PETEN, Guatemala (January 12, 2018) What’s a mother scarlet macaw’s worst nightmare? Nest-raiding falcons, which were caught on camera by WCS researchers working in the forests of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, according to a new study by WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and partners.

The startling discovery was captured on video cameras mounted by WCS scientists in the nesting cavities used by several scarlet macaw breeding pairs. The videos can be viewed here.

A short note on the finding was published in the journal Ornitología Neotropical. The authors are: Rony García-Anleu; Garbriela Ponce-Santizo; and Roan Balas McNab of WCS; Steve Gulick of Wildland Security; and Janice Boyd and Donald J. Brightsmith of the Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center at Texas A&M University.

Although the scarlet macaw (Ara macao) is currently the most widely distributed of all macaw species, the subspecies A.m. cyanoptera that exists in the Maya forests of Central America have become threatened by poaching for the pet trade. Efforts to stop poaching in the Maya Biosphere Reserve succeeded in reducing poaching incidents to near zero from 2004 – 2015.

Still, scientists were noticing that macaw chicks were disappearing from certain nesting cavities within the Laguna del Tigre National Park in spite of the absence of any human poachers. To solve the mystery of the disappearing macaw chicks, the scientists installed video surveillance in five of the protected area’s nesting cavities.

Raids by collared forest falcons (Macrastur semitorquatus)—a known nest raider on other species of parrots—were observed in three of the five recorded nests. The attacks lasted a few minutes in one instance, and in another only a few seconds, with the bird of prey fleeing the nest with the chick seconds before the macaw parents discovered the gruesome reality.

“We now know that scarlet macaw nest predation by collared forest falcons sometimes accounts for more than half of a breeding season’s chick mortality,” said García-Anleu of WCS-Guatemala, lead author of the study. “Our conservation efforts to protect scarlet macaws in the Maya Biosphere Reserve must take such natural predation into account if we are to effectively protect macaws in one of Central America’s last remaining forests.” In the last years, WCS have been testing different design of artificial nest boxes in order to reduce the percentage or natural predation.

WCS researchers also noted that human poaching is again on the uptick; three nest cavities were poached in 2016 nesting season, highlighting the need for new targeted interventions that WCS and partners will undertake in order to control this threat again.

This work was supported by the United States Agency for International Development, the BBC Wildlife Fund, and The Nature Conservancy. The program have been supported also by a Guatemalan donor - Christian Rossell.