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My Feathered Friends: “Spix and the Spix’s macaw”

Artists for Conservation

This is a painting of the beautiful blue Spix's macaw Cyanopsitta spixii, and  the only species in its genus which makes it monotypic. The painting was part of the 2009 AFC exhibit held at the Hiram Blauvelt Art Museum in New Jersey.

The Spix's macaw is one of just four species of blue macaws ever known. The other three are the Glaucous macaw that has not been sighted over 50 years and is presumed extinct, the Lear's macaw, (listed as "critical") and the well known Hyacinth macaw.

The Spix's macaw has the dubious distinction of being the most critically endangered parrot in the world with no individuals remaining in the wild.

Cyanopsitta spixii was named after its discoverer, German naturalist Johann Baptist von Spix (1781 - 1826).During his relatively short life he compiled an impressive list of publications he made after his expeditions.

From 1817 until 1820 he travelled through Brazil together with another naturalist named Von Martius, returning with specimens of 6,500 plants, 2,700 insects, 85 mammals, 350 birds, 150 amphibians and 116 fish. These formed the basis of the collection of the Natural History Museum in Munich of which Spix was the first conservator. During this Brazilian expedition he discovered the Spix's Macaw.

The journeys of these early naturalists are impressive; they were brave pioneers that had none of the comforts of our modern way of travelling. Unfortunately Spix lost his life to the Brazilian adventure: he died in 1926, six years after his return from the ills contracted during the trip.

Spix and Von Martius wrote a four-volume narrative of the expedition "Reise in Brasilien in den Jahren 1817 bis 1820". The volume that I found in the library depot of the University of Amsterdam is not so much a travel journal but more of a documentary with stunning drawings and etchings.

Having done an AFC expedition myself, and while working on a journal during the trip, I wondered how someone made such beautiful and detailed art during such a difficult journey. Or maybe the art was done afterwards by an artist working by the instructions of Spix? The book doesn't say but it definitely deserves more attention than the oblivion it's in now.

One of the maps shows the area where Spix saw his blue macaw for the first time: in Joazeiro at the Sao Francisco river in the province of Bahia.

I painted part of the map as a background for the parrots. I kept the background low-tune with browns and greys so the blue of the parrots would stay in focus.

Spix also published a book about birds in Brazil called "Avium Brasiliensium Species Novae". In this book he describes his parrot for the first time. He calls it Arara Hyacinthinus to distinguish it from the other blue macaw in his book that he calls Anodorhynchus Maximiliani (this is the macaw that we now know as the Hyacinth macaw). In fact, Spix came up with Anodorhynchus as a new species name for the large blue macaws with their notched bills. The Spix's macaw obviously did not belong to this group, hence Arara.

J.G. Wagler, first assistant to Spix and later Director of the Zoological Museum at the University of Munich, renamed the bird in 1932 and gave it the name of the man who discovered it - good for him because the Arara Hyacinthinus name was confusing because of the other blue parrot.

Hundred and seventy years after its discovery, the Spix's Macaw became extinct in the wild. Luckily the species is conserved by a captive population. There are approx. 70 individuals and there are several breeding programs that will pave the way for future reintroductions.

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