The Quest for Aviculture in Central America

by D.T. Longo

Longo’s Aviaries Inc.
Meaford, Ontario, Canada

I first set foot on Salvadorian soil January 2012. It was a new world compared to dozens of other countries I have visited throughout my life. It seemed many things operated very simple there and it had many similarities to all the fond summers I enjoyed in Portugal in my younger years. My wife Mary and I travelled extensively through the northern countries, from Belize throughout south to Nicaragua with five cameras in hand looking for the common and elusive birds we do not always typically enjoy in aviculture globally.

Being the smallest country in Central America, El Salvador also has the highest population density at 245 people per square km in a country of six million. It is home to twenty two volcanoes, six are active and four of which we conquered. The national bird is the Turquoise-browed Motmot or as the local inhabitants address it, the Torogoz (Eumomota superciliosa). (see inset file “Turquoise-browed Motmot”) It closest relative is the Blue-crowned Motmot (Motmotus motmota) it wears stunning iridescent blues on the head and lines the throat, with darker blues down the back leading to the spectacular racket or spoon tail. Most importantly, here lies the smallest amount of primary forest remaining (~ 2%) in all of Latin America. There exists a long history of farmers extirpating forests for agricultural use, even the steepest slopes are not overlooked. The main commodities land is used for being coffee, corn, cotton and sugar cane. An unknown fact to Canadians and something to consider when quenching your addiction of Tim Horton’s Coffee, El Salvador’s the primary supplier of coffee beans, a near staggering 85%, remaining supplied from neighbours to the north in Guatemala. The major fruits grown here are coconut, mango, and watermelon. Harvesting of the country’s land has had major impact on some of the high profile fauna species as the Scarlet Macaw with the broad yellow band on the wing (A.m. cyanoptera) where it has been regionally extinct for the past 30-40 years. It still resides in parts of southeast Mexico, northern Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica but in remaining regions, it has been essentially extirpated. As a child, Mary vividly remembers these birds being readily available to potential buyers. We did see a few Scarlet Macaws in some private hands as pets and were represented in every zoological institution we visited.

We stayed with relatives in both San Salvador and La Union. For the first few months early in the year, we frequently stayed in San Salvador, where one particular family flock of fifteen to forty Green Conures (A.holochlora) flew over our home a couple of hours before dusk every day at 4:30 within five or ten minutes, they were always on time. They congregated with other groups in the same roosting spots every night and separate again in the mornings. We learned their schedule and had our tea on the deck to enjoy them or would go to the rooftop with our cameras and capture their flights (see inset/fielname “flock of holochlora”)

When we were in La Union, we had wildlife nearby to enjoy in a more rural setting. Mary has had a pet Yellow-Naped Amazons (A.auropalliata) in her family since she was a very young girl and they are still with us over 30 years later. We had mature trees surrounding our compound and many hung over into our yard. Termite mounds are commonly seen in these parts, some can sometimes weigh up to a couple of hundred pounds. One we located nearby was active behind our home but not only with termites. From time to time when we were near, we found two to four Orange-fronted Conures (A.canicularis) entering this same tree where we frequently heard chicks’ calls. Always in an adventurous mood, we walked around the compound’s wall topped with razor wire where scorpions wait under leaf litter and opportunist dogs eat the remains of fallen mango fruit around the human litter. We did see the conures go behind this termite mound from our view not five metres above ground and when they did, silence appropriately ensued from the chicks. We took a look on the other side of the mound and saw where the conures were entering. (see inset file “occupied termite mound”) A few weeks later, one morning in February, we heard a few cracks, a snap and a large thud. Running out back, we noticed fallen branches in the corner of the yard, we looked up and the branch holding the termite mound had broken. By the time we walked around the property walls ten to fifteen minutes later we found the shattered mound with two dogs circling it as they curiously sniff around.

We could hear noises so we moved around some of the dried mud and found one conure chick. As we cleared and dug around, we found a few more young. By the time we went through the whole area, we found six babies. If we did not arrive when we did, they would have been food for the furry four legged gangsters. Seeing we have had decades of hand rearing experience, this should be an easy task to undertake. The first challenge, where to find food to raise baby parrots in Latin America? As it turns out, we fell into the same category as any other locals who wanted young pet parrots or parakeets. We feed them masa, a white pasty baby food which was natural corn flour mixed with water, nothing else. I had a hard time digesting this different philosophy from a nutritional perspective as I now realized I have been pretty spoiled the past two decades having a choice of formulas at my disposal. It brought back mental images of same nutritional challenges before commercial formulas were available in N. America. As I recalled the main ingredients, peanut butter and monkey chow is what my mind recollected mixing baby formula for psittacines but we ended up doing what all the natives have done here for generations with good success. The birds were approximately three to four weeks already advanced in life so we got them weaned in another five to six weeks onto a seed diet mixed with corn tortillas and fruits. Corn is the staple of many foods here so it serves as a basic nutritional base even for the birds. The seed diets to select from local supermarkets here are inferior brands. There are higher percentages of dyed or coloured sunflower mixed with lower percentages of millets. It is common for any considerate animal owner or keeper here to give our extras of table scraps of corn based products, such as tamales or tortillas and also rice and beans. The locals also offer mango, guava, banana, oranges, and such to their feathered friends. This diet does have a good variety and offers suitable levels of proteins, carbohydrates and fat. It is self explanatory why some of these birds are with their owners so long.

Aviary construction was now imminent; the amazons were due for a larger enclosure as well. How do I build aviaries without my tools, without smooth finished common sized lumber in short time? We searched many of the hardware stores or ferreterías and I had to go right back to carpentry basics, hand saw, hammer and nails. How I loathe manual labour in 35 degree celsius weather. To my credit, I did have a drill on site which helped immensely and I usually waited for the peak heat to die down and a drink in my hand. On my second of four trips back from Toronto, I brought my shear cutters, staple gun and plenty of staples to ensure the locally purchased wire mesh could be fastened to the lumber. I fabricated feeding stations with 1 x 1cm wire to the best of my capability even though they were slightly flimsy but ensured the same functionality as the rows of 2.5 x 2.5 cm 12-14ga. aviaries north of Toronto. I had completed four aviaries for them and the amazons. 3 were approximately 3 x .7 x 2 metres tall. The other was 1.2 x 2 x 2 metres tall.

We had an opportunity to visit the San Salvador Zoo. The exhibits were substandard conditions, the solitary red kangaroo was borderline emaciated. The lions had dried out water sources when we were there, but then again, they should be used to droughts in heat being from Africa. It seemed the birds were in better shape, had nice sized aviaries and a good representation of local parrots, scarlet macaws, yellow nape amazons, Guatemalan amazons, both species of holochlora and canicularis conures, sun conures that made their way up from S. America king vultures, owls, osprey peacocks etc. Snakes were underweight with skin folded on their sides, some of the aquatic reptiles may have been sharing their enclosure with some form of fungi on the water surface that developed before the alligators evolved as there was no circulation or currents. The following week, we headed to meet with management of the private zoo named FURESA (Fundación Refugio Salvaje) is well funded by owners of a major airline originally created for the family’s enjoyment. As of recent, the government forced them to open to the public or they threatened to confiscate all the animals they legally acquired in order for them to continue their entity. The kicker was, if confiscated, these animals would all end up living in less ideal means in the local city run San Salvador Zoo. In birds, they housed Great Green Macaws (A.ambigua), Keel-billed (R.tucanus) and Swainson’s Toucans (R.swainsonii), among others but all these were single birds rescued again from the animal trade. All the animals are well cared for and husbandry standards are much aligned to many zoological institutions around the globe. I was pleased with what I saw there, passionate staff and family.

There was also a tourist hot spot by the name of Restaurante y Hotel Cartagena in Alegria that had amassed a collection of parrots, toucanets, pheasants and other birds for the tourists to view. Some of the birds were set up for breeding which surprised me but they were not having much success. They also featured a nice collection of rare orchids. Of course, they had a run in with the wildlife authorities when they came to confiscate their birds. Only more than half the birds they were able to prove of legal acquisition were returned to them. The authorities instructed them to have minimum cage size requirements when they returned the birds and would come check on their progress. The authorities never came back… The birds we seen there were Panama, Guatemalan, Yellow-naped, Red-lored Amazons, Scarlet and Buffon’s Macaws, White-capped Pionus (P.senilis), Emerald Toucanets (A.prasinus), White-throated Jays (C.mirabilis). During our visit it started raining late afternoon, still 26-28C as one of the staff came and put blankets over all the cages. I asked him why he is doing this, he claimed it is cold for the parrots. I kindly asked him where he learned it was too cold for the birds? If they are native here, how do they survive in the wild ? Their bodies are designed for this climate. I then explained to him that I kept almost all the same species in Canada where we reach sub zero temperatures for months indoors and I do not cover them. He could barely believe my words and I ensured him this was not necessary. What was necessary was giving them a choice to either seek shelter or stay under the elements. This is not difficult to accommodate if cages or enclosures are of adequate size.

The primary observations I saw when travelling throughout these countries is the lack of consideration for non-human life. This is not to suggest these cultures do not care, the newer generations are more educated and I recognized their society progression and awareness of these issues in new generations and modern day advancement. Teachers pass the message to children to respect all life and all God’s creations as religion is still very prominent and still well taught there.

The older generations value the most important priorities as sustaining life and family first. Caring for animals is traditional to aid their life and existence, as well are sold just as any other commodity here to sustain individual life. Cattle or horses would be tied up one at a time on a three to four metre rope on the shoulders of the road to consume free pasture while vehicles tear by doing 120 kph. Sometimes these incidents do not end well in the animal’s favour if not anchored in correct place. (see inset file “vultures carcass”). It is also not uncommon for twenty five to fifty heads of cattle to be walking the high speed roads with no owner to herd or claim them. At times it was not so easy to dodge horses sleeping in the middle of the gravel roads at night, the surprising reaction of the driver would wake any passenger up. Wild dogs are higher populated on the outskirts of the cities or where more human litter is found as they compete for scraps of food in their relentless pursuit to find a middle ground between staying alive and increasing body mass index to hide their ribs.

When driving through the coffee plantations in the volcanic mountains, we come across a tree such as this (see inset file “cut tree hollow”) cut with a chainsaw where someone walked by less than a year ago and heard cries of young chicks most likely amazons but even possibly macaws and found an opportunity to bring more supplementary income home to the family. The person who cut into this tree sawed into the tree half a metre too high the first time and could not reach to the bottom and had to give it a second try lower down. Dealers still work with these people today where they search for baby parrots and toucans to offer the traders at the markets. Not much has changed as it has in many Latin American parts and it will not anytime soon with the present political turmoil these countries are in.

We drove from El Salvador to Belize through Guatemala where few of my favourite amazons reside. We had some nervous moments crossing the borders at night after they closed so instead we parked outside a hotel to wait until morning. This hotel was where Prince Harry once stayed when he visited the British Rule country, albeit not as glamorous a venue as it sounds. Upon our arrival, we stayed at a friend’s home while he was undergoing renovations. His hotel resort was being leased to a third party so we thought this was the better alternative to spend time with them. On the first hour of arriving we witnessed White-fronted Amazons (A.albifrons) in the same tree with Collared Aracaris (P.torquatus) in his backyard fighting over the same fruit tree to roost. It was so easy to spot them due to their piercing calls in flight. My memory instantly recognized the calls as I have kept these birds for almost 2 decades so immediately identified with the incessant screams.

We visited Xunatunich Mayan ruins but did not have time to visit Tikal in Guatemala which is one of the largest in Central America so it is on our list perhaps next year. During our walks here, we found occasional termite mounds within six to eight feet from the ground, my friend indicated to us that the termites in these mounds tasted like mint. I curiously asked how he knows such a little known fact and he proclaimed he has tried it on several occasions. I didn’t believe him as he’s been known to pull my leg and play my gullibility on past occasions. So I challenged him and insisted he tried it in front of me. Without hesitation, he went up to the mound, punched his fist into it and let a few crawl on his hand. As if they were chocolate coated strawberries, he licked them right into his mouth and chewed them to get the taste he was seeking. I was convinced he wasn’t nuts and plunged in right after him. Guiltily put a few in my mouth, and chewed them and tasted a slight minty taste. Two days later we came across more mounds in a different region of Belize and he went at it again, he found that taste he was looking for. I dove in again and curiously tried and they were indeed equivalent of biting into a fresh mint leaf. Note to self; if you are ever worried about halitosis, check your nearest termite mound.

The Belize Zoo is known to be the best little zoo in the world, of course, we had to see for ourselves. With a hefty ticket entrance, I would say it was worth the investment. It was the only zoo of all the ones we visited that had the enormous and regal Harpy Eagle (H. harpyja) the largest and most powerful eagle in the Americas. Again, most animals were national species that were orphaned, rescued or rehabilitated local species from former pet situations and wildlife trade.

Borders in these countries are quite porous, aside from the allocated border crossings. There are plenty of places you can cross without dealing with officials. One can hire a local to drive them in their truck over the border from Belize to Guatemala to shop the markets for less expensive goods, then meet them at the same place and drive them back through the muddy back roads for five to ten Belize dollars. There was one shaky river bridge you enter in Belize and exit in Guatemala. Not 200 metres away, the same border crosses at the centre line of possibly the only football (or American soccer) field in the world. To better illustrate, every time a player would cross the centre field, they are in either Guatemala or Belize so competing teams would always shoot to score on the opposite country’s soil.

We went caving at an amazing private location, probably one of Belize’s best kept secrets. The caves were named after mayan legend Actun Chapat and Son of Chapat where National Geographic explorers challenged over a decade back. They reached one and a half kilometres interior distance and flagged their limit and we surpassed this by another kilometre during our visit seeing about six or seven of the thirteen existing species of bats. We conquered underground lakes, stench of ammonia from bat faeces and Mayan skeletal remains with their pottery chards close to 2,000 years old. During our trek underground, we approached a large sink hole where life was evident anywhere the light touched contently where we decided to sit and enjoy chicken and bean burritos. We did hear the croak of a Keel-billed toucan calling nearby on our exit of the cave later in the day. The canopy was so thick it was challenging to find the birds when they call. We found hollowed trees where Ken the landowner told us they nest. (see inset file “Keel bill nest”) On our hike back, we did spot a Black-headed Trogon (T. melanocephalus) overhead, however retrieving our cameras were not quick enough. One of our goals was to see some yellow headed amazons and our schedules did not overlap with the wildlife ornithologist’s schedule. As it seems, it will be another ‘to do’ when we return. We were disappointed we did not see any toucans up until our exit from Belize a few days later, until we actually left to head toward the long gravel road back to the Guatemalan border. We purposely drove with our windows down at a slow rate to listen to bird calls and sure enough I recognized the croaking of the Keel-bill toucan again as I recollected the same calls from the ones I keep back home. We stopped immediately and listened and spotted a pair in a tall white tree with horizontal branches, there they were bouncing from branch to branch nervously watching the car that just slowed down. Once the cameras came out, they flew back a few dozen metres. I’m sure if we sat long enough they would have returned but we were always in a hurry to continue to our next scheduled locations.

On our drive back we took a different route to El Salvador through Guatemala near Honduras at Parque Nacional Montecristo-El Trifinio where all three borders meet. Driving through the mountains with our eyes as much in the air as they were on the paved roads to avoid crater sized potholes, indeed some were near the actual size and depth of Volkswagens. This is right where the most untouched pristine rainforests of Central America still exist. It does not come without warning when travelling as Honduras is listed as the highest homicide rates in the world at 88 deaths to100,000 people, El Salvador close second to 66 to 100,000 and it is the densest populated country in C. America. A clear unofficial rule for even natives is not to drive anywhere in these parts at night, the stories we heard did not sit well with us but we did it anyway not without due diligence and caution of course. It is not over run or inundated with tourism primarily due to crime, gang violence, overthrowing government rule and plenty of political unrest. When compared to the three southern countries Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, Nicaragua is known to be the safest of all seven.

I look forward to share more exciting discoveries on our trips south next issue.
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