COPÁN, Honduras – Fifteen hundred years ago, when the Maya civilization of Copán was at the height of its political glory, the surrounding jungle of what is today western Honduras was filled with Scarlet Macaws.
Revered by the mystic leaders of Copán as spiritual envoys sent by the gods, these colorful and noisy parrots were depicted in hand-carved sculptures throughout the ancient city. Even on the Copán ball court, where the Maya rulers celebrated one of their most important rituals, the ball markers were depicted by giant macaw heads carved in stone.
Unfortunately, the modern descendants of the former civilization haven’t treated the parrots with the same respect, even though the Scarlet Macaw is honored as Honduras’ national bird.
The macaws, made popular pets due to their large and splendidly colorful plumes, have been targeted for years by poachers who supply the black-market animal trade. Some have even been hunted for food.
However, the biggest threat facing these birds today is habitat destruction. As trees are felled and civilization encroaches upon the jungle, the larger of the parrots have been displaced.
Even in the protected area of the Copán ruins, only a dozen or so Scarlet Macaws still patrol their ancestral lands.
Needless to say, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the former ruler of Copán who embodied the spirit of the macaw, would not be too pleased to learn what has happened to these great birds.
But that’s all about to change. Thanks to a joint effort by the World Parrot Trust and U.S. biologist Lloyd Davidson, owner of Macaw Mountain bird park outside of Copán, the crayola-colored Scarlet Macaws could soon be gracing the skies of western Honduras once again.
Davidson, who has more than 40 macaws at his private reserve two miles from the Copán ruins, said he is about to start breeding Scarlet Macaws with the help of experts from the World Parrot Trust. The goal, he says, is to identify eight to 10 breeding pairs of macaws in captivity to then release their young into the wild.
He expects the first birds to be released within the next two years, and for the breeding program – made possible by funding from a local bank – to continue for at least a decade.
“This is a 10-year plan,” Davidson told The Nica Times. “And if it works, you should see the difference in the macaw population within the next five years.”
The first step, Davidson says, is to educate Hondurans about the importance of protecting the Scarlet Macaw so that the population can repopulate in the wild without being hunted.
“This is going to involve a big educational program,” he said. “We’ve got to tell the people, ‘Don’t shoot the birds down. And if they eat your fruit, don’t hit them with a broom.’”
Still, Davidson acknowledges, “We plan on losing some of the birds. That’s going to happen. But if we can get enough breeding pairs identified, we can stay ahead of this thing.”
The Accidental Birdman
A native of Tennessee, Davidson, 65, first came to Honduras 25 years ago to invest in a commercial fishing operation on the island of Roatán. While living on the island, Davidson started to adopt parrots from other foreigners who decided that the caged birds they had bought for their living rooms had become more trouble than they were worth.
“The majority are foreigners who come here from the U.S. or Europe and think that if they are going to live in paradise, it’s obligatory to own a parrot,” Davidson said. “But after two or three years, those people are done with the bird or with paradise, or with both. So gradually we started to receive a lot of birds.”
Once word got out that Davidson was taking in unwanted pet birds, people started showing up on his doorstep to give him different types of parrots and toucans. After several years, he had collected 90 birds and found himself running a makeshift bird park on Roatán.
“This all happened by accident; this wasn’t a planned program,” Davidson said of his bird park. “This is one of those things you fall into and it ends up taking over a lot more of your life than you ever anticipated.”
Eventually his operation outgrew Roatán.
So, resigning himself to the fact that he had become the accidental birdman of Honduras, Davidson moved his bird park to a five-hectare mountainside coffee farm next to the Copán ruins.
Now he has more than 170 birds living on Macaw Mountain, including three species of macaws, two species of toucans and 12 other species of smaller parrots.
Davidson says he’s never actively recruited birds for his park, but now that the word is out people keep showing up to donate unwanted pet birds.
He said that’s especially true for Scarlet Macaws, which can live more than 75 years in captivity and can be testy pets.
“A family will go through the park and they’ll stop and say, ‘Hey, my mother has had this bird for 20 years and she’s about to die and no one else in the family wants the bird.’ Then, two weeks later, they show up with the bird,” Davidson said.
He said many people buy pet parrots on a whim, without realizing the commitment they’re getting themselves into or what it means to be a bird owner. As a result, many of the birds are kept in small cages and given inappropriate diets.
The bird park, Davidson says, stresses those points to the visitors.
“When people come through the park they see the birds living with more space, with better conditions and on a good diet. And the guides make sure to point that out,” Davidson said.
Seeing the birds in nature has made many people rethink keeping a bird in a small cage. Davidson said people have come from as far away as Guatemala and El Salvador to bring him their birds after going through his park. The educational impact, he said, has been more positive than he ever imagined.
“I wasn’t sure how this was going to go, or if it was going to shoot by peoples’ heads who thought, ‘What is this crazy Gringo doing?’” Davidson said. “But it has been a much better reaction than I thought.”
Ready for Flight
In addition to educating folks that pass through his lush, private reserve, which features nature trails and wooden viewing platforms extended over a clear, mountain river, Davidson has also ventured out from Macaw Mountain to help the Scarlet Macaw population living at the Copán ruins.
Two years ago, Davidson said, he went to see the Scarlet Macaws living there and found a population of parrots that “were treated like a bunch of chickens.” He said only two of the birds were strong enough to fly, while the other macaws ran around on the ground and ate handouts from park guests.
“We helped them change the birds’ diets and now they are a lot stronger and all are flying. It’s miraculous,” Davidson said.
As the birds get stronger, however, they’re also showing signs that they might soon be ready to leave their “nest.”
“It’s not going to be too much longer before they are strong enough and confident enough to start moving out of the park,” he said. “I think they are reaching that adventurous stage.”
The dynamic will change even more when Davidson’s park starts to release new populations of Scarlet Macaws into the area in the coming years. The birds can be territorial, he said, so it’s not clear yet how they will all relate to each other in the wild.
But that’s nature – or at least how it used to be at Copán 1,500 years ago.
K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ would be proud.
For more information on the bird park, visit www.macawmountain.com