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Born Free USA Global Field Projects

Macaws in the Blood

Published 05/16/11

Dr. LoraKim Joyner of Lafeber Conservation and Wildlife blogs:
In the past three weeks I have been working with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Guatemala to see what’s in the blood of the wild Scarlet Macaws. Specifically we collected blood samples from the chicks in the nests so we could conduct blood parasite, genetic, serum biochemistry, and hematology exams. The purpose of this work was to see what diseases might be present in the birds, such as parasites and malnutrition, and also to understand more about the genetic viability and relatedness in this population of about 250 birds.

To collect this blood is no easy matter. In some cases we walk over an hour to get to the nest tree, soaked through from carrying equipment in high temperatures and high humidity. The climber ascends a rope up to the nest, places the chicks in bags, and then lowers them to the ground. Often this same climber then has to descend to help us hold the chicks for the blood-collection process.

Before we draw blood we conduct a health exam, including measuring the weight and other biometrics (wing chord, bill length, etc.). Most chicks experience only a moderate amount of stress, as do the veterinarians. We want to ensure that we treat the chick with as much care and respect as possible, and that the blood is collected, handled, labeled and processed as perfectly as possible so that we can maximize the information gained from these birds.

After the bird is safely returned to the nest, blood processing begins immediately, including making blood smears and centrifuging the blood so as to separate the serum from the blood cells. Back at the lab (and I use the word “lab” liberally here because in these remote areas the lab may mean open spaces with or without a roof) we then further process the blood with the use of a microscope and various stains. The final steps include keeping the blood refrigerated at first, and then frozen until we can obtain the permits to import the blood into the United States. Finding and maintaining ice supplies in 100 degree weather is challenging, as is finding a freezer that actually freezes.

So far we have sampled 22 chicks and what we have found in the blood suggests several important considerations that will help us support these birds. This makes all the hard work so very much worthwhile when we know the data will contribute to the well being of this macaw.

Data isn’t the only thing we gain in this work. This being my third field season with macaws, I find that they are more and more in my blood, and even more so perhaps in those that work with them throughout the year over a period of many years. Seeing the parents in the nests flying over us and touching beauty with hands and hearts changes a person — for the better. We humans have the ability to compete or to collaborate, and our DNA allows for quite a wide range of variability in both. Spending so much time with the birds pulls on our hearts and rewires our brains to grow our care of other species, and to see them not as objects to be used, but as kin to offer kindness.

So while the geneticist on our team, Kari Schmidt, will be conducting genetic tests on the blood we collected, we humans too are undergoing a genetic test of sorts. We are being asked how far we can use evolution’s gift of compassion as elicited by our relationships with birds to change ourselves so that we may then intentionally and powerfully contribute to changing the hearts of others, as well as the cultural practices that instead of doing so much harm, could do so much more good.

It’s in our blood to harm and to help.

Read more updates about our scarlet macaw project.

See the scarlet macaw project's photo gallery.

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