Island macaws find new home among endangered Bolivian kin

A Shawnigan Lake woman will say goodbye Thursday to 26 home-raised blue-throated macaws as they head off to boost critically low numbers in the wild Bolivian savannah.

This group of extremely endangered blue-throated macaws, ranging in age from recently hatched to 14 years old, will fly from Victoria in the cargo hold of a jet and eventually join their last few wild cousins, estimated at only 150.

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It’s bittersweet for April Sanderson, a self-described “parrot nut,” who has gone to a great deal of effort, expense, blood, sweat and tears to get them to this point.

“This is the first time parrots have been bred in Canada and released back to their native habitat,” said Sanderson, a 38-year-old wife and mother of two.

“I’ve had parrots since I’ve been a very small child. I’ve been working with this species since 2008.”

Most parrot breeders sell the birds to the pet trade, where they can go for $7,000 each.Sanderson started out doing that but later reconsidered.

“There are so many bad stories about parrots as pets, so I wanted to give back to conservation in some way,” said Sanderson.

The pet trade is believed to be a major cause of the plummeting wild populations.

Sanderson’s parrots will first fly to a zoo in Ontario where they will go into quarantine and undergo blood tests. After that, they will be flown to Bolivia, where they’ll be released in huge pens so they can fly and build up their muscles.

The birds have to be trained to survive in the wild before they’re released, she said.

They’ll learn to eat local food like palm fruit and will get acclimatized to the environment, Sanderson said.

It’s sad but gratifying to see the parrots move on in their lives, said Sanderson.

“It is a very emotional thing for me. This has kind of been my life’s work. We’ve worked so hard for so long, and now we have to put it in somebody else’s hands.

“It’s kind of a big deal.”

She’s fascinated with macaws, and jumped at the chance to get five breeding pairs. They all bred, and now Sanderson has 30 birds under her wing.

They can live 70 years and often mate for life. Their Bolivian habitat covers an area the size of Vancouver Island.

They can be hard to breed, but Sanderson said she’s happy with her success.

“They don’t start breeding until they’re 10 years old. That’s why they’re so often poached — nobody wants to wait 10 years until they start breeding them,” she said.

Her birds aren’t pets and she hasn’t taught them to talk, but they’ve inevitably picked up a few phrases heard at home, such as “Come on!”

Sanderson said she acquired a few rescued parrots over the years that had more colourful language.

Sanderson’s birds will join a group sent to Bolivia from the United Kingdom last year. Other macaws are being raised in the U.S. and Europe for future release.

More information on Canadian efforts to help parrots is available by emailing canada@parrots.org.

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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