The Current

This beautiful blue parrot has returned to the wild 2 years after being declared extinct

After teetering on the edge of extinction, the beautiful Spix's macaw has made its return to the wild, over two decades after the last bird was seen in nature. Eight of the bright blue parrots have been released into a protected nature reserve in Brazil.

Biologist Tom White says 8 Spix's macaws have already been reintroduced to the wild and 12 more are on the way

These beautiful blue Spix's macaws are the first of their kind to be seen in the wild since 2000. (Tyson Chapman/ACTP)

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After teetering on the edge of extinction, the beautiful Spix's macaw has made its return to the wild, over two decades after the last bird was seen in nature. Eight of the bright blue parrots have been released into a protected nature reserve in Brazil. 

"They're doing absolutely wonderful. So far there is 100 per cent survival. The birds are all staying together as a group... They're staying in around the release area. And they're also beginning to forage on natural occurring foods," biologist Tom White told The Current guest host Duncan McCue. 

"We couldn't have written a script better for them to follow."

It's been a long process to bring the species back, but advances in captive breeding have made the return possible. 

White is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is a technical advisor for the rescue project. He says DNA testing makes it easier to pair birds together that have the least relations to each other. There have also been advancements in artificial insemination. 

"That has opened the door to also maintaining as much of the genetic diversity as possible that currently exists," said White. 

Tom White, right, is seen attaching a radio transmitter to a Spix's macaw prior to release. (Arelis Jhonson Camacho)

The birds now live in an area of Brazil known as the Caatinga, which is a subtropical dry forest. The area was cleared for ranching and farming over the last century, and the blue parrot became scarce. As it did, collectors of exotic birds started having the Spix's macaw caught for their use as pets.

The last Spix's macaw was seen in the wild in 2000, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature named it extinct in the wild in 2019. Its story became the plotline for the 2011 blockbuster film Rio

But the species wasn't gone. White said there were about 15 birds left, but through breeding, the species was able to ramp back up. 

Ethical questions 

Anyone whose seen the Jurassic Park films can tell you about the risks of reintroducing an extinct creature into the world, but of course, the macaw doesn't have sharp teeth or deadly claws. 

While the lovely blue parrots return to the wild, other species around the world are struggling. The Monarch butterfly has been added to the international list of threatened species, and that news has left people such as biologist Tori Herridge to wonder what species should receive the funding to be saved

She says the return of the macaw is "exciting," but there are a few things to consider when looking at reintroducing a species into the wild. 

"It all depends … on the willingness of the people living around the animals to have them there and also what you're trying to achieve and how you measure success," said Herridge.

Biologist Tori Herridge has spent her career studying the mighty mammoth. (Beth Zaiken/Centre for Palaeogenetics/Reuters)

Herridge uses the example of the mammoth, which some people are trying to bring back, citing that the extinction of the mammoth had a negative impact on climate change. 

But she says it's not that simple. 

"It is yet to be certain that humans were responsible for the extinction of the mammoth to the degree that it caused the loss of the mammoth steppe," said Herridge, who has spent her career studying woolly mammoths, and the vast grasslands where they thrived.

"I would say the general consensus now amongst most people working on large mammals from the ice age period is the climate dealt the first blow."

She said it's possible that humans dealt the final blow, but it was far from our fault. And she questions whether bringing back the mammoth will make any sort of difference. 

"Will it actually change the ecosystem? Can you actually do that?" asks Herridge. 

"To make a kind of ecosystem-level effect on this permafrost landscape, how many mammoths will you need and is that feasible as a way to tackle something as important and pressing as the climate crisis?"

Continued work

With the macaws, White says for the project to continue to be successful, work and financing must continue. 

"It's not a matter of going out and just releasing a bunch of birds and then opening a bottle of champagne, calling it a day. It takes continual effort over several years, and that requires long-term financial, logistic and biological support," said White. 

As teams follow the progress of the already-released macaws, 12 more are scheduled to join the flock in December. 

Preserving an area for the Spix's macaw helps support other species as well, said White. (Patrick Pleul/Associated Press)

White said humans have a responsibility to help save the bird, because of the role people played in its decline. 

"We broke the system. So as a species, we're morally obligated to fix it," he said. 

And it's not just about the macaw. He said helping one species, helps many more.

"A vast area has been declared a reserve, a protected area specifically for the reintroduction of the Spix. But all of these other animals, plants, reptiles, and mammals that live in that area are also benefiting," said White. 

"This area is being protected specifically for the Spix, but they're also along for the ride. So the benefits of the Spix reintroduction go far beyond just that species."

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Ben Jamieson.

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