The Sisters from Salt Spring Island

Carmen and Maria, Green Winged Macaws at the Bloedel Conservatory

Carmen and Maria are sisters that were bred on Salt Spring Island and donated to the Conservatory nearly 25 years ago. They are Green Winged Macaws and are the 2nd largest parrots in the world! The stunning Hyacinth Macaws are the largest. The native habitat of Green Winged Macaws are the rainforests of Panama, southward down to Brazil and Argentina in South America.

Macaws almost always form bonded pairs and can live between 50-60 years. All parrots are zygodactyl, meaning they have 4 toes on each foot – with the first and fourth toes pointing backward while the second and third point forward. This allows these birds to grasp and manipulate all kinds of food and materials. They can even peel off tiny pieces of wood to use like tooth picks!

People frequently confuse the Green winged macaws with Scarlet Macaws. The main differences are the green bars or patches on wings of Green Winged Macaws (hence the name) and the red lines around their eyes, which are actually made up of tiny feathers. Scarlet Macaws have a yellow bar on each wing and no facial feathers.

Other than their bright colouring, the large “decurved” bill is the macaw’s most recognizable feature. Their bills are incredibly strong, being able to exert 350 lbs. of pressure per square inch! They can easily snap a broom handle in half! This strength allows macaws to crack open extremely hard nuts and seeds, as well as to climb, hang and scramble through the tree forest canopies looking for food.

Because macaws often eat fruits and seeds that are not quite ripe (seed predators), it is believed they somehow detoxify the chemicals many plants have developed as a defense. Green winged macaws are known to eat bitter alkaloid and caustic seeds in the wild. It’s well known in Amazonia that Green Winged Macaws eat clay from cliffs along the Amazon River called “colpas”. Ecologists believe this clay may absorb alkaloids and buffer the digestive tract helping to counteract the poisons from the unripe nuts, as well as being an important source of minerals such as sodium.

Green winged macaws are considered the most intelligent of all macaws with an ability to learn quickly. Because all parrots are quite social and engaging, they have been highly prized as pets throughout the centuries. This popularity, as well has rainforest destruction, has caused most wild macaw species to be placed on the endangered list. Five species of macaws are already extinct! There is good news however. Environment Canada and The Wild Bird Conservation Act in the United States forbids the commercial import of any bird listed by CITES which includes most parrots and macaws – endangered or threatened.

We can all help protect the rainforests of the World and these beautiful birds in the wild, by being aware of what we buy and where it comes from! Just like opting to purchase shade grown coffee, you can also shop for rainforest-friendly and fair trade products that range from chocolate to jewelry to cosmetics. Buying Fair Trade Certified products helps support local communities and ensures that products are grown in rainforest friendly ways, preserving crucial habitat, which in turn helps the survival of these beautiful macaws. Watch for these logos on products to make informed choices about what you buy.


Beautiful Bromeliads

There are over 2,700 species of bromeliads in the world! Interestingly, pineapples and Spanish moss are also in this family. Bromeliads come in a startling diversity of shapes, sizes, structure, markings and colours.  They live in many different environments and can be terrestrial – which means they grow in and receive nutrients from soil; lithophytic – which means they grow on rock and obtain nutrients from moss and rain water; or epiphytic – which means they are attached to another living plant and get nutrients from the air, rain/humidity and leaf litter. Epiphytic plants have major advantages in the rainforest. They have access to more direct sunlight, they have a greater variety of pollinators up in the canopy, and the wind can disperse their seeds more readily. Flowers are often small but very colorful.

Did you know that as bromeliads grow, the leaves of many species form circular  water tight “tanks”? In fact some bromeliads found in the Amazon can hold up to 45 litres water! Tanks act as a water storage system for the plant during dry periods and they also create important micro-environments for other creatures. One biologist in Costa Rica tallied over 250 different organisms that lived in just one bromeliad tank! He found organisms like protozoa, bacteria, larvae, algae, insects, and even land crabs and frogs!

Speaking of frogs, another interesting fact about these plants is that they are key in the the lives of poison dart frogs. In the rainforests, poison dart frogs, also known as poison-arrow frogs, use the tanks of bromeliads as nurseries for their young! These young frogs are raised in a very different way than most other frogs. Both parents play roles to ensure their offspring survive to adulthood. First, the mother frog lays eggs under leaves on the forest floor. After they hatch, Dad stays on guard protecting the young until they grow into tadpoles. At this point, the tadpoles wiggle onto their mother’s back. She then carries each of her offspring piggy-back style to the tanks of water-filled bromeliads, a journey that may take several days if she climbs high into the rainforest canopy. The tadpoles feed on algae and mosquito larvae once safe within the tanks of the bromeliads. To ensure their survival, the mother frog returns with unfertilized eggs that she drops into each tank for the tadpoles to eat. Within six to eight weeks these tadpoles mature into adult frogs, leave their bromeliad home and set out to live back down on the forest floor.

The Bloedel Conservatory maintains a variety of gorgeous bromeliads all year around. Stop by for a visit and see how many different types you can find!