The legends of the Mayans are living today, and not just in fantastic stories made up about the end of the world in December 2012 when the Mayan calendar resets. These legends persist against all odds as the Central American subspecies of scarlet macaw, Ara macao cyanoptera. Currently there may only be about a couple of hundred of these rainbow colored large macaws left in each of these countries: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Hondruas. We don’t know how many there are in Nicaragua. They are completely extirpated from El Salvador. Further south in Costa Rica there are more macaws, but these are of another subspecies that ranges throughout much of South America. Though the Central American subspecies’ numbers may be drastically reduced, their spirit remains vital and powerful.
The spirit of these birds has for a long time captured the imaginations of the peoples in this region. As a symbol of power, macaws decorated Mayan art, household items, and temples. These macaws often represented the god, 7 Macaw, whose family was the enemy of the mythical Twin Heroes. The power the macaws carried was also represented in their feathers. For this reason, the birds were taken from the wild so that their feathers could be applied to ritual and military adorments and clothes. Archeological records indicate that the use of feathers has been happening for over two thousand years. Also, used in religious rites of sacrifice to end the dry season, macaws met their deaths. These macaws were prized over a large area, as their remains have been found in archeological excavations as far north as Colorado, over a 1000 miles from the birds’ native range. This indicates a vast trading system that included not only capturing wild birds, but domestically breeding them. Inhabitants of Paquimé, a large settlement that flourished from 1200 to 1450 in what is now northern Chihuahua, was a large trading center of macaws. Analysis of the macaw bones (osteology) show that the birds had been raised in this area, and not just traded north out of their home range.
We cannot estimate the impact of this macaw trade in the hundreds of years before the Spanish proliferated here in the 16th century, but historical accounts show that it was active in the 1400’s onward, both between native peoples and to those who traded them to Europe. We do know that the trade in the last century was devastating as macaws in the mid 1900’s began to disappear from the countryside. So great is the desire for this bird all over the world, that its once fierce presence in Mesoamerica has gone the way of the powerful Mayan kingdoms of a thousand years ago. The bird is still sacrificed to appease human desire and to acquire prestige and power.
With other people, however, the desire to sacrifice the bird has been transformed into an urge for humans to sacrifice on behalf of the birds, for the descendants of the Mayans know what they have lost. In Honduras, the species was deemed the National Bird in 1993 and is symbolized in art and advertising all over Central America. An ethnoornithological account of Honduras reveals how aware the people are of the bird’s dissappearance (Seven Names for the Bell Bird by Mark Bonta).
Today there are dedicated patches of conservationists, risking their lives in some situations, to bring the bird back from the brink of extinction. The macaw still has the power to control human destinies.
There is a new age coming in 2013. May it be a time when we humans open ourselves to the vigorous beauty and force of this species, laying our egos and desires on the sacrificial altar so that we may do all we can to keep the legend alive.
They who bind to themselves a joy
Do the winged life destroy
They who kiss the joy as it flies
Live in eternity’s sunrise (adapted from William Blake)
To find out more how you can help keep the legend alive, you can discover for yourself the wonder of this bird by joining me on a tour of Guatemala and Honduras in 2013. On this trip we will visit conservation and Maya sites, experiencing the myth and magic of these people and parrots. I am looking for people who would like to be a witness to the beauty and the tragedy, so we can form a synergetic community to preserve the splendor of this earth. To have your name listed as a possible participant, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Besides traveling, you can also find out more by searching through this blog and this one http://liberatingwings.typepad.com/. To keep abreast of conservation efforts you can also join up here.