Scarlet macaw (Ara macao)
|Also known as:||red-and-yellow macaw, red-blue-and-yellow macaw, red-breasted macaw|
|Size||Length: 80 - 96 cm (2)|
|Weight||900 - 1490 g (3)|
Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix I of CITES (4).
With its large size, vibrant plumage and raucous calls, the scarlet macaw is surely one of the most colourful and charismatic of all birds. As the name suggests, most of the plumage is bright red in colour, with a blue back, rump, flight feathers and outer tail feathers, and conspicuous yellow upperwing-coverts, edged with green. The upper mandible of the beak is whitish, with black at the tip and base, and the lower mandible is black. As in all macaws, the beak is large and powerful, and the face bears a large, bare patch of white skin around the eye (2) (3) (5) (6). The tail is long and pointed (2) (6). The male and female scarlet macaw are similar in appearance, while the juvenile can be distinguished by the shorter tail and the grey-brown rather than yellow eye (2) (3) (5). The loud calls of this species include a variety of harsh screeches, guttural squawks and growls (2) (5) (6).
The scarlet macaw can be distinguished from the similar red-and-green macaw, Ara chloropterus, by its lighter red plumage, longer, red-tipped tail, yellow rather than green upperwing-coverts, and the lack of red feathers on the facial patch (2) (6). Two subspecies of scarlet macaw are recognised: Ara macao cyanoptera is larger than Ara macao macao, and has blue tips to the yellow wing-coverts, with little or no green (2) (3) (5) (7).
The scarlet macaw has a wide distribution throughout Central and South America, east of the Andes, from Mexico south to Peru, Bolivia and Brazil (2) (3) (6) (8) (9). A. m. cyanoptera occurs from southeast Mexico to Nicaragua, while A. m. macao occurs from Costa Rica southwards (2) (3) (5) (7) (9).
This macaw inhabits lowland tropical forest and gallery woodland in savanna, often near rivers and in clearings where there are big trees (2) (3) (5) (6). It has been recorded at elevations of up to 1,500 metres in Costa Rica (2) (5), and often makes seasonal movements in response to fruit availability (2) (3) (6).
The scarlet macaw is usually seen in pairs or in small family groups of 3 to 4 individuals, which may join together in flocks of up to 30 birds. Groups of up to 50 scarlet macaws may roost communally in tall trees, or sometimes in mangroves, and the species can often be seen with other large macaws (2) (5) (6). Most feeding takes place in the canopy, the diet consisting of a range of fruits, seeds, nuts, flowers, nectar, bark and leaves (2) (3) (5). The scarlet macaw, like many other parrots and macaws in its range, also visits exposed river banks, or ‘clay licks’, to ingest soil, a behaviour known as geophagy. The soil may protect the macaw against toxic compounds present in the diet, or it may be taken as a sodium supplement (10) (11) (12).
The scarlet macaw usually breeds between October and April, depending on the location, and the nest is a large cavity, high in a tall tree (2) (3) (5) (6). Between 1 and 4 eggs are laid, and hatch after an incubation period of 24 to 28 days, the young fledging after about 14 weeks (3) (5). The scarlet macaw is potentially long-lived, with a lifespan of up to 60 years or more (5).
Although the scarlet macaw still has a large range and is locally common (8), there is evidence that the species is declining throughout its range, as a result of habitat loss, hunting for food and feathers, and capture for the pet trade (2) (3) (5) (9). The scarlet macaw is widespread in captivity (2) (5), but although international trade is banned under its listing on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (4), illegal trade still persists, and the species is also a popular pet within its range countries. Illegal poaching of nests is often a major problem, and legislation is not always enforced (9) (13). In addition, the methods used to collect nestlings are not sustainable, as nesting trees are cut down or nest cavities opened, so destroying already limited nesting sites (13).
The subspecies A. m. cyanoptera is particularly vulnerable, with a total population of no more than 4,000 birds (2) (3). Similarly, although not considered globally threatened, A. m. macao may number fewer than 1,000 within Central America (3) (9), and it is believed that, without urgent action, the scarlet macaw is likely to disappear from Central America in the near future (7) (9).
Various conservation initiatives are underway throughout the range of this species. In Costa Rica, the Association for Parrot Protection (LAPPA) was set up in 1995 as a community-based conservation organisation dedicated to the protection of the scarlet macaw, and conservation work in this and other regions has included the guarding of nests, installation of artificial nest boxes, habitat improvement, scientific research, population monitoring and environmental education (3) (9) (14) (15). In Guatemala, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is using similar measures to try and save the scarlet macaw population from extirpation by the pet trade (16). In other areas, the provision of nest boxes has helped to increase scarlet macaw breeding success (3) (17), while introductions of hand-raised birds have also shown some success (18).
It is likely that effective scarlet macaw conservation will depend on initiatives that provide economic benefits for local people, so discouraging poaching and habitat destruction. Community-based ecotourism projects are underway in several areas (9), and in southeast Peru, the spectacle of hundreds of parrots and macaws congregating at clay licks has proved an important draw for tourists (19) (20), as well as an opportunity for long-term studies into the populations, behaviour and ecology of this beautiful and charismatic bird (21).
To find out more about the scarlet macaw and its conservation see:
World Parrot Trust - Scarlet Macaw:
The Association for Parrot Protection (LAPPA):
Amigos de las Aves:
Tambopata Macaw Project:
For more information on this and other bird species please see:
- BirdLife International:
This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
- Coverts: small feathers concealing the bases of larger flight feathers, usually on the wings or tail.
- Flight feathers: the feathers at the end of the wing, involved in flight.
- Gallery woodland: woodland growing along a river or stream.
- Incubation: the act of incubating eggs; that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
- Mandible: in birds, the lower jaw and beak, but the term is also used to denote the two parts of the beak.
- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
IUCN Red List (September, 2009)
- Juniper, T. and Parr, M. (1998) Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World. Pica Press, Sussex.
- del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1997) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 4: Sandgrouse to Cuckoos. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
CITES (September, 2009)
World Parrot Trust - Scarlet Macaw (September, 2009)
- Hilty, S.L. and Brown, W.L. (1986) A Guide to the Birds of Colombia. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
- Wiedenfeld, D.A. (1994) A new subspecies of scarlet macaw and its status and conservation. Ornitologia Neotropical, 5: 99 - 104.
BirdLife International (September, 2009)
Snyder, N., McGowan, P., Gilardi, J. and Grajal, A. (2000) Parrots: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge. Available at:
- Gilardi, J.D., Duffey, S.S., Munn, C.A. and Tell, L.A. (1999) Biochemical functions of geophagy in parrots: detoxification of dietary toxins and cytoprotective effects. Journal of Chemical Ecology, 25(4): 897 - 922.
- Brightsmith, D. and Aramburú, R. (2004) Avian geophagy and soil characteristics in Southeastern Peru. Biotropica, 36(4): 534 - 543.
- Burger, J. and Gochfeld, M. (2003) Parrot behavior at a Rio Manu (Peru) clay lick: temporal patterns, associations, and antipredator responses. Acta Ethologica, 6: 23 - 34.
- González, J.A. (2003) Harvesting, local trade, and conservation of parrots in the Northeastern Peruvian Amazon. Biological Conservation, 114(3): 437 - 446.
- Vaughan, C., Nemeth, N.M., Cary, J. and Temple, S. (2005) Response of a scarlet macaw Ara macao population to conservation practices in Costa Rica. Bird Conservation International, 15: 119 - 130.
The Association for Parrot Protection (LAPPA) (September, 2009)
Wildlife Conservation Society (September, 2009)
Brightsmith, D. (2009) Macaw Reproduction and Management in Tambopata, Peru II: Nest Box Design and Use. Unpublished report, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Available at:
- Brightsmith, D., Hilburn, J., del Campo, A., Boyd, J., Frisius, M., Frisius, R., Janik, D. and Guillen, F. (2005) The use of hand-raised psittacines for reintroduction: a case study of scarlet macaws (Ara macao) in Peru and Costa Rica. Biological Conservation, 121(3): 465 - 472.
- Munn, C.A. (1992) Macaw biology and ecotourism, or “when a bird in the bush is worth two in the hand”. In: Beissinger, S.R. and Snyder, N.F.R. (Eds) New World Parrots in Crisis: Solutions from Conservation Biology. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
- Munn, C.A. (1998) Adding value to nature through macaw-oriented ecotourism. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 212: 1246 - 1249.
Tambopata Macaw Project (September, 2010)