Time of Day: 0610; Manu National Park; Macaw clay lick
Parrot clay lick ambi
Time of Day: 0645
0700; Manu National Park; Macaw behavior at clay lick
Parrot clay lick ambi
Time of Day: 0835
1 Adult Female
1 Adult Male
Time of Day: 0905
NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
23 Oct 1999
Madre de Dios
- Manu National Park; Manu River clay lick
- -11.84139 -71.42472
- SONY TCD-D7
- Sennheiser MKH 50
- Sennheiser MKH 30
Stereo=2: 1=L, 2=R; Decoded MS stereo; Sennheiser MKH50 Hypercardioid Mid Mic and MKH30 Bidirectional Side Mic through Sonosax Preamp into Sony TCD7
Log of DAT #: 6
ng = not good
ok = okay
g = good
vg = very good
Log of DAT 6
0:00:00 - 0:02:05
Setting the scene with Charlie Munn, Leo and JN
0:02:05 - 0:03:00
CM: I¿m Charlie Munn and I work for the Wildlife Conservation Society and I¿m a Senior Conservation Zoologist. We are here in the Peruvian Amazon, sitting on a big floating blind, in front of a clay bank where a bunch of parrots are going to come down and eat clay to help them with their digestion.
JN: Eat clay?
CM: They¿re going to eat clay. For clean living. Eat dirt for clean living.
JN: How many parrots are we talking about?
CM: You¿re talking about a thousand parrots in the first show, which is the blue headed parrots and the mealy parrots, and then anywhere from 80 to 150, and sometimes over 200 red and green mckaws, which some people call green wing mckaws.
0:03:00 - 0:04:26
JN: This place looks like a big thatched house built on a raft with a bunch of plastic chairs, all of them full, maybe 15, 20 people all tourists I guess except for us and except for the people who pull this thing back and forth. Now where is the clay lick now, its -
CM: Well there¿s a clay bank in front of us about 45, 50 yards ahead of us and that claybank goes for about 600 yards downstream. Claybank is only about 20 feet high or maybe 18 feet high, and we have about 300 or 400 yards of rope. The birds tend to eat clay about a hundred yards down from where we are at the moment. So we just hang out here near our anchor spot waiting for the birds to choose a favorite spot to eat and then we silently go down with the current until we¿re right across from them, and then we use a rudder on the back to silently use the current to push us closer and farther away.
JN: So the guys in the back of the boat just start pulling on the rope at some point.
CM: I guess the back is probably where we are, which is closer to the
JN: Oh, the guys in the front
CM: This actually is a catamaran, two large cargo canoes.with a platform built on top, gives stability and you can put lots of people on it.
0:04:26 - 0:06:03
CM: It¿s a modification of a tiny floating line that I use for mckaw research about 10 years ago.
JN: I gather that the phenomenon we¿re about to witness is one of the great ecological biological interactions that a person can see in the world.
CM: Well, I think so but I¿m biased. But, it¿s a lot of color, it¿s a lot of noise. It¿s one of the great spectacles in the bird world, that¿s for sure, and it¿s become a kind of a must-see in the western Amazon at least.
JN: Can you see it anywhere else but here?
CM: this currently is the easiest place to get close to a major clay-lick is what we¿re calling it, which is to say, they don¿t actually lick the clay, they bite off a chunk and then eat it. But it¿s the best place at the moment to get close to a bunch of colorfull parrots all squabbling for a perch on the clay bank so they can get their daily dose of clay. There are a few other spots in southern Peru, in the Amazon of the Peru, an area about the size of New York State, where you can see it, but this is the best of a handfull of places you can currently see it. There are perhaps 20 or 30 high quality what I call them high quality mckaw and parrot clay licks that I know of in the Peruvian Amazon, and the Peruvian Amazon seems to have more of them then the rest of the Amazon. The Brazilian Amazon as far as we know doesn¿t have any clay licks of this size, but it may just be from lack of exploration.
0:06:03 - 0:08:15
JN: Why is this a group activity? Why do the mckaws show up in bunches, and the parrots?
CM: Well, its a group activity because they are scared of being eaten by predators, and so they aren¿t actually living in groups the rest of the day, they come in pair by pair by pair at the right time of the day and when they reach a quarum, which is to say 50 or 100 birds, they feel comfortable enough so that they can start working their way down the clay bank. Eating clay is the most dangerous thing a bird that¿s going to live 50 years, does on a regular basis because it could be attacked by 6 different eagles species and by two or three different cats, all of which would like to eat tastey parrots.
CM: Cats, yes. Ocelots, we¿ve seen ocelots stalking mckaws at a claylick once in the Manu river where you were just recently. If they, when the birds come to eat the clay in large numbers, they have more eyes and so they can spot incoming eagles, incoming cats long before they pose a real danger to them. If they were just all split up with one pair here one pair there using differnet parts of the bank, some of them would definitely get picked off, they get picked off more frequently because wouldn¿t be able to check all the angles before they come down.
JN: What are the other kinds of cats?
CM: Jaguars, Pumas, Ocelots I mentioned earlier. There are Jaguars, there are Pumas, Ocelots, Jagarundis, and Marguey.
CM: Jagarundi. It¿s a stretched out, medium sized, all black or brownish black cat.
JN: Sounds like a Jaguar in a shiny suit.
CM: Kind of, it¿s a lot smaller than that and a lot harder to see, I¿ve seen a lot more jaguars - I¿ve seen one jagarundi and 15 - that¿s a yellow crowned Amazon parrot, a pair arriving.
JN: Sittin¿ in a great big tree. Waiting for the breakfast bell.
0:08:19 - 0:11:00
JN: I gather it¿s not just one big mob scene, that it¿s exceptionally orderly, or at least it happens according to a plan pretty much the same way every morning. A plan may not be the right word, but,
CM: They definitely have a schedule.
JN: So how does it work?
CM: The blue headed parrots and the mealy parrots and a small number of yellow crowned parrots which is what these guys are, and also a few orange cheeked parrots and a few chestnut fronted mckaws will tend to come in and eat clay within a half an hour to forty five minutes of dawn, which is to say usually by 6:15 or 6:30 they¿re on the clay, and they¿ll stay on the clay rotating on and off the clay, because most of them, an individual will only be on the clay for a couple minutes, grab a big chunk and then fly off, that actually goes on until 7 or 7:15. And typically there¿s a break of an hour or two until the large mckaws come in and they reach a quarum, they have to reach at least 30 birds before they seem to have checked the angles and feel comfortable enough to start edging down the clay. So there is the early, there¿s the dawn show of the smaller parrots and there¿s the 9 o¿clock or 10 o¿clock show or sitting of the large red mckaws. Why exactly they come in that order I don¿t exactly know, I have hypotheses for why they do it but I haven¿t been able to explore those hypotheses sufficiently. I think that the mckaws, obviously the mckaws are a lot bigger than the other ones so they get to eat when they feel like it where they feel like it, so they¿re the classic 800 pound gorilla among the parrots here that eats wherever it wants to. So I think the other parrots probably are forced to come in at an earlier hour because if they try to come in at 9 or 10 after, in other words, Parrots when they get up in the morning will stuff themselves with seeds and fruits of jungle trees from lets say, they get up at 6, they stuff themselves from 7 to 9, and then at that point they probably want a chaser of clay, because the clay is going to help them digest all the toxins, but in this case if you want to stuff yourself and then come in at 9 you¿re going to find it all occupied by mckaws so you¿re better off eating the clay first and then bringing in the seeds later. That¿s my hypothesis but at the moment we¿re too busy trying to protect millions of acres here, and we¿ll get back to studying that and try to prove that hypothesis later.
JN: It sounds reasonable to me. I mean I know a lot of high school cafeterias work much the same way, the little guy¿s got to eat first and fast.
0:11:00 - 0:15:15
CM: It¿s misty this morning, and when it¿s misty like this that means two things: One, it may take a little longer for the early morning show to coalesce, because they just seem to do better when it¿s clear, the second thing is a mist like this usually means its going to be really sunny by 9 or 10, so that¿s means a bumper crop of mckaws, because mckaws and other parrots all like to come in when it¿s clear when they know they¿re not going to get rained on 3 miles into their 5 mile flight into the clay licks, they don¿t even want to bother to go because they think the others won¿t bother to go, so I think it¿s like a crowd thing where they think, well, if it¿s slippery out or something and your friends aren¿t going to go to the bar, you¿re not going to go either, you¿re not going to call you don¿t even have to bother to call them, you know,
JN: There¿s a rich looking forest on top of that clay cliff. Tell me, tell me what¿s in there. What kind of, here¿s the context - people say that those, that the rainforest, tropical forests around here in the Manu area are among the richest in the world, what do they mean when they say that?
CM: I think richest they¿re refering usually to the number of species of plants and animals in a square mile or in 10 square miles, because actually the clay bank and the forest growing above it is exceptionally poor, this is among thw worst soil in the Manu area and most of the Amazon has bad soil, and Manu¿s no exception. About 8 percent of the Amazon has high quality soil or relatively high quality soil that¿s the result of the bedrock of the Andes being ground up by the rivers then deposited in the flood plains. The other 92% of the Amazon which is the size of the US is terrible soil, it never gets nutrients from the Andes and there¿re no fresh nutrients in the rest of the Andes. This claybank is outside of the flood plane it does not get any nutrients from the Andes which are not far from here, Behind us on the other side of the river, there¿s a flood plane and that gets excellent silt from the Andes, having said that, this clay soil is unusually poor, and the trees growing on top of it are peculiar to this really aweful clay, that happens to be wonderful for detoxifying if you¿re eating it. On top of this claybank you¿ll see Shibon palms, that one luxuious looking palm growing there is characteristic of the very bad soils of claylicks in fact you can tell if it has the potential to be a claylick, because there¿re lots of claybanks but only some claybanks make the grade, only some have the kind of clay that really does good detoxifying, and those are the ones that tend to have that palm growing on it, so you can just eyeball it from a distance, even from a plane you can just take a guess as to whether the claybank is going to be a potential for animals and birds to eat the clay. There¿s bamboo growing on the top of the bank, bamboo is typical of the southern Amazon, as well as in Asia, two areas that have a lot of bamboo in the world. Bamboo is typical of bad soils. And you don¿t see a lot of large trees up there, it looks complex and interesting, visually it¿s atractive but it¿s not a very rich forest and the trees are not very tall and thick. What happens here in the southern Amazon, we¿re about 11 degrees south of the equator, and that far south of the equator you¿re getting quite distinct seasons, you get heavy wind storms blowing in from Argentina from June through August and they blow over the large trees. The trees that grow on the flood plane grow 10 times faster than the trees that grow outside of the flood plain, so if you¿re getting blown over, every 20 or 50 or 100 years, you¿re going to find that trees that are going to be growing faster are going to be able to recover faster than and are going to produce a more luxurient, more impressive looking forest. If you go to the central Amazon around the equator you¿ll find that all of the trees are huge because ther are no windstorms of any significance there, you don¿t have anything to knock down the trees, so they can grow infinitely slowly and still get big. Make any sense?
0:15:15 - 0:17:16
JN: Help us, put us on the map here - where are we in terms of Amazonia? In terms of the whole system, where are we in Peru, where are we, where does this river go? How does it all fit together?
CM: The Amazon basin, the entire watershead of the Amazon and all of its tributaries is about the size of the 48 states, the continental US, and we are on the extreme western edge of that, in the country of Peru, which is the third largest country in South America, you hear these blue headed parrots flying over, they¿re coming in to join the flocks, and. Peru is 3 times the size of California, and two of those Californias are rainforest, and so that all likes east of the Andes. And so Peru owns two Californias worth of the western Amazon and it has, owns more of the western Amazon at the foot of the Andes than any other country the others being in decending order of size of Amazonian extent, western Amazonian extent, would be Bolivia and then Columbia and then Ecuador. Brazil owns of course about 70% of the entire Amazon basin, but it has very few of these relatively rich soils that come out of the Andes, so if you want to get the maximum richness of flood plane soil next to the terrible soils that are outside of the flood plane, Peru is probably the best of that. I can say something else, I mean you¿re just going to keep editing and cutting and stuff, right? So it doesn¿t really - I know that when I say something to long¿
0:17:16 - 0:18:05
CM: If the Amazon, the entire Amazon watershead is the size of the 48 states, the continental US, and we¿re essential in the California, we¿re in the western edge of the entire Amazon, within view of the Andes actaully, we¿re at the foot of the Andes
JN: you can see them
CM: Yeah from a tall tree, you get at a tall tree here, which I do for research, and you can see the Andes from most places around here, we¿re within 50, 80 miles of the Andes. So we¿re in the extreme western Amazon, in Peru, and Peru contains arguable the best Amazon forest of all, which is to say two Californias worth of Amazon forest grow in Peru.
0:18:05 - 0:20:29
JN: When you say the best, what do you mean?
CM: The best meaning the wildest, the most biologically diverse, and the least impacted by human activities, so looking at it either biologically or in terms of conservation in terms of nature tourism, in terms of anything else it¿s the most interesting in all three aspects.
JN: One of the questions I had about the geography of everything¿ Where does the water that we¿re in come from, and where does it go? Just tell us where it feeds in to and where does it ultimately ends up?
CM: Well our floating catamaran blind is sitting on the Madre de Dios River, which is to say the Mother of God River, which is one of the larger or medium sized tributaries of the western Amazon extreme western Amazon. The Madre de Dios River carries water from - yellow crowned Amazons - Madre de Dios River carries water from the Manu river, and from the Upper Madre de Dios River, or the Alta Madre de Dios River and that¿s about it, it¿s about 50-50 from these two rivers, this river is about 3 or 4hundred meters wide, 3 or 4hundred yards wide, this river is about 3 hundred yards wide and the Manu river is about 150 ya - I¿ll start again. This river is about 300 yards wide, and the Manu river is about 150 yards wide, as is the Alta Madre de Dios is also about 150 yards wide. This water here will then flow east out of southeastern Peru into Northern Bolivia, the lowlands of northern Bolivia, Amazon there, and then curves north and joins several other large rivers in Bolivia and becomes the Madera river which is one of the main tributaries of the main Amazon. The Madera river joins the Amazon downstream from Manaos in the central part of the Brazilian Amazon.
0:20:29 - 0:21:20
CM: Did I answer the question?
JN: And the Manaos?
CM: What is Manaos?
JN: What is that? Where does it go?
CM: Manaos is by far the largest city in the middle of the Amazon, it¿s a city of I think about one and a half or two million people right smack dab in the center of the Amazon basin. If you put a pin under the Amazon basin it would probably rotate evenly around Manaos, so it¿s the geographic center of the Amazon basin. (a few seconds of Ambi) Manaos is famous for the opera house, and for the meeting of the (ambi)
0:21:20 - 0:21:41
0:21:41 - 0:23:12
JN: Let me ask you to tell me precisely¿ I¿m still not clear on why birds eat clay. It¿s not something we¿re used to, it¿s not something they tell you to feed them when you buy them in the store.
CM: You wouldn¿t need to feed them that if you buy them in the store because the food you¿re feeding them from the comercial mixes is not toxic. They¿re natural foods have a lot of toxins in them. Mckaws are seed predators, actually pretty much all parrots are seed predators they don¿t disperse seed of rainforest trees, they destroy them, they chew them up and digest them. There are lots of nutrients in a seed, but it¿s, you¿re not supposed to chew it up and digest it, it¿s supposed to be dispersed somewhere else, the tree doesn¿t want to lose that. So the parrots are basically eating the clay because it helps them detoxify their toxic diet, that¿s full of nutrients but it¿s also full of toxins to keep parrots from eating the seeds. The parrots get around that by using clay as an antedote, it neutralizes lots of toxins. We¿ve proven this experimentally be feeding a captive flock of orange winged Amazons at Davis California a mixture of regular parrot diet with and without a toxin in it and with and without clay, and when they have clay in it, the toxin never gets into their bloodstream, and if they don¿t have clay mixed in the toxin reaches a high level in their bloodstream and stays high for a long time.
0:23:12 - 0:25:16
NJ: Are these birds rare? Anywhere else? I mean everywhere else? Are we talking about birds that can be thought of as endangered in some senses?
CM: The large mckaws, mckaws are a kind of parrot there¿re 340 kinds of parrots in the world. Of those, 16 are mckaws, of the 16 mckaws about 8 of them are in danger of extinction. And typically the larger and more colorful they are the more in danger of extinction they are because number one they are trapped for pest and they are sold nationally and internationally, usually illegally nowadays, and secondly they are shot for meat, because the biggest mckaws weigh just enough to be worth the price of the shot gun shell, or the rifle bullet, which is of course cheaper than a shotgun shell. And so yeah, the large mckaws are in pretty serious trouble. The particular large mckaw we see here has a very wide range, and so although it may have dissappeared from say 40 or 50 percent of it¿s range, it¿s doing alright here, and it¿s doing quite well in all of southern Peru, because of these conservation projects that don¿t allow any trappers to get, or hunters to get anywhere near the major concentrations. To long on that answer? Actually about a third of the 340 parrot species are in danger of extinction. 3 times more than the average rate of endangerment of other pa- birds, because there are 96hundred bird species, there are 340 species. A hundred of the parrot species are in threatened or endangered. They are abnormally threatened or endangered because they¿re so attractive that they¿re trapped for pets. Dicky birds, small dicky birds are not that interesting as pets. They¿re not that smart, they¿re not that social. They¿re not that much fun.
0:25:16 - 0:26:29
JN: Only one last question for now. Were you saying that not too long ago there was one morning in which a whole bunch of these birds were shot?
CM: yes there was, how would you put it, .. Representatives from a number of Amazonian Indian communities who live far downstream from here which is to say in an outboard motor, 5 hours from here, were going far upstream to a big shindig, like a big pow wow with a bunch of other Indian communities and they stopped here at this clay lick and wandered in the forest just behind the clay lick where the birds are gathering by pairs and in small family groups, and they shot 40 mckaws in one morning, just kind of on a lark because it was easy. And they were using shotguns, so they were able to bring down tow or 3 birds at a time, so they could kill a whole family at once because you¿ll have a pair and sometimes with one offspring sitting together on a branch. The reason that they would use a shotgun shell to kill something as light as a mckaw is because you could kill two or three with one shot.
0:26:29 - 0:27:02
JN: All you really need is for that to happen a couple of times -
CM: Yeah, if that happened 5 times that would be the end of this claylick. Actually the birds would stop using it after the first, well second or third instance of that, so functionally this claylick would not work any more, but the birds wouldn¿t all be dead, they¿d be using other claylicks because there are other claylicks 4 miles away, 10 miles away, 15miles away, harder to get to, this is the most accessible one, which is why there was a boat going by with all those guys in it who decided to pop off the mckaws.