Tambopata Macaw Project


Due to their large size and beauty, macaws make excellent flagship species and serve as charismatic focal points for the conservation of the ecosystems where they occur. Unfortunately, throughout most of tropical America, large macaws have suffered major population declines.

The Tambopata Macaw Project was begun in 1989 under the field direction of Eduardo Nycander. They started with a goal of learning about the basic ecology and natural history of large macaws so that this information could be used to help their conservation. In 1999 Dr. Brightsmith took over the direction and operations of the project.

How to get to Tambopata Macaw Project?

First thing is get to the Tambopata Research Center, where the Project run on. But how to get to Tambopata Research Center? The first step on the trip to Tambopata Amazon Peru includes a plane trip from Lima or Cusco. Flights from Lima depart from Jorge Chávez International Airport. The trip takes about 3 hours. Most flights stop in Cusco before continuing to Puerto Maldonado. Flights from Cusco depart from the Velasco Astete airport. This trip lasts around forty-five minutes.

Upon arrival in Puerto Maldonado, you will be welcomed by a guide. At the office in Puerto Maldonado, you can store your luggage that you would not need. Baggage is transported by hand at various stages of the long-distance trip, so we ask that you please limit your weight to 15 kilos (32 pounds per piece). You can pack bags separately and leave them safely in our offices in Puerto Maldonado the first day so that we do not load them unnecessarily. On the day you would be leaving, we will be handing over your luggage to you at the airport.

Things to Note:

After taking care of the luggage, we will be taking a 40-minute trip to the Community Port of Infierno, where you will be boarding a long, stout canoes equipped with outboard motors and upstream to Refugio Amazonas. The three-hour boat trip is pleasant and often includes our first sightings of macaws, herons, alligators and capybaras. Once the boat would dock at the hostel, you will be in the Tambopata jungle! We do not travel by boat in the dark, so we spend our first night in Refugio Amazonas. Early in the morning you will leave for the four-hour boat trip to Tambopata Research Center. An hour and a half of trip, you enter the uninhabited and pristine nucleus of the Tambopata National Reserve and in the main territory of the Jaguar!

The Tambopata Macaw Project

Tambopata Macaw Project is a long-term multidisciplinary study of natural history, conservation and management of large macaws and parrots. The main topics of study included monitoring and observation of macaw nests, increasing survival rates of younger Scarlet Macaw chicks, documenting patterns of clay lick use by large macaws and other parrots, and documenting and understanding the impact of tourism on macaw clay licks.

What are the relationship between Clay Licks and Macaw Conservation?


A “Colpa” or “Clay Lick” is a ravine in the river of clay formation. People here believe that this clay contains vital salts and minerals that are used in the diet of birds. It is also believed that small clay particles serve to detoxify the diet of fruits of birds. But where is Macaw Clay Lick located? The Colorado Macaw Clay Lick is recognized as the largest clay lick in the Peruvian Amazon. It is located 150 km from the city of Puerto Maldonado (around 8 hours by boat). It is located in the Tambopata National Reserve, to the left bank of Tambopata river.

Tambopata Macaw project has been working hard to understand the links between the clay lick, nesting, tree phenology (flowering and fruiting) and the movements of parrots in and out of the area. Over a thousand mornings of clay lick observation and literally hundreds of thousands of registrations may be the largest set of parrot data ever assembled. We have come a long way in understanding these interactions. Now we have a much better idea of what drives the annual life cycles of the macaws and parrots in Tambopata.

The following relationships have been discovered:

Weather Impact:

  • Daily weather has a strong influence on the number of parrots that use the lick: least on rainy days and the most on clear sunny days.
  • The seasonal climate changes drive the fluctuations in the annual food supply for parrots and macaws (flowers, unripe fruits, and ripe fruits). Food availability is apparently lowest at the end of the wet season and early dry season (March – July) and highest in the early to mid wet season December and January.
  • Annual fluctuations in food supply drive two things: the annual movements of parrots to and from the area around Tambopata Research Center and the time they breed.

– During the seasons of lowest food availability, the birds apparently leave the area around TRC as the number of birds in the forest drops dramatically from April – July.

– The timing of breeding is apparently driven by the food supply: the number of parrot species breeding is closely correlated with the number of trees in fruit or flower. However, not all species breed simultaneously. Smaller species apparently breed earlier than larger ones.


  • Movements of parrots out of the area during periods of low food abundance reduce the number of birds using the clay lick. In addition, when food supplies are high, the birds apparently congregate in the vicinity of the lick.
  • The timing of breeding also influences the number of birds at the clay lick, because for most parrot species, clay lick use peaks during the breeding season, specifically when the birds have young chicks in the nest. We have found that Scarlet Macaws feed their chicks large amounts of clay, especially when the chicks are young. As the chicks age, the amount of clay they receive drops and the total use of the lick by the species drops as well.
  • As a result the number of birds at the clay lick is the result of the daily weather, seasonal climate, seasonal fluctuations of food supply (driven by seasonal climate), nomadic wanderings of the parrots (driven by changes in food supply, and the timing of the breeding season (also driven by changes in food supply).
  • Evidence that clay lick use is driven by the bird’s need for sodium have been founded.
  • Using soil samples analysed by researchers at Texas A&M University we have found that birds apparently prefer soils with higher sodium content over soils that are best at neutralising toxins.
  • There have seen parrots engaging in behaviour similar to that seen at clay licks while visiting the sodium-rich mineral springs in Contamana (central Peru). It is suspect that the palms are rich in sodium and for this reason the birds are eating them.

Impacts of Tourism on the Macaw Clay Lick

The number of birds at the Tambopata Macaw Clay Lick is not correlated with the number of people observing the lick. This means that approximately the same number of birds go to the clay lick regardless of the number of people watching the birds. Tourists are kept together and relatively quiet at a distance of 150 m or more from the lick. These results suggest that the protocol in use by Rainforest Expeditions is not causing major reductions in the number of birds using the lick, but additional analyses are needed to determine if there are more subtle impacts on the birds

How can we contribute to the Macaws conservation?

  1. We suggest that conserving the areas near clay licks is very important because these areas: harbor very large concentrations of parrots, should have high densities of breeding birds that may serve as a source for individuals that then disperse throughout the wider landscape.
  2. It also shows that many, if not all, species of parrots in Tambopata move throughout the landscape, so just protecting small areas around clay licks is not enough to support healthy populations of parrots over the long term.
  3. As a result, large-scale destruction of the forests adjacent to the Tambopata National Reserve and an increase in pet trade resulting from the Trans-Oceanic Highway could significantly impact the populations of parrots that use the clay licks around Tambopata Research Center and other licks located deep within the reserve.

Macaw Nests and reproductive rates

Data from monitoring hundreds of nests from Blue and Gold, Red and Green, and Scarlet Macaw nests show that:

  • Natural, PVC, and wooden nest boxes all have vastly different hatching success rates. Natural nests have a hatching success rate of 65% while the PVC nest boxes commonly used around TRC have hatching rates of only 41%. The hatching rates in wooden boxes may be higher (80%) but the sample sizes are too small to draw any conclusions.

  • Twenty-four percent of all Scarlet Macaw chicks monitored (9 of 37) died of starvation or would have if the researchers had not intervened. Our findings suggest that sibling competition and not the overall food supply may be the determining factor in chick survival, but larger sample sizes are needed to confirm these preliminary findings.


  • Dipteryx micrantha and Mauritia flexuosa are keystone tree species for parrot nesting in southeastern Peru. Clearing for agriculture, targeted destruction of parrot nests by collectors and selective felling of key species will reduce the density of suitable nest cavities.

Macaw Project Volunteer

Working with the Tambopata Macaw Project is physically and mentally demanding but it is also highly rewarding. A chance to live and work in this remote rainforest location is a wonderful learning experience for all those interested in biology and biological diversity.

Thousands of hours of observations have been conducted over the years which would not have been possible without the help of the many volunteers and assistants. They have offered their time and energy for the cause of science and conservation. Volunteers are one of the most important aspects to the project.

How can I turn into a Tambopata research center volunteer?

There are no qualification limitations. Although, most volunteers come from a biological or environmental background. All applicants are welcome, as we can find a role for almost any type of volunteer.

As this is an on-going project we accept volunteers throughout the year.