“Bolivian” Scarlets?

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Q: I would like to purchase a pair of scarlet macaws. I have seen several advertisements that claim to be selling Bolivian scarlets. Some ads have described scarlets as ‘giant Bolivians.” Are Bolivians really that oversized? How do they differ from the other types, and are they worth more than other scarlet macaws?

A: There is no such thing as a “Bolivian scarlet.” That is not to say that there are no scarlet macaws in Bolivia. They do not, however, differ in any remarkable way from the majority of scarlets in the rest of South America. The first time that I saw reference to this misnomer was in an ad in the now defunct American Cage Bird Magazine. Within four months, I began to see similar references showing up in other ads. I called several of these advertisers to inquire how they made their determination as to the origin of their birds. Many replied, “I talked to some guy who ran a similar ad, and he said that if they are big and have green on the wings, they are from Bolivia.”

The two major variants of scarlets that I have seen in the South American range are those from northern Colombia and those from northern Brazil. The last country to export scarlet macaws legally to the United States was Guyana. Guyana is on the northern coast of South America and borders northern Brazil. Scarlets were imported in relatively large quantities from Guyana. Most of the birds collected for export were from the southernmost jungles along the northern Brazilian border. These are the birds that most closely resemble those that were previously imported from Bolivia. They are, however, much bigger, more brightly colored and show a much more extensive color “mottling” on the tips of both the red and yellow feathers of the wings. Although there is a larger variety of scarlet that comes from the Honduran-Nicaraguan area of Central America, many of the birds that were imported from Guyana were huge. It is these birds that are undoubtedly being mistakenly labeled as “giant Bolivian” scarlets.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bolivia was open to the export of macaws. Blue & golds were available in tremendous quantities, but scarlets were always in short supply. Although a reasonable quantity of scarlets were exported from Bolivia to the U.S. during their export years, many of them were not from Bolivia. During my travels through Central and South America, I made a study of the different color variations of the scarlet macaws as I traveled through their range. At one time or another, I had observed specimens from every major part of their range, except Bolivia. When I was asked to travel to Bolivia, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to observe the missing link in the puzzle that I had put together in my head for many years. With the knowledge that I already had, I could look at a scarlet and tell you from what county it was exported. I had already seen some of the birds that were coming in from there, and they were no different than those that were available in other parts of its lower South American range. The only difference that I could see was that they appeared slightly smaller and a bit less brightly colored than those that ranged north of Bolivia.

Upon my arrival, I visited the compound of one of the larger exporters. The exporter bragged that he had the largest quantity of scarlet macaws available for export in Bolivia. When I looked through the cages in his compound, I was shocked. Half of the scarlets looked exactly as I predicted. They were a bit smaller than those from some northern areas, and they had moderate to extensive green coloration that “masked” the yellow wing coverts. The others were of a color variety that I had previously observed only in northern Colombia and Panama. They had a clear “band” of yellow on the wings with no greens or blues “masking” the tips. I was extremely disheartened. I thought that I had it all figured out. “If it looks like this, it’s from here, and if it looks like that, it’s from there.” The fact that these birds were in Bolivia most certainly proved that I was grossly mistaken. The exporter wanted to know why I appeared so sad after looking at such a beautiful group of macaws. I didn’t bother to explain.

Four years later, I traveled to Baranquilla, Colombia, from Panama. I wanted to see if rumors were true about them having a blue Amazon in the public zoo. They not only had that but several other mutations including a blue and white mutation of the blue-and-gold macaw. My taxi driver, upon hearing that I was involved in the bird business, offered to introduce me to one of the oldest and largest Colombian exporters who was stationed in that city.

I had heard of this man for many years but had never met him. After we were introduced and got past the usual formalities, he asked me if I had any clients outside the U.S. that were interested in purchasing shipments of macaws. I explained that I had no such clients and added that I was under the impression that Colombia had prohibited the export of macaws. He agreed but added that this was not a problem.

“Your government is the only one that worries about whether papers are legitimate or not. We have never stopped business,” he bragged. He added that he had not only been shipping regularly to Europe, but had sent quite a few scarlets to several Bolivian exporters so they could fill the orders that they had from the importers in the U.S. I broke into a huge smile from ear to ear. He wondered why I was so happy. I explained that I had always wondered what northern Colombian macaws were doing in Bolivia.