Costa Rica is a global biodiversity hotspot.
If you have been following my previous article posts, you will already know that up to 5% of all species on Earth can be found in Costa Rica – from the multitude of snakes of Costa Rica, to the rare and elusive apex, mammalian predators.
But, Costa Rica also happens to be home to some of the most stunning bird species, the macaws which belong to the parrot family, Psittacidae, and are among the largest, and most brightly colored, members.
So, what type of Macaws live in Costa Rica?
Of the 17 macaw species that can be found in Central and South America, just 2 species can be found in Costa Rica: the scarlet macaw and the great green macaw. A dazzling display of vibrant red, green, blue, and yellow plumage makes the macaws a must-see on any trip to Costa Rica.
Unfortunately, beauty comes at a price. Poaching of macaws for the global exotic pet trade, as well as continued habitat loss, is having disastrous effects on populations of macaws.
But, we’ll save the doom and gloom for later. First, let’s explore a little bit about the two macaw species of Costa Rica.
What (Exactly) Are Macaws?
We’ve established that macaws belong to the parrot family. All macaws are parrots, but not all parrots are macaws.
So, what’s the difference between these two groups of birds that are in the same family? Well, there are three main (there are more, but these, at least to me, are the most defining) differences: size, facial features, and location.
Costa Rican macaws are big. Really big.
To understand their size, let’s compare them with one of Costa Rica’s most commonly sighted parrot species: the red-lored Amazon (see video above). These guys are about 12 inches from the top of their head to the base of their tail – the size of an average 30 cm ruler.
Macaws, on the other hand, can reach lengths of 40 inches – over three times the lengths of the average parrot. Although the great green macaw is slightly larger than the scarlet macaw, both species commonly reach lengths in excess of 30 inches.
The tail feathers of a macaw alone can reach up to 20 inches. These long tails help them balance whilst climbing – another difference between the two parrot groups.
Many species of parrots have small feathers across their whole face.
The macaws, however, do not.
All 17 species of macaws can be distinguished from other parrot relatives by the region of bare skin that covers their “cheeks” – the area extends around the eyes to the base of the beak. Some species have small tufts of lined feathers in this region, creating interesting patterning.
New research is shedding light on how macaws use this bald patch to communicate with one another. Like humans, macaws have been observed blushing their cheeks by increasing the flow of blood in the capillaries close to the surface of their skin.
Besides the facial baldness, macaws also have another distinguishable characteristic on their face: the beaks.
The beak of a macaw is large and curved – the perfect adaptation to crushing fruits and nuts, such as coconuts and Brazil nuts. In Costa Rica, macaws have been observed breaking open coconuts and drinking the nutrient-rich water inside.
Parrots can be found across the globe. They reside on tropical and subtropical continents, including Africa, Oceania, Asia, and Central and South America
Macaws, on the other hand, are only found in Central and South America.
2 Types Of Macaws In Costa Rica
So, let’s take a closer look at the two types of Macaws that can be found in Costa Rica!
With a population estimated to be around 1,400 mature individuals, scarlet macaws are the most commonly observed macaw species in Costa Rica.
Scarlet macaws are commonly sighted in lowland humid, deciduous, and tropical evergreen forests throughout the Pacific coastline. Oftentimes, it is common to see a pair of macaws flying. However, flocks of up to 30 scarlet macaws have been recorded.
Typically, you’ll be able to hear these macaws before seeing them. When flying, or indeed while perching in trees, scarlet macaws emit a series of harsh, guttural squarks. As alarming as these sounds can be to us humans, they are a means of intraspecific communication.
There are two distinct, genetically separated, populations of macaw in Costa Rica.
One population can be found in the Central Pacific Conservation Area, in places such as Manuel Antonio, Jaco, and Carara. The other population, which is significantly larger, can be found to the South, around the Osa Peninsula.
Scarlet macaws have a varied diet and can consume a wide range of fruits, nuts, seeds, invertebrates, and flowers.
Interestingly, scarlet macaws commonly consume fruits that are otherwise toxic to other species, including humans. Fruits from the sandbox tree, copperwood tree and cashew tree were observed in the scarlet macaw diet.
To overcome the toxic traits of these fruits, scarlet macaws seek out mineral licks and clay deposits to supplement their diet and neutralize potentially dangerous toxins.
Great Green Macaw
For this macaw species, you’ll have to travel to the Caribbean coastline to get a chance of spotting them in the wild.
Critically endangered, it is estimated that fewer than 1,000 mature great green macaws are left in the wild. In Costa Rica, the situation is grim, with approximately 200 individuals remaining.
In my latest visit to Costa Rica, I was lucky enough to spot a small group of great green macaws foraging in some beach almond trees in Tortuguero National Park. Great green macaws can only be found on the Caribbean slopes of Costa Rica, in lowland humid and deciduous forests.
And honestly, they really were great. At around 35 inches from head to tail, adorned in vibrant green, blue, and red plumage, they were an impressive sight. As with the scarlet macaw, the head of the great green macaw lacks feathers on the cheek area. Instead, a pinkish patch of skin can be seen.
Unlike the scarlet macaws, the great green macaws will feel almost exclusively on almonds. Their large beak makes for easy work at nut crushing. However, if food is scarce, they will forage for other hard-shelled nuts and fruits.
What About The Blue And Yellow Macaw?
If you have visited Costa Rica before, or you’ve simply read up on the natural history of the country, you may have seen the blue and yellow macaw.
“Duh, you said there were only two species of macaws in Costa Rica” I hear you mutter.
Well, this is somewhat true.
It’s true, the blue and yellow macaw can be found in Costa Rica. However, this species of macaw is not native to Costa Rica.
The most likely explanation is that individuals in the exotic pet trade escaped from captivity, or were intentionally released.
While they are not native to Costa Rica, the blue and yellow macaw is still a beautiful bird to behold. A bright yellow breast with blue wings and back make for a striking appearance.
Threats To Macaws
I have had the privilege of working with scarlet macaws.
Unfortunately, most of the individuals I had worked with had spent the majority of their adult lives, which in some cases exceeded 50 years, in small cages.
Historically, scarlet macaws could be found in upwards of 85% of Costa Rica, on both the Pacific and Caribbean slopes.
However, the threat of habitat destruction and the capture for the exotic pet trade has caused populations to plummet.
The outlandish beauty of the scarlet macaws has put a target on their head. Not just for the individual, but for the species as a whole. Their vibrant plumage and ability to mimic human calls have made them highly sought after in the exotic pet trade.
The exotic pet trade isn’t just restricted nationally. Oh no, the scope is much bigger. The European Union and the United States of America and the two biggest importers of exotic birds.
Great green macaws face a suite of similar threats.
Once a common sight throughout much of the Caribbean coastline, from Tortuguero in the North to Puerto Viejo in the South, populations of great green macaws are now almost impossible to see in the wild.
Deforestation, especially of the almond trees they so heavily rely on, is a driving factor of the alarming declines. However, poaching for food, feathers and the pet trade are also prevalent threats. As such, global populations have halved in the last 50 years.
Transporting macaws across the globe increases the risk of stress-related illnesses. As such,
However, since 2012, the Costa Rican government has made it illegal to keep any wild animal as a pet. But despite this positive change, many Costa Ricans, especially those of the older generation, grew up with birds in cages as a relatively normal experience. As such, it is proving difficult to change people’s perspectives.
At the rescue center I worked at (Rescue Center Costa Rica), we worked closely with the Costa Rican Wildlife Authorities (MINAE). Every month, we would receive a plethora of parrots, including macaws, and other birds that had been confiscated from private residencies.
Macaws are among some of the biggest, and most colorful, bird species to be found in Costa Rica.
However, both species of macaw are threatened with extinction.
Once common throughout all of Costa Rica, scarlet macaws can now be found in pockets of land in the North and South of Pacific Costa Rica.
The great green macaw population has dramatically decreased by 99%. Today, fewer than 200 individuals remain – most of which can be found in Tortuguero National Park.
However, hope is not lost. Capture for the exotic pet trade has now been outlawed, and dedicated conservation charities strive to increase wild populations of both the great green and scarlet macaws.