Reintroduced Red-and-green Macaws have embarked on the momentous challenge of learning to survive in the wild while returning to their critical role of maintaining forest ecosystems
By Milo Putnam on November 15, 2022
What is red and green and helps reforest all over? Nioky the macaw! Okay, corny jokes aside, the forests of Iberá National Park are beginning to make a comeback thanks to the help of reintroduced Red-and-green Macaws, including Nioky, where his fruit-eating species is once again playing a vital role in regenerating and maintaining the forests of Argentina by dispersing fruits and large seeds from a number of native tree species.
Red-and-green Macaws, or Guaa Pyta as they were called by the Guarani people of northern Argentina before the species became locally extinct 170 years ago, have made this significant comeback thanks to the efforts of Rewilding Argentina, one of Re:wild’s close partners. This reintroduction work, which started in 2015 by Tompkins Conservation and their offspring organization, Rewilding Argentina, has been anything but predictable. Instead, this project has experienced ups and downs and plenty of surprising challenges--but with thrilling rewards. Throughout this saga, one macaw has stood out from the rest as an unofficial ambassador for the journey in rewilding his species. Rewilding Argentina team members unanimously agree that Nioky is far and away the most charismatic member of this innovative project.
“Nioky’s journey has been anchored with milestones for his species’ return to Iberá,” says Marianela Masat coordinator of the Red-and-green Macaw reintroduction project. “He was the first macaw to be trained for rewilding and release, the first one to fall in love, the first one to use a nest box, the first one to father chicks. Along the way he survived the floods and wildfires, underlining his resilience to thrive in the wilds of Iberá.”
Historical records show Red-and-green Macaws once thrived in the forests of northern Argentina, playing a vital role as ‘gardeners’ by dispersing seeds from fruit-bearing trees. Mass deforestation and hunting drove macaw numbers in Argentina to plummet. By about 1917 the last wild macaws in the country had been hunted, leaving their ecological role empty.
Fast forward a century, conservationists begin work to return the ‘jewel of the air’ to the Argentine wilds. This is where the iconic role of Nioky comes to center stage. Likely a victim of the illegal wildlife trade, Nioky was voluntarily relinquished to the authorities of Argentina’s Corrientes providence--likely for the surrenderer to avoid prosecution for smuggling a protected species from either Brazil or Paraguay. From there the Aguará Conservation Center became his temporary home as momentum was building to return his species to the wilds of Argentina.
In 2015, along with six others of his species, Nioky was released into Iberá National Park after spending several weeks in an enclosure inside the park where he acclimatized to his new environment and was fitted with a tracking device. Unfortunately, over the course of just a few days, all but one of the seven macaws had either flown out of reach of their tracking equipment or fell victim to predation. This left Nioky alone as the only free-roaming Red-and-green Macaw in Argentina. For a highly social species, this was far from ideal. Biologists determined that Nioky would be recaptured for a fresh start and a second attempt at life in the wild.
After this initial attempt, Rewilding Argentina reimagined a plan for success. Since each of the reintroduced macaws had spent part or all of their lives in captivity, they had lost their ability to fly long distances. Biologists developed a complex plan to retrain the macaws to fly confidently, avoid predators and find food, using a new large-scale aviary in the Aguará Conservation Center.
After Nioky became better prepared for the wild, he was rereleased in 2017 with another group of macaws. It didn’t take him long to meet Sopa, a female Red-and-green Macaw who had also been returned to the wild. From there, Nioky and Sopa were the first rewilded pair to display courting and nest-building behaviors.
After multiple unsuccessful attempts at breeding, the pair finally hatched their first chicks in 2020. Their two daughters, named Tuco and Puré, became the first Red-and-green Macaws to be born in the Argentine wilderness in 150 years. But when the chicks were just two months old, Sopa mysteriously left the nest and did not return, leaving Nioky to care for them alone. With a little bit of help from Rewilding Argentina biologists, he was able to provide them with enough food to grow into healthy fledglings.
“Once his daughters were able to fly, Nioky would fly to the tallest tree he could find, halfway between the two to watch them, and when one of them flew, he would follow her to safety,” says Masat. “He stayed with his daughters for 10 months, during which time he led them to travel great distances through Iberá, teaching them to recognize and feed on native fruits and to flee from predators. An incredible feat for a single father.”
The following breeding season Sopa returned, and the pair primed their nest box and successfully hatched two chicks once again. But Nioky and Sopa could not have prepared for the catastrophic events that would then unfold In January of 2022, when wildfires raced through Iberá National Park, affecting nearly 60% of the entire park – including the nesting site for the reintroduced macaws. With two chicks that were less than a week old and not able to fly to safety, their survival depended on an intervention by the Rewilding Argentina team.
“Our team monitored the fires as they advanced near these nesting sites in the forest,” says Talía Zamboni, Rewilding Argentina’s former Iberá project conservation coordinator. “We had to go in the middle of the night to take the chicks to safety from their nests. Actually, carrying them out in our backpacks. We then had to cross the very tall vegetation of the wetland as we saw the flames coming closer. To say it was a stressful moment would be an understatement, but we were determined to rescue these little ones.”
Eventually, Nioky and Sopa were also recaptured to ensure their safety from the fires. Their entire family was brought to the Aguará Conservation Center where they remained for months as veterinarians worked to treat the two chicks for smoke inhalation. During this time Nioky and Sopa remained fierce parents caring for their young, Masat says. Despite the tremendous efforts to save them, both chicks died as a result of the chronic smoke damage to their lungs.
“When wildfires devour everything, our entire focus is on saving people and animals that cannot flee on their own,” says Sebastián Di Martino, conservation director at Rewilding
Argentina. “Once the flames had passed, we could stop and assess. We’ve concluded that, despite setbacks like these, we must continue to restore our environments and their species with long-term thinking and projects that seek the solution to environmental crises and climate change."
Although fire is a natural and necessary element to sustain healthy grassland ecosystems, recent wildfires are unusually intense, affecting larger areas for longer periods each year. Extended droughts and record-breaking temperatures driven by human-induced climate change are the primary drivers of this devastation. The work of Rewilding Argentina helps to combat this crisis by restoring healthy and functional ecosystems that are more resilient. Red-and-green Macaws play an important role in this restoration by consuming and dispersing seeds throughout the ecosystem to regenerate the forests.
Once the fires were controlled and Iberá was beginning to rebound, Nioky and Sopa were rereleased back to the wild, squawking as they returned home. There are currently around 30 Red-and Green Macaws in the national park. Rewilding Argentina hopes ultimately to build a self-sustaining population.
“Today we see Nioky and Sopa almost every day inside the park, very close to their nesting box,” says Masat. “In Iberá they are certainly considered ‘feathered royalty’ as they routinely fly over park visitors squawking, as if they are making their presence known, saying that today more than ever, that Red-and-green Macaws have returned to fly the Argentine skies and are here to stay.”
Milo is Re:wild's communications specialist working with our partners to share their stories in protecting and restoring the wild. With over a decade of natural resource interpretation and environmental education experience he lives to spark connections between people and wildlife. Milo loves to travel with his husband and is passionate about supporting ethical wildlife tourism.