Birds of paradise

The Hyacinth Preservation Society works to repopulate an endangered species

Cara O’Keefe, founder of the Hyacinth Preservation Society, with her hyacinth macaw, Dewey.

Cara O’Keefe, founder of the Hyacinth Preservation Society, with her hyacinth macaw, Dewey.

Photo By kat kerlin

Shortly after Cara O’Keefe decided she wanted another baby, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, meaning her baby plans came to a halt. Filling that void was something rather unexpected—something with a long, cobalt blue body and bold yellow around its eyes and beak. His name is Dewey, and he’s a hyacinth macaw.

“Aside from the costs, they’re quite literally like a child,” she says.

It’s been a year-and-a-half since she found Dewey in Washington state, where his previous owner had died. While O’Keefe’s cancer has been gone for five years, Dewey is still very much around. Perched on her shoulder, he occasionally rubs against her cheek like a cat, vying for affection.

“If it returns, now I have another reason to live,” she says.

Dewey is a “runt” at about 32 inches long and around 3 pounds. Most hyacinth macaws are 38 to 40 inches long and weigh 3.5 to 4.5 pounds, making them the largest flying parrot in the world. Their native habitat is primarily in Brazil, as well as Paraguay and Bolivia.

They are also an endangered species, which is something O’Keefe didn’t know when she first adopted Dewey. “Realizing they could be extinct in my lifetime—imagine 40 of these flying in the forests of Brazil,” says O’Keefe. There are currently about 6,500 wild hyacinth macaws left. It’s become her goal to increase their population, for which she recently began a nonprofit called the Hyacinth Preservation Society.

Though they became illegal to import in the 1980s, some hyacinth macaws are smuggled out of their native lands and placed on the black market, which is the main reason they’re endangered. Prized for their feathers and beauty, the birds cost around $10,000-$12,000 from a legitimate source but can be found for as low as $500 on the black market. Their population numbers also dwindle as forest habitat is cleared for farmland.

While O’Keefe can’t repopulate the forests of South America with hyacinth macaws, she’s trying to raise money for a breeder pair so that more of them can be born and placed in wildlife preserves and zoos. But she’s not looking for a mate for Dewey,

“They mate for life, and he thinks I’m his mate, so he won’t mate,” she explains.

Breeding isn’t easy. Hyacinth macaws only breed every other year, and only one of the four or five eggs they typically lay is expected to survive.

Taking care of a hyacinth macaw isn’t easy, either. They need constant attention, baths, can’t be left alone for long, and their cages need to be cleaned daily. Their diet also costs more than your average kibble: O’Keefe spends $200 to $300 a month on the macademia nuts and coconuts he requires. And they live to be 75 to 100 years old, so their long-term care needs to be taken into account.

O’Keefe says legitimate sellers of hyacinth macaws will be able to provide either papers (similar to pure bred dog papers), or the birds will be banded by the American Federation of Aviculture. There are lots of scams out there, and O’Keefe says that sellers offering less than $3,000 or who won’t let you see the bird before buying it, shouldn’t be trusted.