A Hyacinth Macaw in the Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Psittaciformes
Family: Psittacidae
Subfamily: Psittacinae
Tribe: Arini


Macaws are small to large, often colourful New World parrots. Of the many different Psittacidae (true parrots) genera, six are classified as macaws: Ara, Anodorhynchus, Cyanopsitta, Primolius, Orthopsittaca, and Diopsittaca. Previously, the members of the genus Primolius were placed in Propyrrhura, but the former is correct in accordance with ICZN rules.[1] Macaws are native to Mexico, Central America, South America, and formerly the Caribbean. Most species are associated with forests, especially rainforests, but others prefer woodland or savannah-like habitats.[2]

Large, dark (usually black) beaks, and relatively bare, light coloured, medial (facial patch) areas distinguish macaws. Sometimes the facial patch is smaller in some species, and limited to a yellow patch around the eyes and a second patch near the base of the beak in the members of the genus Anodorhynchus, or Hyacinth Macaw. A macaw's facial feather pattern is as unique as a fingerprint.[3]

Some of the macaw species are known for their impressive size. The largest parrot in length and wingspan is the Hyacinth Macaw. The heaviest macaw is the Buffon's, although the heaviest parrot is the flightless Kakapo. While still relatively large parrots, the macaws of the genera Cyanopsitta, Orthopsittaca and Primolius are significantly smaller than the members of Anodorhynchus and Ara. The smallest member of the family, the Red-shouldered Macaw, is no larger than some parakeets of the genus Aratinga.[2]

Macaws, like other parrots, toucans and woodpeckers, are zygodactyl, having their first and fourth toes pointing backwards.[2]


Species in taxonomic order

There are 18 species of Macaws, including extinct and critically endangered species.[4] In addition, there are several hypothetical extinct species that have been proposed based on very little evidence.[5]

Hypothetical extinct species

Several hypothetical extinct species of macaws have been postulated based on very little evidence, and they may have been subspecies, or familiar parrots that were imported onto an Island and later presumed to have a separate identity.[5]

Extinctions and conservation status

The majority of macaws are now endangered in the wild. Six species are already extinct, and Spix's Macaw is now considered to be extinct in the wild. The Glaucous Macaw is also probably extinct, with only two reliable records of sightings in the 20th century. The greatest problems threatening the macaw population are the rapid rate of deforestation and the illegal trapping for the bird trade.[7]

International trade of all macaw species is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). Some species of macaws for example, the Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) are listed on Appendix I and may not be traded for commercial purposes. Other species for example, the Red-Shouldered Macaw (Diopsittaca nobilis) are listed on Appendix II and may be legally traded commercially provided that certain controls are in place. The controls include a non-detriment finding, establishment of an export quota and issuing of export permits.


A common trend in more recent years is hybridising macaws for the pet trade. Hybrids are typical macaws, with the only difference from true species being their genetics and their colours. Male offspring tend to take on the traits of the mother, and the females take the traits of the father.[citation needed]

Aviculturists have reported an over abundance of female blue and gold macaws in captivity, which differs from the general rule with captive macaws and other parrots, where the males are more abundant.[citation needed] This would explain why the blue and gold is the most commonly hybridised macaw, and why the hybridising trend took hold among macaws. Common macaw hybrids include Harlequins (Ara ararauna x chloroptera) and Catalinas (known as Rainbows in Australia, A. ararauna x macao). In addition, unusual but apparently healthy intergeneric hybrids between the Hyacinth Macaw and several of the larger Ara macaws have occasionally arisen in captivity.[8]

Diet and clay licks

Macaws and Amazon parrots at a clay lick in Tambopata National Reserve, Peru

Macaws eat a variety of foods including fruits, palm fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, flowers, and stems. Wild species may forage widely, over 100 km (62 mi) for some of the larger species such as Ara araurana (blue & yellow macaw) and Ara ambigua (great green macaw), in search of seasonally available foods. Some foods eaten by macaws in the wild contain toxic or caustic substances which they are able to digest. It has been suggested that parrots and macaws in the Amazon basin eat clay from exposed river banks to neutralize these toxins.[9] In the western Amazon hundreds of macaws and other parrots descend to exposed river banks to consume clay on an almost daily basis[10] - except on rainy days.[11]

Donald Brightsmith, the principal investigator of the Tambopata Macaw Project, located at the Tambopata Research Center (TRC) in Peru, has studied the clay eating behavior of parrots at clay licks in Peru. He and fellow investigators found that the soils macaws choose to consume at the clay licks do not have higher levels of cation exchange capacity (ability to adsorb toxins) than that of unused areas of the clay licks[12] and thus the parrots could not be using the clay to neutralize ingested food toxins. Rather, the macaws and other bird and animal species prefer clays with higher levels of sodium.[13] Sodium is a vital element that is scarce in environments >100 kilometers from the ocean.[14] The distribution of claylicks across South America further supports this hypothesis - as the largest and most species rich claylicks are found on the western side of the Amazon basin far from oceanic influences.[15] Salt-enriched (NaCl) oceanic aerosols are the main source of environmental sodium near coasts and this decreases drastically farther inland.[16]

Clay-eating behavior by macaws is not seen outside the western Amazon region even though macaws in these areas consume toxic foods such as the seeds of Hura crepitans, or sandbox tree, which have toxic sap. Species of parrot that consume more seeds, which potentially have more toxins, do not use claylicks more than species that eat a greater proportion of flowers or fruit in their diets.[16]

Studies at TRC have shown a correlation between clay lick use and breeding season.[17] Contents of nestling crop samples show a high percentage of clay fed to them by their parents. Calcium for egg development - another hypothesis - does not appear to be a reason for geophagy during this period as peak usage is after the hatching of eggs.



  1. ^ South American Classification Committee To reassign the genus of three macaws.
  2. ^ a b c Abramson, J., Speer, B. L., & Thomsen, J.B. 1999, "The Large Macaws, Their Care and Breeding", Raintree Publications:CA
  3. ^ "Facial fingerprint:". 
  4. ^ "Zoological Nomenclature Resource: Psittaciformes (Version 9.004)". 2008-07-05. 
  5. ^ a b Fuller, Errol (1987). Extinct Birds. Penguin Books (England). pp. 148–9. ISBN 0670817972. 
  6. ^ Wetmore, A. (1937). "Ancient records of birds from the island of St. Croix with observations on extinct and living of Puerto Rico.". J. Agric. Univ. Puerto Rico 21: 5–16. 
  7. ^ Snyder, N., McGowan, P., Gilardi, J. & Grajal, A. (Eds.) 2000. Parrots. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan 2000–2004, Gland, Switzerland, and Cambridge, UK, IUCN.
  8. ^ Macaws, Hybrid Names, and pages on individual hybrids.
  9. ^ Gilardi, J. D. 1996. Ecology of parrots in the Peruvian Amazon: Habitat use, nutrition, and geophagy. Ph.D. dissertation. University of California at Davis, Davis, California
  10. ^ Munn, C. A. 1994. Macaws: winged rainbows. National Geographic, 185, 118-140.
  11. ^ Brightsmith, D. J. 2004. Effects of weather on parrot geophagy in Tambopata, Peru. Wilson Bulletin, 116, 134-145.
  12. ^ Brightsmith & Muñoz-Najar. 2004. Avian Geophagy and Soil Characteristics in Southeastern Peru. Biotropica 36(4): 534-543.
  13. ^ Powell et al. 2009. Parrots Take it with a Grain of Salt: Available Sodium Content May Drive Collpa (Clay Lick) Selection in Southeastern Peru. Biotropica 41(3):279-282.
  14. ^ On the biogeography of salt limitation
  15. ^ Lee et al. 2010. Claylick distribution in South America - do patterns of where help answer the question why? Ecography 33: 503–513
  16. ^ a b Lee, A.T.K. 2010. Parrot Claylicks: Distribution, Patterns Of Use And Ecological Correlates From A Parrot Assemblage In Southeastern Peru, PhD Dissertation, Manchester Metropolitan University Parrots and claylicks dissertation
  17. ^ Brightsmith, D. J. 2006. The psittacine year: what drives annual cycles in Tambopata's parrots? Proceedings of the Loro Parque International Parrot Symposium, Tenerife, Spain. [1]

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Macaw — Ma*caw , n. [From the native name in the Antilles.] (Zo[ o]l.) Any parrot of the genus {Ara}, {Sittace}, or {Macrocercus}. About eighteen species are known, all of them found in Central and South America. They are large and have a very long tail …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • macaw — (n.) species of large, long tailed birds, 1660s, from Port. macau, from a word in a Brazilian language, perhaps Tupi macavuana, which may be the name of a type of palm tree the fruit of which the birds eat …   Etymology dictionary

  • macaw — ► NOUN ▪ a large long tailed parrot with brightly coloured plumage, native to Central and South America. ORIGIN Portuguese macau …   English terms dictionary

  • macaw — [mə kô′] n. [Port macao, prob. < Brazilian (Tupí) native name] any of a group of large, bright colored, long tailed, harsh voiced parrots (esp. genus Ara) of Central and South America …   English World dictionary

  • macaw — /meuh kaw /, n. any of various large, long tailed parrots, chiefly of the genus Ara, of tropical and subtropical America, noted for their brilliant plumage and harsh voice. [1660 70; < Pg macao, macau < Tupi mak o] * * * Any of about 18 species… …   Universalium

  • macaw — UK [məˈkɔː] / US [məˈkɔ] noun [countable] Word forms macaw : singular macaw plural macaws a South American bird with a long tail and brightly coloured feathers …   English dictionary

  • macaw — tikrosios aros statusas T sritis zoologija | vardynas atitikmenys: lot. Ara angl. macaw vok. Eigentlicher Arara, m rus. ара, m pranc. ara, m ryšiai: platesnis terminas – aros siauresnis terminas – ekvadorinė ara siauresnis terminas – geltonkrūtė… …   Paukščių pavadinimų žodynas

  • macaw — noun Etymology: Portuguese (now obsolete) macao Date: 1625 any of numerous parrots (especially genus Ara) of South and Central America including some of the largest and showiest of parrots …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • macaw — noun /məˈkɔː,məˈkɑː,məˈkɔː/ Any of various parrots of the genera Ara and Anodorhynchus of Central and South America, including the largest parrots and characterized by long sabre shaped tails, curved powerful bills, and usually brilliant plumage …   Wiktionary

  • macaw — ma|caw [məˈko: US ˈko:] n [Date: 1600 1700; : Portuguese; Origin: macau] a large brightly coloured bird like a ↑parrot, with a long tail …   Dictionary of contemporary English

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