Scarlet Macaw Ara macao

  • Order: Psittaciformes
  • Family: Psittacidae
  • Polytypic: 2 subspecies
  • Authors needed...


Geographic Variation

The Scarlet Macaw (Linnaeus, 1758 -Psittacus macao) has been recognized as a monotypic species (Forshaw 1989). During the last two decades, however, aviculturists have expressed that Scarlet Macaws from Central America and Mexico and South America have some differences in wing plumage color and body size (Smith 1991). Abramson and Thomsen (1995) suggested that there are probably three subspecies of Scarlet Macaws. Their argument, nevertheless, is based on captive bred specimens and they did not provide information on their natural distribution, morphometrics or genetics. Voren (1996) mentioned also that among aviculturists it is common to refer to the Bolivian Scarlet Macaws as the "giant Bolivians." Nevertheless, he suggested that Scarlet Macaws captured in Colombia are smuggled in large quantities into Bolivia for exporters. The traffic of Scarlet Macaws between countries in Latin America to supply bird dealers and the captive breeding of these different geographical populations make it unacceptable to describe subspecies solely from captive macaws or from doubtful origin.  Captive breeding of Scarlet Macaws in the United States and other countries has been a very common practice for many decades (Hopkinson 1926; Schubot et al. 1992; Abramson 1991, 1996). The captive breeding of Scarlet Macaws from South America with specimens from México or Central America and the encouragement of color mutations (e.g., plumage predominantly white with normal iris, bill, and feet colors) of this species have been common within aviculturists (De Dios and Sweeney 1995, Gabel and Elgas 1995, Voren 1996). Recently, several avicultural organizations (e.g., American Federation of Aviculture) have issued policies to stop hybridizing macaws and other birds (Gabel and Elgas 1995). Aviculturists, particularly in the United States and Philippines, who continue to hybridize macaws and other parrots apparently are driven by curiosity and financial incentives (De Dios and Sweeney 1995). These macaw hybrid offspring usurp the biological value of their parents by diverting genetic material from their respective species.

Wiedenfeld (1994) suggested regarding the morphometrics and color plumage of Scarlet Macaws from known localities suggested that the species should be split in two subspecies, A. macao cyanoptera and A. m. macao. The first possible subspecies historically occurred from México, through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, to central Nicaragua. The second possible subspecies range from Panama to South America and should be refered as the nominate race (A. m. macao). Specimens occurring in southern Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica should be considered a population in a zone of intergradation between the two races. Further phylogenetic studies on the degree of the genetic divergence and habitat differences on proposed subspecies are needed.

Related Species

There are 139 extant psittacine species in the Neotropics, 66% belong to only six genera including Ara (Ridgway 1916, Forshaw 1989).  Macaws are one of the most familiar groups of Neotropical parrots.  It is not clear how many extant genera and species of psittacidae birds belong to the macaw group.  Several authors have proposed different taxonomic classifications for the macaw group, adding genera or moving species from one genus to another.  These taxonomic suggestions are based on external characters such as plumage coloration than in cytogenetic studies, behavioral ecology, or biogeography. Authors such as Ridgely (1982), Forshaw (1989) and Abramson et al. (1995) have suggested that only three extant genera, Anodorhynchus, Cyanopsitta, and Ara comprise the macaw group. Ridgeway (1916) suggested the existence of 12 species of the genus Ara. Low (1990) proposed that the Hahn's or Red-shouldered Macaw, (A. nobilis) should be considered a distinct genus (Diopsittaca nobilis) because it is more morphologically and behavioraly akin to the genus Aratinga than Ara.  The genus Rhynchopsitta also is closely related to Ara (Ridgely 1982, Forshaw 1989) and could be considered a small macaw. Sloan (1972) treats the Spix's Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) as a species from the genus Ara (A. spixii).

There is scant information about how many kinds of macaws have existed.  We only know that all of the six or seven species of macaws endemic to West Indies islands (e.g., Dominican Macaw [Ara atwoodi], Cuban Macaw [A. tricolor]) once occurred in large numbers but are now extinct (Du Tertre 1654, De Rochefort 1658, Sloane 1725, Labat 1742, Browne 1789, Atwood 1791, Clark 1905, Greenway 1958 all in: Snyder et al. 1987).  How well differentiated most of these extinct island forms may have been is conjectural because for most of them there are no specimens or bones or even thorough written descriptions.  There is some evidence suggesting that most of these West Indian macaws may have diverged from a common ancestor: either the Scarlet Macaw (A. macao) or Green-winged Macaw (A. chloroptera) (Ridgway 1916, Snyder et al. 1987).

For this species account I follow the classification suggested by the American Ornithologist Union (AOU ADD REFERENCE?????).  The Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) is among the 18 psittacine species commonly known as macaws. These macaw species are included today in five different genera (Anodorhynchus, Cyanopsitta, Ara, Orthopsittaca and Primolius) (AOU North America and South America Checklis references here). There are only nine species of macaws of the genus Ara including Ara macao.

Recommended Citation

Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao), In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: