The loneliest bird in the world

by Michael McCarthy

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To be the last person left on the planet is a fairly familiar dream. Indeed, at the height of the Cold War in the early Sixties, when the Berlin and Cuban crises made nuclear war and human extinction seem a real and even imminent possibility, it was a common one (Bob Dylan even got a song, "Talkin' World War III Blues", out of it). The idea holds a peculiar fascination: not only to be completely alone - to have no one to talk to, no one to listen to, no one to touch or walk beside, no one to share with - but to be beyond loneliness. To be the last on earth, the end of one's species.

To be the last person left on the planet is a fairly familiar dream. Indeed, at the height of the Cold War in the early Sixties, when the Berlin and Cuban crises made nuclear war and human extinction seem a real and even imminent possibility, it was a common one (Bob Dylan even got a song, "Talkin' World War III Blues", out of it). The idea holds a peculiar fascination: not only to be completely alone - to have no one to talk to, no one to listen to, no one to touch or walk beside, no one to share with - but to be beyond loneliness. To be the last on earth, the end of one's species.

With six billion people on the planet and the threat of a nuclear holocaust receding (at least for the time being), it seems unlikely that any human being will actually have to experience such unique isolation. But a member of another of the earth's species has done so: a parrot. A beautiful, brilliant-blue parrot with a grey head and a long, azure tail: Spix's macaw, the rarest bird in the world.

For the last 10 years, and probably longer, there has been one Spix's macaw left in the remote, arid corner of north-east Brazil which is the bird's home. Just the one. A male. Along a creek fringed with tall caraiba trees in the thorn scrubland of the province of Bahia, a few miles south of the small town of Curaça, this one bird has spent more than a decade flying, foraging and feeding, sleeping and waking, calling and silent, entirely alone.

The rest of its tribe were driven to extinction, first by the destruction of their wooded-creek habitat by grazing animals over a long period, and then in the Seventies and Eighties by bird collectors. Cyanopsitta Spixii, discovered in 1819 by Johann Baptist von Spix, a naturalist working for the Emperor of Austria, has never been common since it was first recorded; once the bird trappers of Bahia moved in on it, liming the caraiba tree branches in the few creeks where it remained, its fate was sealed. By the end of the Eighties, it was believed to be extinct in the wild.

In 1990, however, the International Council for Bird Preservation (now Birdlife International), the umbrella group for bird protection societies across the world, mounted a last expedition to try and find any survivors. It was led by two ornithologists: Tony Juniper, a Briton, and Carlos Yamashita, a Brazilian. Juniper is currently the deputy head of Friends of the Earth in London, and as such is an ever-ready source of incisive soundbites on the Government's environmental policies (or lack of them). But he is also one of the world's leading parrot experts, and in 1990 he was parrot conservation officer for the ICBP. ("I was Parrot Central," he grins.)

For a month Juniper, Yamashita and their team criss-crossed north-eastern Brazil in four-wheel-drive vehicles, checking rumours, talking to bird trappers and dealers, scanning the likely habitat everywhere they went, without success. It was not until they reached Curaça that their luck changed. A young man overheard them talking in a bar, looked at their photograph of the blue parrot with the distinctive grey head and said: "I know where you can find that bird."

He directed them to a farm 25 miles to the south. They arrived there that evening: yes, said the farmer, that bird lives here in the creek. His wife had seen it that very day.

Before dawn the next morning, on 8 July 1990, Juniper and Yamashita drove to the creek, walked in among the shadows of the fringing caraiba trees, and waited. As the sky began to flood with light, they suddenly heard, as Juniper remembers, "a very distinct cry: this very resonant and raucous krraaa! krraaa! that had almost a trilling quality". They had heard recordings: they knew what it was.

"Yamashita looked at me, and his eyes were bright and wide and sparkling," Juniper says. "And then, within a minute, it was flying up the creek towards us. There was no mistaking it, the long blue tail and the pale head. I could only think, 'Christ, we've found it'."

To paraphrase Monty Python: Spix's macaw was not an ex-parrot.

But only just. Besides the one bird left in the wild - and no more have ever turned up - in 1990 there were only a very few individuals surviving in captivity, perhaps a dozen or so. (Many of the last birds to be trapped had died.) They were owned by a small number of rich, private collectors in the Philippines, Switzerland, the Canaries and Brazil itself, whose interest in them was for the most part purely self-regarding: possessing and privately displaying these rarest and most fabled of living jewels, worth, should they ever go on the open market, perhaps in excess of £50,000 each.

The Spix's Macaw Story, if Hollywood were to film it, is the tale of how over the last 10 years these collectors were persuaded to co-operate with each other and the Brazilian government, building up the captive stock to the point where birds might be returned to the wild, while the one remaining free Spix - whose assistance is thought vital in teaching the captive-bred birds to readopt to life outside - stubbornly clung on alone, year after year.

The ending has not yet been written, but the story's beginning was encouraging enough. The Brazilian government set up a Permanent Committee for the Recovery of the Spix's Macaw, which proceeded to involve the local community very successfully in the conservation effort. The lone wild bird was intensively studied, with field biologists absorbing all that could be learnt about its habits and behaviour. Then, in March 1995, a female from the growing captive stock was released alongside it.

Disaster followed. The female found the male and joined him, flew with him as a partner for a time, but then vanished completely. It was eventually discovered that she had flown into power lines.

Over the last five years the recovery programme has learnt from its earlier efforts and has built itself up in readiness for a new and more ambitious attempt at reintroduction. The captive stock has grown to 61 birds; last year Antonio DeDios, a millionaire industrialist from the Philippines who owns the largest number, was persuaded to part with five of them for the project. According to Natasha Schischakin, a Brazilian-born biologist from Texas's Houston Zoo and a key figure in the programme, the reintroduction attempt will take place with these birds at the end of this year, or perhaps early in 2001.

A blessing on it. A heartening thought, indeed, that Spix's macaw may come back from the very brink of extinction and once again flourish in its natural home.

Yet is it mere sentiment to spare a thought not only for the species, but for the individual bird which has clung on by itself, and which, as of this week, was still there, a whole decade after it was found? Tony Juniper thinks not: "For more than 10 years it has managed to outwit predators, survived droughts, survived trappers and found enough to eat, alone. It's an astonishing achievement."

The bird has taken on a mystic significance for the people of Curaça and its region, as Schischakin has observed. "He is the last one but he has been able to survive, holding on to the land just like they are doing, in spite of tremendous hardship. They relate to him greatly." She adds: "I don't want to anthropomorphise, but you do have to admire him for his stoicism and his ability to survive. He's a very wily guy. And it's been a long 10 years."

But perhaps it really is nearly over now; this unique isolation, the one that humans sometimes have dreams about but are unlikely ever to experience. And if our species can end this exile for a member of another species, if we can later this year bring him five fellows to fly with, forage and feed with, to sleep and wake with, to call and be silent with, all to the good.

Hang on in there, Spix. It's been 10 years and more, but hang on for a few months longer. We're coming.

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