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Photo Essay : Sex and the Single Spix

June 13, 1995|RON HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Until the single blue-and-gray male was spotted by a BirdLife International expedition five years ago in the parched scrubland of northeastern Brazil, ornithologists believed that Spix's macaw had become extinct in the wild, the last specimens believed to have been captured by animal traffickers. The birds were prized on the illegal market, commanding a price of $50,000 a pair from collectors in Europe and Asia.

The sighting of the male triggered an extraordinary revival effort by an international group of breeders, biologists, bird sanctuaries and Brazilian government officials, mounted solely to save the species from extinction by mating the wild male with a captive female.

When the Brazilian government granted immunity to collectors and domestic breeders who had illegally held the 31 Spix's macaws known to exist until the wild male was spotted, one of them, Brazil's Chaparral Breeders, provided a female.

The female was to be released into the wild where the male had been sighted near the dusty town of Curaca on the Sao Francisco River, about 340 miles inland from the port of Recife. There she was first conditioned to the wild, coaxed to eat the local seeds and strengthened for the long, hard work of finding food. She was released in March and first seen in the company of the wild male, whom locals had dubbed the "Professor," in May.

If all goes well, the "Professor" will pass on his knowledge of life in the wild and eventually the pair will begin to repopulate the area, says Brazilian biologist Marcos Da Re, the project's fieldwork coordinator for more than three years.

Meanwhile, the locals, mostly goatherds, farmhands and government employees, have adopted the two birds as town mascots. They pass on stories and myths about the birds to their children, create Spix's macaw costumes for Carnaval and, most important, they watch for poachers who could capture the last pair of Spix's macaws in the wild and doom the species to extinction.

So far, so good, says Da Re. Since the female was released into the wild in late March, the two have become inseparable. But Da Re, ornithologists and townspeople will not know if their efforts will bear fruit until December. That is when Spix's macaws normally mate.

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