Meet the beloved macaws of Venezuela’s capital
Published September 13, 2022
11 min read
For a momentary respite from the confinement of the COVID pandemic, Elinor Zamora went up to the roof of her building to breathe in the outside air. There, in 2020, she encountered a surprising sight: She watched dozens of huge, colorful macaws gather just before sunset, drawn by a neighbor who was feeding them. Zamora was captivated by the beauty of the birds and moved by the sight. She began a daily pilgrimage up to the roof to take in the beauty of the birds.
” No matter what happens, everyone knows at 4 p.m. I go to my house to meet my guacamayas on the roof,” she says.
The birds can grow to up to three feet long and are a symbol for Caracas, the capital of the country. They are located in a valley that is separated from the Caribbean Sea by mountains in the Venezuelan Coastal Range. In search of food, they frequent the rooftops and balconies countless buildings. People feed them and flood social media with photos of their bright, vibrant, yellow, and green plumage. Experts advise against feeding wild animals as it can cause harm and make them dependent on humans. However, such advice is not welcome or taken seriously in this instance. )
They also exchange the details of their created stories as if they were part of mini soap operas. Someone might say, “The orange one is dating the yellow one, but she’s being treated badly.”
“This yellow is always dirty; she must spend the day in a mechanic workshop,” another offers. “The blanquita is spoiled,” ventures a third. Over time, the birds have become the collective mascots for the capital.
What makes Caracas’s macaws unique is their diversity, says biologist Malu Gonzalez, a professor at the Simon Bolivar University. “Between macaws, parrots, and parakeets, we have 17 species flying here,” Gonzalez explains.
This list includes four macaw species that are all native to Venezuela. The maracana (Ara severa), mostly green, is the smallest and the only one from this central region. The flag macaw (Ara macao)–its yellow, blue, and red coloration reminiscent of the national tricolor flag–is originally from the plains and the Amazon region. The red-and-green macaw (Ara chloroptera) maintains small populations in the country’s east and west. These last two have been displaced in the skies of Caracas by the blue-and-yellow macaw (Ara ararauna).
Historically, macaws weren’t native to the capital, and it’s not entirely clear why they began to nest in the city’s palm trees, but Gonzalez believes their arrival was driven by the pet trade.
“Entire generations grew up with a parrot, parakeet, or a macaw at home,” Gonzalez explains. “Some escaped, others were released.”
When people talk about the macaws in Caracas, they often mention Vittorio Poggi, an Italian immigrant who once rescued an injured blue-and-yellow macaw. Although Poggi didn’t keep the bird in captivity, it followed him on his motorcycle as he travelled through the capital. Poggi became known as the “macaw boy.”
Thanks to this fame, for years many people brought him injured or sick birds, as well as macaw pets they no longer wanted to keep at home for him to take care of.
Malu Gonzales warns that these birds are not suitable for captivity. Gonzalez states that these birds are not suitable for pets. They are noisy, can cause havoc, and can be disruptive to your home. They are beautiful and many people have taken them. The first month is idyllic, but then they can’t stand it, and they look for ways to get rid of them.”
For decades, Poggi released into the urban area dozens of these animals that he received from people tired of keeping them at home. Gonzalez said that although this was not the sole cause of macaw proliferation, it “did partially favor the predominance yellow-and-blue one.”
On the wing
It is unknown how many macaws there are in Caracas, but in 2016 Gonzalez counted between 300 and 400 yellow-and-blue ones.
“Then two things happened,” she says. Protests in Caracas in 2017 “impacted the populations,” she says. Tear gas and other disruptions could have caused the deaths of birds. Then came the pandemic. She adds that “they came back to recuperate the empty spaces, but I think the population grew.”
Gonzalez wants to understand how the interaction with the humans is changing the behavior of these birds, whose populations in their original habitats are declining. She says that part of this is due to the “‘caretakers” who have a passion about them. They spend a lot time with them and this observation makes their experts. She is seeking funding to help her develop an app that recognizes birds facially. This would allow her to populate a database of bird-feeding volunteers.
Little is known about how urban living effects the birds. Gonzalez says that there are some changes in the macaws. She says that the macaws are breeding with their close relatives, which is creating more rare mutations.
Gonzalez explains that certain mutations, common in small caged populations that reproduce among themselves but rare in the wild–such as white coloration–are becoming increasingly frequent in Caracas because the birds don’t travel outside the city.
Another phenomenon is becoming visible: hybrid macaws, the result of mixing between two different species. The hybrids are easily identified by their abundance of color, such as orange, which is unlike mutants that lose their tone like the white ones.
In general, experts recommend against feeding wild animals. Macaws can fly long distances and have a varied diet in mangroves and forests. The birds in cities eat processed foods, bananas and a few seeds, and they are often quite sedentary. Caracas macaws could have a shorter lifespan. Their health may be affected by urban pollution and being hit by cars. Gonzalez states that this altered diet could have an impact on their reproductive cycles. Gonzalez says that the increased number of fruit trees in Caracas and the food they get from the rooftops has led to an increase in population. Gonzalez is currently trying to determine if this wealth is causing higher hatching rates.
The animals live in a gray area between domestic and wild. Some people consider them pets while others don’t. Why buy a bird that is not yours when there are macaws roaming the streets?
Elinor Zamora, for one, has never owned a bird. She doesn’t have to. “I always say that I live alone, with my guacamayas.”
Photographer Alejandro Cegarra was born in Caracas and is now based in Mexico City. Since the outbreak of the global pandemic, this was his first time home to photograph macaws. Follow him on Instagram @alecegarra.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.