Cowichan Valley macaws could help save a species

It’s a good-news story with global impact, rooted right here in the Cowichan Valley.

Seventeen blue-throated macaws – a critically endangered species endemic to a tiny part of Bolivia – that were raised in Shawnigan Lake by life-long parrot fan April Sanderson, made their way from Vancouver Island to Bolivia, by way of Toronto in August, in an attempt to help revive the wild population.

To evaluate the status of the blue-throated macaw, consider that the World Parrot Trust estimates that for every individual bird in the wild, there are 3,750 African elephants, 200 rhinos, 12 giant pandas, and six mountain gorillas.

Release programs aren’t without controversy, but with the blue-throated macaw wild population estimated at around 125 birds in an area the size of Vancouver Island, Sanderson feels it is the only way to keep the species alive.

"With numbers so low, I don’t believe they can recover without human intervention," she said. Breeding pairs typically have one chick per year, and chick survival rates are low, so the introduction of Sanderson’s birds should help boost the population. Among the 17 birds are five breeding pairs representing nine different bloodlines. It’s probably one of the most diverse groups in North America, which will make for a much deeper gene pool.

Not all 17 will make it to the wild, a fact Sanderson had to come to grips with.

"I’m not being naive about it," she said.

"I know some of them are going to die, but what are the species’ chances? Our generation could be the last one to see them." Sanderson’s participation in the project is the culmination of a lifetime with the birds. "I’ve had parrots since I was a child," she said. "I got my first one when I was nine, and I’ve worked with them all my life."

She started breeding birds for the pet trade, but soon realized it was a nasty business and that many parrots end up in unfortunate circumstances.

"A lot of people don’t know how to care for parrots," she related.

Sanderson then decided to breed parrots for the World Parrot Trust’s conservation program, which took a lot of work. She required plenty of permits and contracts, and had to keep the macaws quarantined for five years – even the owners of other parrots were forbidden from having contact with Sanderson’s birds. They also required a minimum of three hours of labour a day, seven days a week, which took a toll on family holidays. That’s not to mention the hundreds of dollars it cost each month in order to keep the birds fed and sheltered.

"It has been hard for my family to understand," Sanderson admitted.

Once in Bolivia, the birds would be closely watched as they began their time in aviaries, developing their flight wings, transitioning to a new diet and getting accustomed to the South American climate.