Perhaps among the most iconic birds in the world, the scarlet macaw is a parrot like no other. Hailing from the Neotropical realm of the Americas, there’s no other bird quite like them. Read on to learn more about these colorful and intelligent birds!
They Live in Central and South America
The scarlet macaw lives in tropical lowland rainforests throughout Central and South America; in fact, it has the largest range out of all the macaw species. In Central America, it ranges from Mexico to Panama (along with the Pacific Island of Coiba). In South America, scarlet macaws can range from Ecuador and Colombia to Brazil and Peru. This species can even be found on the island of Trinidad. They are most commonly found in the Amazon Basin.
An introduced population exists in Puerto Rico, where it has been established. These birds may have descended from escaped pets or deliberate releases. In Florida, escaped scarlet macaws have also been established, but aren’t currently breeding in the Sunshine State.
The scarlet macaw was once found in El Salvador, but it is believed to have been extirpated due to a combination of habitat destruction and poaching for the live bird trade. It is also extinct in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas for similar reasons. Besides tropical rainforests, macaws can also be found in wooded savannas and mangrove swamps, but they permanently reside in tropical rainforests.
There Are Possibly Two Subspecies
Two subspecies of scarlet macaws are sometimes recognized: the South American scarlet macaw (Ara macao macao) and the Central American scarlet macaw (Ara macao cyanopterus). The two subspecies of scarlet macaws look almost virtually identical to one another, but both kinds share two notable physical differences.
The first supposed difference is their wing coloration. For the South American scarlet macaw, the coverts of their wings are said to sport significant amounts of green coloration on their feathers; meanwhile, the Central American scarlet macaw has almost no green coloration. The other proposed difference is their size: the Central American subspecies is slightly larger than its South American cousins.
However, not everyone agrees with this, as some experts argue that individuals can be rather variable in both wing coloration and size. For instance, some Central American macaws have been recorded as having green coloration on their wings. However, a recent study has shown that two genetically distinct groups of macaws are isolated by a mountain range in Costa Rica, and so the debate continues.
Scarlet Macaws Mate for Life
The scarlet macaw is known to be faithful, forming monogamous pairs that can last for their entire lives. To strengthen their bonds, they groom one another and will even share food. As soon as macaws pair up, they’re rarely seen by themselves unless one of them is incubating the eggs.
Scarlet macaws breed every one or two years. The female will typically lay around 2 to 4 eggs in a clutch, nesting in a hollow tree cavity. She will also do most of the incubating, which takes around a month before the chicks hatch from their eggs. Macaw chicks are born blind, naked, and helpless, and will stay in the safety of the nests until fledgling out around 90 days later.
As the babies grow, the parents will teach them a variety of important skills that they’ll need to survive out in the wild. After about a year or so, the now independent offspring will fly off to form pairs of their own.
They Can Live a Very Long Time
Like many other parrot species, the scarlet macaw is a very long-lived bird. In the wild, a macaw can live on average for around 40 to 50 years. Meanwhile, macaws in captivity can live for around 75 to 80 years of age! This is because, unlike in the wild, scarlet macaws do not have to worry about natural disasters or predators as much as their wild cousins. Allegedly, a few birds have been reported to reach even longer lifespans, though this may either be a mistake or an exaggeration.
Parrots, such as the scarlet macaw, are among the longest-lived birds in the world. Only cockatoos are recorded to reach even higher lifespans (it is believed that the oldest one ever reached around 120 years of age!). But what’s the secret behind living a long life?
Long-lived bird species tend to have lower oxidation rates within their bodies, which allows them to experience aging at a much slower rate.
They Have a Powerful Bite
Like many other parrots, scarlet macaws sport a very powerful bite. Their bite force can typically range from 500 to 2,000 PSI (pressure per square inch). Though varied, these numbers are very high: in fact, macaws have the strongest bite forces out of all the parrots. The reason why their beaks are strong is due to their diet. Wild scarlet macaws feast mostly on plant matter such as seeds, fruits, and nuts. Often, these foods (mostly nuts) have a very hard shell that is almost impenetrable for other animals to bite into.
In particular, the Brazil nut’s outer shell is so tough that parrots and agoutis (ground-dwelling rodents found in their range) are among the only animals that can successfully crack and eat them. After opening the nuts, the parrots will finesse the inner contents with their highly mobile, finger-like tongues.
This strong bite also means that you should be very careful around macaws. If provoked, these birds can inflict nasty wounds. Sometimes, their bites can even require stitches as their beaks are not only strong but sharp!
They Are Highly Intelligent
Scarlet macaws, like many other parrots, are highly intelligent animals. Their intelligence is compared to that of a human toddler. Along with corvids (crows, jays, etc.), parrots such as macaws are among the smartest birds living today. Most notably, parrots such as the scarlet macaw are famous for their ability to imitate human speech. This is especially impressive since these birds likely do not understand what they are saying.
Macaws, such as this species, can also be taught to differentiate colors and shapes. They can even solve puzzles and can perform complicated tasks. Scarlet macaws in captivity can also be taught a variety of tricks, such as picking locks to escape from their enclosures.
This intelligence is due to the highly concentrated neurons within their brains. Research studies have shown that neurons are much denser in parrots than in many primate species! The intelligence of the scarlet macaw is to be taken note of for individuals or facilities (such as zoos) as they need constant mental enrichment to prevent boredom.
They Are Symbolic
The scarlet macaw is among the most iconic birds in the world, thanks to its stunning plumage. Both the Aztecs and the Mayans saw these birds as symbols of the sun gods, even adorning ceremonial headdresses and other ornaments with their feathers.
The Pueblo people of the Southwest United States (who imported these birds) saw them not only as representing the sun, but also as symbols for the summer, the south (as they, after all, are found way down south of Pueblo settlements), and even fertility. The scarlet macaw is also the national bird of Honduras, symbolizing freedom, unity, and natural beauty as it plays important roles in Honduran Indigenous mythology.
In Costa Rica, there is a bill currently being implemented that would help promote the scarlet macaw as a national symbol, as it symbolizes both wildlife conservation and ecotourism as a whole (which is an economically important industry in Costa Rica).
Early Americans Bred Scarlet Macaws
Archaeological evidence has shown that thousands of years ago, ancient peoples bred the scarlet macaw for its beautiful feathers. In some dig sites, bones and eggshell fragments of scarlet macaws have been found in various other areas way out of their geographical range, concentrating in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. Meanwhile, prepared mummies of scarlet macaws and other parrots have been found in the higher altitudes of the Atacama Desert. Why they were mummified is not known.
The feathers of the scarlet macaw were highly prized, as they were utilized for rituals and other ceremonial purposes. Scarlet macaws were also possibly used as a status symbol, as wealthier individuals could afford to keep these beautiful birds.
Unfortunately, the birds themselves weren’t well-treated as the discovered remains displayed a plethora of ailments ranging from injuries to overgrown beaks and nails. The macaws were also plucked, which was painful. Some archaeologists believe that their wings were purposely broken to keep them from flying away, though this is only pure speculation.
Macaws Eat Clay
You heard that right: scarlet macaws, like many other parrots, will snack on clay! In various parts of South America, flocks of parrots will congregate around clay licks to gather clay to consume. For a while, it was a mystery as to why these birds would eat clay. A popular theory exists that the macaws are eating clay to cleanse themselves from toxins in their diet. After all, some other animals will self-medicate by eating clay, charcoal, and other minerals.
However, a recent research study has proposed that macaws may be snacking on clay to supplement mineral deficiencies, such as sodium. The areas where parrots are found at clay licks are often far away from oceans; therefore, rainfall contains less salt. This sodium shortage causes birds to travel to these clay licks to supplement minerals that are otherwise missing in their diet.
The Chuncho Macaw Clay Lick is the largest in the world, and hundreds of birds flock over to feast on clay. It is also a popular bird-watching destination due to the high abundance of macaws and other birds.
They Are Loud!
Scarlet macaws, like many other parrots, are very vocal animals. They’re also among the loudest birds on the planet; it is said that the scream of a macaw can reach around 100-105 decibels. That’s as loud as a typical sporting event, and is at high enough levels where it can cause hearing damage! Macaws such as this species are believed to be the second loudest parrots in the world; only cockatoos reach higher volumes.
The raucous calls of the scarlet macaw reverberate through the tree canopy to help keep their flocks in contact with one another. This can especially come in handy when you’re lost in dense vegetation up in the treetops! Macaws will also vocalize at each other loudly for other reasons. A pair or flock may establish territories. Sometimes, they’ll scream while playing. All in all, scarlet macaws are very, very noisy birds.
They Require Lots of Specialized Care and Attention
Scarlet macaws are sometimes kept as companions; however, they do not make good pets for most people. Macaws can be very moody at times (inflicting nasty bites with their beaks), and their high intelligence and sociality both require lots of attention.
Lots of enrichment and special diets are required to keep these birds happy and healthy; if not taken care of properly, macaws will proceed to display self-destructive behaviors (most notably, feather-plucking). Macaws are also very noisy animals as mentioned previously, sometimes screaming just for attention. They can also be very destructive, as they love to chew on anything they can get their beaks on. As they're as intelligent as a child, they also have the emotional abilities of one: they WILL throw temper tantrums if aggravated.
As mentioned earlier, they also live a very long time; some owners have their pet macaws as an inheritance to others after they pass. It is therefore highly recommended that only experienced owners should keep scarlet macaws. Though chicks can be obtained from a reputable breeder, there are also bird rescues that take in and rehome unwanted or abandoned birds.
Scarlet Macaws Need Our Help
As of 2022, the scarlet macaw is currently listed as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List; unfortunately, however, this parrot is highly endangered in various parts of its fragmented range. In some areas, they’ve become mostly or even fully extirpated. Habitat destruction is a major threat to this species. Macaws are also highly sought after for the illegal pet trade as live birds are captured from the wild. Poachers usually snatch chicks from their nests, and many perish or suffer from mistreatment during their lives in captivity.
Fortunately, conservation efforts are working to save these beautiful birds. For instance, there are zoos and other facilities in their range that are working to restore populations by breeding and rehabilitating macaws for eventual release in the wild. There is also work dedicated to conserving and protecting the scarlet macaw’s natural habitat.
You can help scarlet macaws by sharing their plight with your friends and family. You can also support conservation organizations, such as the Macaw Recovery Network and the World Parrot Trust, that are working hard to save these magnificent birds from extinction.