for.  Don told us several soap opera type stories about macaw mates, one couple even fought to the death trying to protect their tree cavity.  Upon occasion, a divorce or courting drama will happen as well.  Life is not so simple in the jungle ….

It is summer and the rainy season in the southern hemisphere in January, so the parrots were busy raising their chicks.  Dr. Brightsmith’s researchers were monitoring the nests, tracking the survival rates and growth of the chicks, and studying the behavior of the parents.  We had the pleasure of watching the researchers at work.  Using ropes to climb high up into the tree canopy, they would carefully remove the chicks and lower them in a bucket in order to perform a variety of weight and measurement checks.  Sometimes this involved kindly but firmly asking the permission of the parents, who would anxiously wait nearby for the return of their little ones.

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From 1992-95, researchers at Tambopata had removed some of the chicks from the nests and finished hand-raising them.  Most macaws lay about 3 eggs, but only one chick usually survives through fledging, so this conservation effort was directed towards saving chicks that would have otherwise died.   These chicks are now famously known as the “chicos” and some have maintained a relationship with the Research Center.  This relationship mainly involves stealing food from the breakfast tables when no one is looking, or rummaging through the open lodge rooms for any unprotected snacks such as trail mix or granola bars.  I can attest to that, being pretty sure it was greenwing Ascensio that stole my granola bar and left a large green poop on my blanket!  (I later had the great pleasure of teaching Ascensio to “high four” and turn around.  We’ll save that story and movie for a future blog post).

Ascencio

Ascenio, a greenwing “chico”

We were there at a particularly exciting time.  Tabasco (a scarlet macaw “chico”) and his wild mate were doing a unprecedented job of successfully raising 3 chicks.  Don and his wife Gaby (she is also an important scientist at the Research Center) accompanied us on the walk to their nest one morning.  After the 3 chicks had been successfully removed from the nest for their routine checks, Don and Gaby hovered over them like proud parents.  We hope these three beautiful scarlet babies make it through fledging!

Don and Gabby

Gaby and Don Brightsmith

It is less common to visit Tambopata during the rainy season, but we wanted to see both the chicks and the life on the claylick.   After several failed tries because of the rain, we finally had one morning at the lick, and what a glorious sight it turned out to be.  Hundreds of parrots of all species came that morning.  It started with a pair of blue and gold macaws at the highest point on the highest tree, where they waited for everyone else to arrive just at the very crack of dawn, and while they waited they joyfully teased and frolicked with each other.  Soon after, the mealy Amazons gathered just beyond the lick.  We couldn’t see most of them, but we sure could hear them.   It sounded like a family reunion of the greatest proportions, with everyone talking at once (make that squeals, trills and serenades).   Once parrots started moving to the claylick, the Amazons picked out their prime spot, and they all piled up pushing and shoving to take their turn.   Over the next couple of hours, a wide variety of species, common and rare, took their turns pulling out chunks of clay.   There was so much happening, it was hard to see it all as we quietly peered through our binoculars at the social and eating frenzy.

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Dr. Brightsmith’s research has largely validated that the clay provides a vital source of sodium for the parrots (and many other animals as well).  He is continuing this research effort in other Central and South American countries, and we will all benefit from the results his work.  This is an effort truly worth supporting, and I hope that all parrots lovers will do something to support parrot conservation and research, because if we don’t, who will?  For more information about how you can help, go to http://vtpb-www2.cvm.tamu.edu/brightsmith/.

Don food

Dr. Brightsmith, kindly helping me learn about the foods that parrots eat

When you share your life with a bird, you quickly realize that parrots are not far removed from their wild ancestors and that a bird’s nature is truly unique in all the world.  Unfortunately, many wild caught parrots are also kept in captivity.  Their ability to adapt to our homes has always amazed me since they must go from a life of flight, flock and freedom to a fairly restrictive environment as “pets.”   For these reasons and more, I have always had an abiding desire to learn about parrots in the wild.  I wanted to catch a glimpse of the wild spirit that my macaws Phoenix, Dallas and Fred must carry inside even as they live with me in captivity.  If you love parrots too, I hope you will have the opportunity someday to visit a parrot’s world, so you can fully appreciate them as they were meant to be.

The trip to Tambopata was truly a significant life experience, and we are deeply grateful to Dr. Brightsmith for making it so special.  What a perfect place to usher in 2010!  For those that might be interested, we are planning another trip to Tambopata two years from now.  Maybe you will join us!

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3 thoughts on “Wild Parrots: Our Special Trip to the Tambopata Research Center in Peru

  1. Ann, you did a great job of describing a place and an experience that was indescribable in its beauty and wildness! I would encourage anyone reading this to start saving and experience the jungle of Tambopata.

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  2. Did I tell you ..I left a piece of my heart right ..you know there under the ancient Ironwood tree way over to the side facing the clay lick … {{{sign}}}

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