Ara macao is found in southern Mexico, Central America, and South America. In South America, the species is found as far south as northeastern Argentina. Ara macao is most common throughout the Amazon basin.
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); neotropical (Native )
- Slud, P. 1964. Birds of Costa Rica. New York: Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Volume 128.
Scarlet macaws are brightly colored birds with feathers ranging in color bands from scarlet on their head and shoulders, to yellow on their back and mid wing feathers and blue on the wing tips and tail feathers. The face has short white feathers. This area surrounds the light yellow colored eyes. The long, thick beak is light on the top and dark black on the bottom. The legs and feet are also black (Aditays, 2000).
Body length is approximately 89 cm, with the tail comprising approximately 1/3 - 1/2 of this. Tail feathers of males may be longer than females. Also, bills of males may be slightly larger (Sick, 1993).
Average mass: 1200 g.
Average length: 89 cm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike
Average mass: 1040 g.
Petén-Veracruz Moist Forests Habitat
This taxon is found in the Petén-Veracruz moist forests, a broadleaf forest ecoregion in mainly mountainous terrain that extends through most of Belize northward through parts of Guatemala and into southern Mexico. This forested ecoregion covers an area of approximately 149,100 square kilometres. Endemism of this ecoregion is moderate, with amphibian endemism particularly notable, and overall species richness is high; vertebrate taxa found here, for example, total 988 species.
Soils within the Petén-Veracruz moist forests are relatively rich in nutrients compared to other tropical regions; this fact may assist in explaining the early advanced civilisations of the Maya people in this area. There are numerous rivers and lakes within this Neotropical realm ecoregion; in some cases the rivers penetrate limestone karst strata and produce spectacular underwater river caverns. Major southern rivers in the Belize portion of the ecoregion include the Mopan and Macal Rivers; the Macal cuts through dense jungle.
Common tree species in the Maya Mountains area include Cohune Palm (Attalea cohune), Ironwood (Dialium guianense), Bitterwood (Simarouba amara), Quamwood (Schizolobium parahybum), as well as tree ferns such as Cyathea myosuroides and Cyathea multiflora.
The ecoregion boasts numerous reptiles, including one of the world's most venomous snakes, the Fer-de-lance (Bothrups asper); this species is both aggressive and highly lethal, with an unusually vivid sexual dimorphism, the female displaying much greater size than the male. A reptilian endemic to the ecoregion is the Tehuantepec Hooknose Snake (Ficimia variegata), known only to Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in Mexico; another ecoregion endemic is the Veracruz Graceful Brown Snake (Halopeltis cuneata). A number of lizards also inhabit the ecoregion, including the rather common lizard of the ecoregion that also occurs in neighbouring dry forests, the Brown Basilisk (Basiliscus vittatus); this olive brown species is noted for the male’s large flaplike crest that is supported by flexible cartilage. A more notable lizard of the Atlantic slopes of the ecoregion is Hernandez’s Helmeted Basilisk (Corytophanes hernandezii); this reddish brown reptile typically sits quietly with its cryptic colouration to avoid predation. The Yucatan Banded Gecko (Coleonyx elegans) is the only gecko of the region with well developed eyelids.
A number of anuran species are found in the Peten-Veracruz moist forests, including the ecoregion endemic Godman's Treefrog (Tlalocohyla godmani), found only in northeastern and western Querétaro, northeastern Puebla and Veracruz, southward to south-central Veracruz, Mexico. Another ecoregion endemic frog is the Chiapas Dwarf Robber Frog (Craugastor montanus EN), found only in cloud and mixed forests of Cerro Ovando and surroundings, within the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, Mexico. Another ecoregion endemic is the Oaxacan Fringe-limbed Treefrog (Ecnomiohyla echinata CR), known only to northern slopes of the Sierra de Juárez, in the vicinity of Vista Hermosa, Oaxaca, Mexico. Further, the Maya Mountains Frog (Lithobates juliani) is endemic to the ecoregion, known only to the Maya Mountains within Belize.
The Black Jumping Salamander (Pseudoeurycea nigra), endemic to the Peten-Veracruz moist forests ecoregion, is found only on the Caribbean versant of the northern highlands region of Chiapas, Mexico. Another salamander endemic to the ecoregion is the Sierra Juarez Moss Salamander (Cryptotriton adelos), found on the Atlantic versant of the Sierra de Juarez, Pena Verde, and at Sierra de Mazateca on the Guelatao-Vista Hermosa transect, north-central Oaxaca, Mexico. The Black-spotted False Salamander (Pseudoeurycea nigromaculata CR) occurs at only two locales in southern Veracruz, Mexico: the peak of Cerro Chicahuaxtla, Cuatlalpan and on Volcán San Martín.
Numerous bird taxa are found in this ecoregion. The Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) is found broadly in Central America's moist forests and is well represented in the Maya Mountains and further north in the ecoregion. Another broadly distributed tropical bird found in the ecoregion is the Mealy Parrot (Amazona farinosa), which is one of the largest parrots of the Americas.
Scarlet macaws are found high in the canopy of rainforest habitats below 1,ooo m (Slud, 1964).
Range elevation: 1000 (high) m.
Habitat Regions: tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: rainforest
Habitat and Ecology
Scarlet macaws primarily eat fruit and nuts, and will occasionally supplement their diet with nectar and flowers. Ara macao individuals are known to consume fruits before they are ripe. Premature fruits have a tougher skin and pulp that is difficult to access unless the bird has a beak large enough to tear into it. By accessing these fruits before they are available to other animals, they may gain a competitive advantage. Scarlet macaws are also able to break open the toughest nuts. Parrots have more movement in their beaks than do other birds, which allows for a more powerful bill. This ability creates an important food resource for the parrots because not a lot of other animals are able to access such a large variety of nuts (Aditays, 2000). There are structures on the inside of their beaks that allow scarlet macaws to press the hard seed between their tongue and palate and grind the seed so that it can be digested (Sick, 1993).
Scarlet macaws occasionally consume clay found on the banks of rivers. This aids in digestion of the harsh chemicals such as tannins that are ingested when eating premature fruit (Aditays, 2000).
Plant Foods: seeds, grains, and nuts; fruit; nectar; flowers
Primary Diet: herbivore (Frugivore , Granivore )
Scarlet macaws are important seed predators of large tree fruits in the ecosystems in which they live. They may influence the generation of forest tree species.
As adults scarlet macaws may escape most predation by virtue of their size and flight. Young may be taken in the nest by arboreal predators such as snakes, monkeys, and other small carnivores. Adults and fledglings may also be taken by large cats, such as jaguars, and by eagles and hawks.
Life History and Behavior
Scarlet macaws communicate with a variety of vocalizations and postures. Mated pairs are engaging in tactile communication when preening.
Scarlet macaws have excellent vision and hearing.
Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Large macaws may live up to 75 years in captivity. Typical lifespans in the wild and in captivity are closer to 40 to 50 years.
Status: wild: 33 (high) years.
Status: wild: 40 to 50 years.
Status: captivity: 64.0 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Scarlet macaws form monogamous pair bonds that last for life.
Mating System: monogamous
Breeding in Ara macao occurs about every one to two years. The clutch size is 2 to 4 white, rounded eggs with an incubation period of 24 to 25 days. Females mainly incubate the eggs. After hatching, the young may stay with their parents for one to two years. The male feeds the young by regurgitating and liquefying food (Sick, 1993). The parents will not raise another set of eggs until the previous young have become independent (Aditays, 2000). Scarlet macaws reach sexual maturity at three or four years of age (Sick, 1993).
Breeding interval: Breeding occurs every one to two years.
Breeding season: Breeding may occur year-round.
Range eggs per season: 2 to 4.
Range time to hatching: 24 to 25 days.
Range time to independence: 1 to 2 years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 3-4 years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 3-4 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous
Both male and female scarlet macaws care for their young. Scarlet macaws have an extended period of dependence on their parents, with perhaps some significant learning occuring before they become sexually mature and independent.
Parental Investment: no parental involvement; altricial ; pre-fertilization (Protecting: Male, Female); pre-hatching/birth (Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Protecting: Male, Female); post-independence association with parents; extended period of juvenile learning
Evolution and Systematics
The feathers of scarlet macaws gain their red coloration via five lipochromes produced only in parrots.
"In this first examination of the variety of colourful pigments present in parrot feathers, we studied 44 parrot species from 27 genera and found that they all use the same set of five lipochromes to colour their feathers red…Red parrot feathers also differ in colour intensity, from the light-pink hue of several cockatoos to the deep red of red lories (Eos bornea)…The only reports of these pigments in nature are from parrot feathers…There are several other lines of evidence that point to a non-dietary origin of these pigments, including (i) the absence of these pigments from diet samples of certain captive parrots (K.J.M., personal observation) and (ii) the ability of parrots to maintain striking plumage colouration in captivity despite tremendous variation in diet (which is not the case for diet-derived carotenoid colouration; reviewed in Stradi et al. 2001). Stradi et al. (2001) supposed that parrots derive these acyclic polyenal lipochromes either by the addition of acetate units to acetyl CoA or by fatty-acid desaturation. What remains unclear is why parrots are the only group of organisms capable of manufacturing/harbouring these colourants." (McGraw and Nogare 2005:41-42)
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
- McGraw, K. J.; Nogare, M. C. 2005. Distribution of unique red feather pigments in parrots. Biology Letters. 1(1): 38-43.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Ara macao
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Ara macao
Public Records: 3
Specimens with Barcodes: 16
Species With Barcodes: 1
The habitat of scarlet macaws is threatened due to forest destruction in the deep rainforest habitats where they live. Also, poachers seek out the parrots and will even cut down the tree where the nest is located to access the young or will shoot the adults for food (Ridgely and Gwynne, 1989). Cutting down trees to access macaws limits the number of places to nest and this practice will eventually limit the numbers of young raised.
Efforts have been made to slow population declines of scarlet macaws. The World Parrot Trust was formed in 1989 to protect parrots in their natural environment. Also, there is a trend towards breeders providing feathers from the birds that they sell so that other macaws will not be poached solely for feathers (Sick, 1993).
Nine of the sixteen species of macaws are listed on Appendix I of CITES, including scarlet macaws. Reproductive rates in the wild are low for a number of reasons, including a natural scarcity of suitable nesting sites. Some conservation organizations have found that macaw species will nest in artificial cavities and have supplemented certain areas with artifical nesting boxes.
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: appendix i
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
- Brightsmith, D. 2004. "Macaws, their Nesting Sites and the Macaw Project" (On-line). Rainforest Expeditions. Accessed February 06, 2004 at http://www.perunature.com/info01.asp.
- Ridgely, R., J. Gwynne. 1989. A Guide to Birds of Panama. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
- Sick, H. 1993. Birds in Brazil, a Natural History. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
There are no negative impacts of macaw species on humans.
The illegal, international parrot trade brings in large revenues each year due to the high demand for these colorful birds. An individual scarlet macaw may be sold for more than $1,000. Also, birds may be hunted for meat and the feathers traded for money. Current law dictates that it is illegal to trade in Ara macao individuals due to their CITES Appendix I status (Ridgely and Gwynne, 1989).
Scarlet macaws are more valuable to people as valuable and beautiful members of tropical forests, where their presence has significant ecotourism benefits.
Positive Impacts: pet trade ; body parts are source of valuable material; ecotourism
The scarlet macaw (Ara macao) is a large, red, yellow and blue South American parrot, a member of a large group of Neotropical parrots called macaws. It is native to humid evergreen forests of tropical South America. Range extends from extreme south-eastern Mexico to Amazonian Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela and Brazil in lowlands up to 500 m (1,640 ft) (at least formerly) up to 1,000 m (3,281 ft). It has suffered from local extinction through habitat destruction and capture for the parrot trade, but locally it remains fairly common. Formerly it ranged north to southern Tamaulipas. It can still be found on the island of Coiba. It is the national bird of Honduras.
Taxonomy and naming
The scarlet macaw (Ara macao Linnaeus 1758) is a member of the genus Ara (Lacepede, 1799), one of 6 genera of Central and South American macaws. Carolus Linnaeus described and named the scarlet macaw in his Systemae Naturae in 1758. Protonym: Psittacus macao.
Two subspecies present differing widths in their yellow wing band:
- A. macao macao South American scarlet macaw, the nominate subspecies
- A. macao cyanoptera (Wiedenfeld 1995) North Central American scarlet macaw
The Central American scarlet macaw is larger and has blue on its wings instead of green.
It is about 81 centimetres (32 in) long, of which more than half is the pointed, graduated tail typical of all macaws, though the scarlet macaw has a larger percentage of tail than the other large macaws. The average weight is about 1 kilogram (2.2 lb). The plumage is mostly scarlet, but the rump and tail-covert feathers are light blue, the greater upper wing coverts are yellow, the upper sides of the flight feathers of the wings are dark blue as are the ends of the tail feathers, and the undersides of the wing and tail flight feathers are dark red with metallic gold iridescence. Some individuals may have green in the wings.
There is bare white skin around the eye and from there to the bill. Tiny white feathers are contained on the face patch. The upper mandible is mostly pale horn in color and the lower is black. Juveniles have dark eyes; adults have light yellow eyes.
It is frequently confused with the slightly larger green-winged macaw, which has more distinct red lines in the face and no yellow in the wing.
Scarlet macaws make very loud, high and sometimes low-pitched, throaty squawks, squeaks and screams designed to carry many miles to call for their groups.
The scarlet macaw can live up to 75 years in captivity, although a more typical lifespan is 40 to 50 years.
Scarlet macaws eat mostly fruits, nuts and seeds, including large, hard seeds.
Scarlet macaws mate for life. The hen lays two or three white eggs in a tree cavity. The female incubates the eggs for about five weeks, and the chicks fledge from the nest about 90 days after hatching. and leave their parents about a year later. Juveniles reach sexual maturity at five years of age.
Distribution and habitat
In Central American the range extends from extreme eastern and southern Mexico and Panama through Guatemala and Belize, the island of Coiba and infrequently on the mainland of Panama, and two isolated regions on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica; the Carara National Park and Peninsula de Osa.
The habitat of scarlet macaws is considered to have the greatest latitudinal range for any bird in the genus Ara, as the estimated maximum territorial range covers 6,700,000 km2. Nevertheless, the scarlet macaw's habitat is fragmented, and the bird is mostly confined to tiny populations scattered throughout its original range in Middle America. However, as they still occur in large numbers over most of their original range in South America, the species is classified by IUCN as least concern.
It is listed on CITES Appendix 1 due to predation for the pet and cage bird trade. Both subspecies are listed by USFWS as endangered.
The scarlet macaw is an early example of a parrot breeding in captivity. Captive breeding occurred in Northern Mexico at Paquime (also called Casas Grandes) and very likely Southwest New Mexico in Mimbres Valley the 1000s CE. Breeding pens, perches, bones, and eggshell fragments have been uncovered. (See Casas Grandes article.) The straightforward nature of scarlet macaw breeding and the value of their plumes in trade created a market for trade wherein the animals were utilized in religious rites North to the Colorado Plateau region.
Today the scarlet macaw is found worldwide in captivity, but is best represented in captivity in the Americas. Captive techniques developed from the pet trade have positively impacted wild populations: In areas with low macaws populations, the "extra" babies that typically die in the nest may be reared by humans hands and released into the wild to bolster the population, as has been done by the Tambopata Macaw Project. Their captive diet, egg incubation, assisted hatching, hand rearing, co-parenting, parent-rearing, fledgling, maturation, and breeding are well understood within the avicultural community (AFA Watchbird magazine.)
The birds can hybridize with other members of Genus Ara in captivity, leading to lovely hybrids. In the US, hybrids scarlet macaws are created for their appearance and value in the bird trade. Hybrid scarlet macaws are also created because of fear of persecution, as birds breeders find themselves potentially liable for enormous fines and felonies (i.e., Lacey Act) as their captive-bred pets are added to the US Endangered Species List. As punishments are not given to those who sell or work with hybrid macaws, breeders are encouraged to mix genes to avoid punishment. In this way, law that have no effect on wild birds, because the birds occur only outside the US, create destruction of potentially important "captive arks" of genetic diversity.
- BirdLife International (2012). "Ara macao". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- "Animal Diversity Web — Scarlet Macaw". University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. Retrieved May 29, 2008.
- Seabury, CM; Dowd SE; Seabury PM; Raudsepp T; Brightsmith DJ et al. (8 May 2013). "A Multi-Platform Draft de novo Genome Assembly and Comparative Analysis for the Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao)". PLOS ONE. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062415. Retrieved 1 October 2013.
- "Save the Parrots: Texas A&M Team Sequences Macaw Genome". Newswise.com. Retrieved 1 October 2013.
- Photo of Scarlet Macaws and several other parrots at clay-lick in Tambopata-Candamo - The Wonders of Peru with Boyd Norton "?". Retrieved 20 August 2010.
- Alderton, David (2003). The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Caged and Aviary Birds. London, England: Hermes House. p. 234. ISBN 1-84309-164-X.
- "Ara macao (Scarlet Macaw)". Iucnredlist.org. 2012-05-01. Retrieved 2015-03-19.
- Juniper, T., and M. Parr., (1998). Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World. Yale University Press.
- "Scarlet Macaw". Species Database: CITES-Listed Species. UNEP-WCMC. Retrieved May 17, 2007.