Life lessons from my macaw maestros

Sadly my time at The Ara Project and in Costa Rica is drawing to a close. As I reflect on everything I’ve done and seen here, it seems incredible it’s only been 9 months. From finding snakes in my bathroom and tarantulas in my kitchen to nursing sick macaws back to health, learning how to manage staff and volunteers, helping to build things and plant things and writing blogs, it’s been one amazing journey.

Found a tarantula in my house! Only a small one though...

Found a tarantula in my house! Only a small one though…

Of course, as with anything, there have been ups and downs. My time here has been both incredibly rewarding and incredibly challenging. I have struggled with the isolation; we are certainly off the beaten track a bit here and without a car and with the responsibilities of the job, I don’t go anywhere very often! And of course, my limited Spanish means making friends is difficult. Having said that, my Spanish has come on in leaps and bounds! It’s true that nothing helps you learn like immersion. Having to switch constantly from English to Spanish was mentally exhausting to begin with but I realise how much easier it is now, and how much more naturally I answer questions (just don’t listen too closely to my horrific grammar!)

Although I knew what I was coming to (having been here last year as a volunteer) and was prepared for the basic living conditions, it has been hard at times to deal with the mud and the dirt, the heat and humidity, and the hundreds of insects who feel the jungle isn’t big enough for them and that they’d rather live in my house. It’s tough when you’ve been working all day to not have somewhere clean or cool to come home to. I miss my family and my friends and the ease of life in Australia.

However, right now, I’m sitting at my desk in my tiny one room house and through the open door I’m watching an iguana climb into a tree to sun itself. There’s howler monkeys in the Guanacaste tree (the national tree of Costa Rica, we have one magnificent specimen in the centre of our property), some kind of butterfly rave going on and the weather is honestly the best I’ve seen in 9 months, like a perfect spring day. I have made friends I’ll keep for life, seen wonderful things and learnt more than I can list.

Butterfly outside my house.

Butterfly outside my house.

During my time here, I have met and spoken to hundreds of people who have attended our tours. As you can imagine, I’ve answered many questions (yes, they really do know to turn up at the same time every day for a snack, parrots can do basic maths and conjugate verbs – is this really the most amazing thing about them?!) The one question that stuck in my head was when one lady asked me what the macaws have taught me. I really liked that – it made me stop and think. I replied that the macaws have taught me to live in the moment, to take pleasure in the simple things and what I happen to have access to at the time. I often think about that question. It reminds me of a lovely moment back at the end of the dry season when I was hot and tired and maybe just a little bit grumpy. I noticed around 10 of our released Scarlets flapping around in the top of a tree. We’d had some rain the night before, the first in months, and they were spreading their wings and lying across the tree’s canopy, bathing in the tiny bit of water left. They looked ridiculous, all awkward and floppy and at funny angles. But they were absolutely loving it – shouting and jumping around. Such a simple thing!

Soaking up any water left on the leaves!

Soaking up any water left on the leaves!

Working for a not-for-profit is hard, working for a not-for-profit in Costa Rica with limited resources and people is really hard. You’re on the go from sunrise to sunset, you’re busy solving problems and making plans and keeping things running smoothly. You’re on a mission. Your work is important. You’re saving macaws! So when this lady asked me her question, it was really nice to pause for a moment and think about our work as an exchange, as the macaws as our teachers. And they are great teachers – when I was at university studying education, we spoke a lot about ‘lifelong learning’ and how to inspire that in our students. Macaws are naturals at this. They are curious and playful all of their lives; they learn from and teach each other, every day. It’s one of the things that makes them so special. It’s one of their survival traits. And it’s what makes them good for reintroduction, because they help each other out. Birds who’ve been ‘out’ for a while, that is, birds who were released a year or more ago, will teach newer birds things such as where to find food and water. They’ll take them under their wing 😉

Playful and sociable! Young Scarlets in our beautiful Guanacaste tree during the dry season.

Playful and sociable! Young Scarlets in our beautiful Guanacaste tree during the dry season.

What remarkable animals they are, I never tire of watching them. They are bright, cheeky, fun-loving, intelligent, gregarious and loving. This land belongs to them, they have such a right to it and it is so sad that because of us, their brilliance is not enough to let them survive. It is a mystery to me how, looking at such a colourful, loud, active animal climbing and flying through the jungle, anyone can want to take it from its home, friends and family and confine it to a prison of wire and boredom.

Who'd want to put this guy in a cage?! One of our released Scarlets.

Who’d want to put this guy in a cage?! One of our released Scarlets.

I do, though, feel very positive about the future of both species in Costa Rica. Attitudes are changing all the time. Great swathes of forest are protected as national parks. Our job is to get them back into those forests and then, I believe, they will thrive once again.

So, in conclusion, though I’m looking forward to a warm shower, clean sheets and infrastructure, I am going to miss my little hut in the jungle, my human friends and my feathered friends. It has been the experience of a lifetime and I’m so happy and so grateful to have had this opportunity. I suppose the most important thing I’ve learnt is that it’s always worth taking these opportunities and challenging yourself, you have no idea where it will take you.

By Angharad Thomas

Sunset over Playa Islita

Sunset over Playa Islita

About the Author
Staff and volunteers at The Ara Project come from all over the world and all walks of life! Some of us have years of experience working with parrots and in conservation and for some of us, this work is brand new! But we all have one thing in common which is that we're dedicated to helping these beautiful birds roam free once again in Costa Rica.