Friday, May 23, 2014

Macaw Heaven!

At the Copán ruins, where the Scarlet Macaws fly around freely, a sign alerted me to the good work being done at the nearby bird sanctuary called Macaw Mountain. The Scarlet Macaw, or Sun Bird as it is known in the Mayan culture, is a proud and beautiful bird. They are prominently displayed on many stone Mayan sculptures in the Copán Ruinas and it's the National bird of Honduras. Yet decades of trapping for the pet trade had resulted in them being near extinction in 2010. The few that remained were but a shadow of the proud bird they used to be and survived on handouts. Luckily two people stepped in and saved them. We love to meet and write about people like this!

Our trip has become so much more than just an extended holiday. Not only has it changed us and broadened our horizon, we've also met so many good people that it gave us a more positive look on humanity in general. On the news we hear and see all that is wrong with this world. Honduras is nothing but murder, drugs, corruption and you name it. It obviously happens but is it any worse than Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York I wonder, yet we still go to the USA but at the same time avoid a whole country like Honduras for something that happened in just two cities. When I look around me in Honduras, and most other Central American countries, I see a different picture than what is being portrayed on the news. I see friendly people that go about their business. People willing to help and share whatever they have. There are also people that just do good and are passionate about what they do. Like I said, we love to write about them as they deserve all the exposure they can get. 

Take Lloyd Davidson and Ricardo Agurcia for instance. In 2010 they initiated a multi-year rescue plan for the Scarlet Macaw. Lloyd runs the Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve, while Ricardo is an archaeologist who was unravelling the ancient culture of Copán. They set out to improve the living conditions for the few Macaw that were left in the wild and to tell the world the story of their long history with the Mayan culture. They did so in steps. The first step was introducing key changes to the Macaw's care and diet to get the existing birds off the ground, no longer relying on handouts and back to normal behaviour again.

The next step was to prepare birds that found their way to the Macaw Mountain Bird Park through confiscation, donation and their own breeding efforts, ready for release in the wild. The World Parrot Trust, Honduras Anthropology and History Institute and the Institute of Forest Conservation supported their efforts. The World Parrot Trust sent José Antonio Diaz Luque to Copán to help with the release and he also helped to unite and exite the international team of partners. 

What they started had far greater implications than they envisaged at first. It soon became clear that their efforts had global significance and served as a model for others working to restoration elsewhere. Meanwhile in Copán the Scarlet Macaws were stealing the show with the tourists. Tour guides adapted their schedules and stories to include the Macaws, while at the same time the Macaws began a rejuvenation process back to the proud birds they once were.

The program is a huge success. Not only are the Scarlet Macaws back in an ever growing radius in and around the park, their return is also having an impact on the communities around Copán and the culture of Honduras. As trapping had almost led to the extinction, the new generation of people had to be taught the importance of these beautiful birds. For this Macaw Mountain introduced a 10 month learning programme especially created for teachers of 1st-6th graders, funded through the Copán Association. The learning programme focussed on the biology, conservation and history but also included visits to the Macaw Mountain where more than 4.000 children from 50 local schools were able to see the Macaws up close and even have one sit on their shoulder. The programme was a success, the children became enthusiastic and as a result many family members visited Macaw Mountain as well.

At the Copán Ruins, which attract more than 120.000 visitors a year, signs inform the visitors about the birds. They clearly work, as we decided to stay a day longer and visit the Macaw Mountain as well! The town's central Plaza hosts the annual Macaw Festival (Festival de las Guaras), where hundreds of locals and visitors enjoy the birds, the sights and festivities.

All the efforts are clearly paying off. Last year the released Macaws already produced 14 eggs at the Copán Ruins. Since then 9 new artificial nests have been introduced to assist in further breeding and Macaws have also been spotted outside the Copán Ruins investigating new nesting sites. When the project started in 2010 there were only 14 Scarlet Macaws left at the Copan Ruins, the project is such a success that this number has now more than doubled and experts estimate the number of free flying Scarlet Macaws will grow to over 100 within the next 5-7 years! As a side effect the feeding stations inside the Copán Ruins complex attract other birds as well, which has made it a popular destination for bird watchers, creating an additional attraction for Copán and additional income.

A visit to the Macaw Mountain itself, like we did today, is very much worthwhile. It's not far from the town of Copán but as it's a mountain, the road to it is very steep. Do yourself a favour and let one of the iconic Tuktuks take you there. The experience of riding in one of them on the steep cobblestone roads of Copán town is worth the small fee they charge you! Have a look at the movie below to see how much fun they are :-)

The Macaw Mountain gave me a little bit the same feeling I had when we visited the Healesville Sanctuary in Australia. It's nicely laid out, well setup and maintained and they even allow you to walk through the enclosures and see the birds from up close. They are home to more than the Scarlet Macaw alone. There are several species of the Macaw bird but also Hawks, Owls, birds of prey and Toucans. The park has beautiful graphic displays that help understand the birds that live here. I was particularly impressed with the enclosure for birds that were recovering from a trauma. These birds had been through a difficult time of course but seeing them there, cared for by people that clearly love these birds gave me a very good feeling. Mike made a movie of our visit which you can see below.

Right at the end of our visit Jeanette was given a close encounter with the Macaws when they placed a couple of them on her arms! After playing with the tourists for a while they were given a shower with a garden hose, they loved it! 

The Scarlet Macaw programme, which made it possible for us to see these magnificent birds in the wild, is another highlight of our journey. Seeing programmes like these in action is inspiring. There are still a lot of good people on this planet, people that deserve all the help they can get because the birds deserve all the help they can get.
A visit to the Macaw Mountain in Honduras is one of the ways you do to can help. It's a beautiful aviary which is well worth a visit anyway, so why don't you!

More information can be found at