insight - Ryan Watson
Written by Ron Toft Illustration by Andrew Zuckerman
Occupation - Blue Macaw Coordinator
Given that he grew up in a horse racing family in Western Australia, it was not surprising that Ryan Watson became interested in animals.
That interest, however, was centred not so much on the horses around him as on birds, of which he kept an assortment – parrots and finches, doves, and quails – from the age of about 12.
Upon leaving high school, Ryan worked with horses for one year, for a bird shop for two years, and for Adelaide Zoo’s bird department for three-and-a-half years.
Arguably, the turning point in his career was hand-rearing captive-bred Echo parakeets in Mauritius. Over three sea-sons, Ryan raised 90 parakeet chicks for release into the wild, the vast majority of which survived.
Thanks largely to his experience with Echo parakeets, Ryan was offered the post of blue macaw coordinator at Qatar’s renowned Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation in 2005. By the end of that year he had also become international studbook holder for the world’s most endangered parrot – Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) – of which Al Wabra has by far the biggest collection.
“I never expected I would end up being responsible for making all the breeding recommendations to the international captive-breeding programme for this iconic species,” he remarked.
“When I attended conferences before and after my Echo parakeet years, I was just one of the crowd. But since I’ve been involved with Spix’s macaws, there’s never a moment’s peace at conferences! So many people now want to talk to me about the work at Al Wabra and the Spix’s macaw programme in general, such is the degree of interest around the world in the captive breeding of Spix’s macaws and plans to re-establish them in the wild, where they truly belong.”
Classified as ‘critically endangered’, Spix’s macaw is believed by many ornithologists to be extinct in its native Brazil, the only known wild bird having last been seen more than ten years ago.
The aim of the breeding programme is to produce as many birds as possible in captivity with a view eventually to releasing some into the wild. It is hoped that such birds would in time reproduce, raise young, and lay the foundations for a viable, self-sustaining wild population.
There are just 73 Spix’s macaws in captivity, of which 54 are at Al Wabra. “Having by far the biggest collection of Spix’s means we are able to experiment with a wider variety of pair combinations,” said Ryan. “Unfortunately, Spix’s probably has more going against it in captivity than any other species I can think of.
“Although we have achieved breeding success, there have been many mortalities along the way, primarily due to an insidious viral disease known as Proventricular Dilatation Disease (PDD). Only 27 offspring have hatched from 260 eggs. However, on a positive note, we do have a 100% success rate at rearing chicks that hatch.
“One of the biggest problems is that the Spix’s macaws the world over are too closely related to one another. No fewer than 69 of the 73 birds can be traced back to just two wild birds, which were siblings. Only about 10% of all eggs are actually viable as a result of inbreeding.”
DNA analysis of captive birds is enabling biologists to pair birds that are genetically compatible. “The data matrix provided by geneticists means we can rank every possible pair combination from A to E. The target is to have as many A, B, or C pairings as possible and not to have any D or E pairings. With D and E pairings, the viability of eggs (even if they are fertile) is severely compromised.”
Because there are no new wild birds available to genetically enrich the stock, “we’ve no alternative but to work with what we’ve got and just try to do our best.” Early embryonic death is a common problem among captive-bred Spix’s. Although most female birds are physiologically normal, lots of males have misshapen and/or small testes.
“This is a species that hasn’t adjusted well to captivity. If it had, there would be hundreds of individuals in aviaries around the world. There are lots of behavioural problems, such as males becoming very aggressive toward females during the breeding season, and feather plucking in response to stress. This makes us think there is also a hor-monal imbalance contributing to the problem.”
A psychopharmacological drug was used on an experimental basis in 2010 to try to calm down two pairs of birds. “One pair went from producing ten non-viable (probably infertile) eggs in 2009 to producing four eggs in 2010, all of which were fertile and two of which were also viable and hatched. The results are very encouraging and we shall be doing more work with that medication.”
Slowly, but surely, Al Wabra is edging closer to releasing some Spix’s macaws into the wild in the Curaçá district of Brazil’s Bahia state – one of the species’ former haunts – although no official plan exists at present.
“As far as the long-term prospects of establishing a genetically and demographically self-sustaining population are concerned, I would say the chances of success are probably 50-50 at best, but we won’t know for sure until we try,” explained Ryan.
“I’m convinced that a population of Spix’s living in the wild under natural conditions would do better than captive birds. There is some concern as to how well released birds would adjust, and whether they would be predated and/or poached. To be honest, I am not overly worried about such issues. The moment you have people in an area, be they research biologists or conservationists, poachers are rarely seen. Parrot poachers tend to be quite cowardly and disappear when there are people around.”
The idea is that a group of female Spix’s would be released first into the wild because females outnumber males almost 2:1. “If they coped well, a number of young macaws, including young males, could then be set free to form the nucleus of a wild breeding population.
“The longer birds remain in captivity, the more institutionalised they become. What’s more, their brains never develop to the same extent as wild birds because of the lack of stimuli. That is why it is best practice to release young birds.”
In the early stages, young birds would be far more curious than older ones. They would be keen to experiment with different foods and possess a natural awareness of predators.
“With captive-bred Echo parakeets, we released them into the wild when they were only 65 to 90 days old. They not only survived but flourished.”
Ryan says it’s possible the pioneering females could be released as early as 2014.
“We’ve still a long way to go, but the future is potentially very exciting for the Spix’s macaw – especially when you have someone like Sheikh Saoud Al-Thani committed to the success of the programme.”
Fact file 1
Al Wabra has bought a 2,380-hectare farm within the historically most important area for wild Spix’s macaws. Located in the Curaçá district of Bahia state in Brazil, Concordia Farm is where the last recorded sighting of a wild Spix’s macaw was made in October 2000. The farm is now available to become a release site for captive-bred ma-caws. Livestock are being removed and the land allowed to revert to a more natural state.
Fact file 2
Owned by Sheikh Saoud Bin Mohammed Bin Ali Al-Thani, Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation is a farm dedicated to the study, conservation, and captive breeding of rare and endangered animal species. It covers an area of 2.5km2 and is situated near the town of Al Shahaniya in central Qatar.
The oldest Spix’s macaw in captivity is 37 years old this year and one of the birds at Al Wabra. “This is a pretty exceptional age for this species,” said Ryan. “The normal age range in captivity is 25 to 30 years. Formerly a wild bird, Al Wabra bred two young birds from this male in 2010. Prior to that, he hadn’t bred for ten years, so that was a really good result.”