As It Happens

Parrot that inspired 2011 blockbuster film Rio among bird species that have disappeared

Just seven years ago, the hit animated comedy Rio featured a Spix's macaw in the title role. Now that bird, along with seven others, is extinct.

Biologists bid goodbye to 8 species of birds in a new assessment of extinctions this decade

Three young Spix's macaws are pictured in the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots in 2015, in Schoeneiche near Berlin. (Patrick Pleul/Associated Press)

Birders who want to see a Spix's macaw in the wild are going to have to go looking for images on the web. 

One of the little blue parrots inspired the 2011 hit animated kids' movie Rio. Now they're on a list of eight bird species that scientists say have disappeared in the past decade. 

The list, published by Stuart Butchart and his colleagues at BirdLife international, recommends the Spix's macaw and three other birds be listed as extinct — the cryptic treehunter, the Alagoas foliage-gleaner and the po'ouli.

They recommend four other species — the glaucous macaw, the Pernambuco pygmy owl, the Javan lapwing and the New Caledonian lorikeet — be listed as "possibly extinct."

Butchart spoke with As it Happens guest host Helen Mann from Cambridge, England. Here is some of their conversation.

What would I have seen if I'd been fortunate enough to encounter a Spix's macaw in the wild?

These are stunning cobalt blue parrots, with a very long tail and very distinctive screeching call. And these enigmatic birds were known for over 150 years only from individuals that were caught by trappers and appeared in the caged bird trade. And no one knew where they were found in the wild.

So it was a mystery?

It was, indeed. And then in the mid-1980s, a tiny population of just three birds was discovered in northern Brazil. But sadly, trappers got these birds in the subsequent years. And then another male was found in 1990.

And after a few years, they released a female Spix's macaw from captivity. But unfortunately, she died in just a few weeks, probably through collision with a power line.

And that lone male survived for another few years until 2000, but hasn't been seen since and is believed to have died in that year.

Despite intensive searches around that locality and elsewhere, no birds have been subsequently found in the wild.

I understand the bird is the one portrayed in the child's movie Rio, is that right?

That's right, yes. This extraordinary story inspired the very popular film. But it's a real tragedy.

I mean, the one hope is that some birds remain in captivity, and there is now a conservation program happening to try to increase that captive population and address the threats to the habitats in the wild, and in due course release some birds.

Stuart Butchart is the Chief Scientist at BirdLife International, the organization that identified eight species of birds as extinct in a new report. (Submitted by Stuart Butchart)

What is exactly responsible for the extinction of the Spix's macaw?

It was a combination of habitat loss and degradation as agriculture expanded across South America.

But, in particular, this species was targeted for the caged bird trade and changed hands for very large sums of money — which then created an incentive for people to go out and trap the last individuals in the wild.

Tell us about the other seven birds on this list — at least some of them. What sense can you give us of what's loss?

It's an extraordinary collection of species.

There's another macaw — an even larger one — called glaucous macaw, found in the other end of Brazil, adjacent to Paraguay and Argentina. And again, this one was probably wiped out by a combination of habitat loss and illegal harvesting to the caged bird trade.

There's an extraordinary small owl, called the Pernambuco pygmy owl. And this only recently described, only ever known from two sites, and was lost almost as soon as it was discovered to science.

And then on the other side of the world, there is a very distinctive bird that was only known from Hawaii, called the po'o-uli. And that's now believed to have disappeared, when the last individual died in 2004.

If things don't change, what else is at risk in the years to come?

There are over 1,200 species that BirdLife International classifies as threatened with extinction on the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List — the official classification of these species.

And another 800 or more that we term near-threatened.

So over 2,000 species of real conservation concern, because either they've got very small populations now, a very restricted distribution, or have undergone a very rapid decline — or a combination of these different factors.

Written by Kevin Ball and Kevin Robertson. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

  • Clarification: A previous version of this story stated that eight species of birds have been classified as extinct. In fact, BirdLife international has recommended four of the species be listed as extinct, and four as "possibly extinct."


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