Wow what a whirlwind the last six months has been!
I’m about to take time off to go and see some friends getting married back home so this seems the perfect moment to reflect on everything we have achieved at The Ara Project in the last few months. I can certainly say there’s a lot more involved in taking care of some parrots than I might have previously thought!
To start with, when I say a ‘few’ parrots what I mean is just over a hundred captive birds as well as our flock of released Scarlets, 15-20 of which visit us most days. The released birds mainly look after themselves of course, although there is some monitoring involved with them, but the bulk of our work is the care of our captive birds kept for breeding. Most of these captive birds have been with The Ara Project a long time and came to us when we were more of a refuge. They are special needs birds and, due to their various disabilities or dependency on humans, are not suitable for release. They are, however, perfectly capable of breeding! Part of our work then, is to make sure we’re doing our best to keep them happy and healthy as well as providing conditions that encourage them to breed.
Although The Ara Project, in one shape or another, has been around for over 30 years and has been successfully releasing Scarlet and Great Green macaws for many of those, we have spent the past six months reviewing ourselves as an organisation and looking at how we can improve. Across the breadth of our work we have been setting goals, planning, building, changing and improving things. We have all worked incredibly hard, staff and volunteers alike, to bring about what we felt were important changes.
So here’s a look at some of the major projects that have kept us busy over the last 6 months…
First and foremost, comes the health of our birds – we’ve reviewed our birds’ diet in order to ascertain that we’re feeding them correctly. This involved research by our biologist and vet into what macaws need in their diet – how much protein, fat, carbohydrates and other nutrients, and then comparing that with the nutritional make-up of foods available to us in Costa Rica. We also designed diets for breeding birds and sick birds and a different regimen for each species too – both eat foods quite high in fat and protein in the wild but the Great Green in particular needs lots of seeds and nuts.
In the wild, macaws live naturally with some parasites in and on them; however, in captivity their habits and diets are different which means they don’t always have access to natural preventatives and cures. Parasites and bacteria are probably the greatest health risks for our captive birds. So what do we do to help keep them healthy? Well, first of all we check that all our birds are parasite free by examining their faeces (woohoo!), weighing them and checking their feathers. We treat any birds that need it and then we look at whether our hygiene practices are sufficient to prevent infection. Anyone entering an enclosure disinfects their hands and their shoes (yep, foot dips at the door of every aviary!) and each aviary is cleaned weekly. Next week we’re going to have some fun using a blowtorch on the bare earth in the aviaries to kill any parasite eggs, as they can stay alive up to 9 months in the ground! (Don’t worry, we’ll be removing macaws from harm’s way first!)
Of course we want our macaws to be mentally healthy too! Environmental improvements include planting trees, vines and ground cover in all our enclosures (this helps reduce temperatures as well as providing a more natural and stimulating home), providing more shade on the roofs of aviaries and all birds are getting sprinklers so they can take a shower in the hot, dry season, afternoons. We provide enrichment in the form of different branches and perches so they can climb and chew to their heart’s content and soon we will be looking into how we can cheaply and sustainably provide them with toys or other kinds of mental stimulation. And if you read my last blog, you’ll know that we’re making sure everyone’s in the right company too.
Finally, we want to encourage our birds to breed! After all, that’s the whole point of what we do! In order to help these species recover in the wild, we need to produce as many healthy babies as we can. These young birds will then be released in small groups once they’re a year or two old. So as well as making sure our birds are fit, healthy and win the company of someone they want to have babies with, we’ve been busy providing them with homes that they feel comfortable to raise babies in. That means we’ve built new aviaries, changed aviaries, put up screens (breeding birds like their privacy) and built nest boxes.
All of this is just the tip of the iceberg but I won’t bore you with the paperwork, bookkeeping, protocol-writing and record organising we’ve also engaged in!
And the end result of all of this? Well, hopefully we have happy, healthy macaws eager to breed and we’re making ourselves a more effective conservation organisation. All of this means we can put more young macaws out into the wild on a more regular basis – meaning more of these colourful, charismatic birds where they belong – in the jungles of Costa Rica!