On our Central America cruise we visit Costa Rica and Panama, both countries with healthy populations of the scarlet macaw. The scarlet macaw (Ara macao) is a large, colorful macaw, native to humid evergreen forests in the American tropics where we travel. In many countries, scarlet macaws have suffered from local extinction through habitat destruction and capture for the parrot trade, but locally it remains fairly common, for example along the Osa peninsula, within Golfo Dulce in Costa Rica, and on the island of Coiba, Panama, all places we visit on our Costa Rica and Panama cruise.
The scarlet macaw is one of the largest members of the parrot family, measuring about 81 centimetres (32 in) long, of which more than half is the pointed, graduated tail typical of all macaws (the scarlet macaw, however, has a larger percentage of tail than the other large macaws) and the average weight is about 1 kilogram (2.2 lb). The plumage is mostly scarlet, but the rump and tail-covert feathers are light blue, the greater upper wing coverts are yellow, the upper sides of the flight feathers of the wings are dark blue as are the ends of the tail feathers, and the undersides of the wing and tail flight feathers are dark red with a gold iridescence.
Some researchers believe that the scarlet macaws found in northern Central America, Ara macao cyanoptera, are a different subspecies from those found in southern Central America into South America proper, Ara macao macao. The Ara m.macao is red and yellow with white patches on its face and green feathers on the wings, while Ara m.cyanoptera is also red and yellow with white patches on its face, but is larger and has blue on its wings instead of green. The northern Central American scarlet macaw is found from Mexico to Nicaragua, while the Ara m. macao is found in Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, Equador, Peru and Brazil. Some researchers do not believe the differences are enough to classify them into separate subspecies, and there remains some discussion on their respective distribution within Central America.
Scarlet macaws make very loud, high & sometimes low-pitched, throaty squawks, squeaks and screams designed to carry many miles to call for their groups, and although they are often kept as pets, this should be taken into consideration as well as the fact the scarlet macaw can live up to 50 years in captivity, although a more typical lifespan is 30 to 40 years. The scarlet macaw is a CITES I listed species, meaning that they are illegal to take from the wild without specific special permits and although they are not endangered as of 2008, are still very vulnerable to the pet trade.
In 1993, surveys were showning scarlet macaws occupied only 20% of their historic range in Costa Rica. However today, as they still occur in large numbers in some parts of their territory, where they are described as "common," the World Conservation Union evaluated the species in 2004 as "Least Concern". Nevertheless, the scarlet macaw’s habitat is fragmented, and colonies of the bird are mostly confined to tiny populations scattered throughout Central and South America. On our Panama and Costa Rica cruise we are fortunate to visit several areas where the scarlet macaw can be seen in their natural habitat and in healthy populations.