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A photo of Presley, a Spix Macaw.

Presley's species, the Spix's macaw, disappeared from the wild in 2000.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ALAIN BREYER

Nadia Drake

National Geographic

Published June 29, 2014

A rare blue parrot that was among the last wild-born members of its species and was believed to have inspired the movie Rio has died outside São Paulo, Brazil.

The bird was a Spix's macaw named Presley, and he was around 40 years old when he died Wednesday. He was thought to be the second-to-last of the remaining wild-born parrots.

Presley's death is a blow to conservation efforts in both a symbolic and literal sense. Critically endangered, these native Brazilian birds (Cyanopsitta spixii) are believed to be extinct in the wild. Decades of deforestation and rampant wildlife trafficking have besieged the medium-size macaws, who also ended up having to compete for nest space with introduced Africanized honeybees.

Now, the fewer than 100 remaining Spix's macaws are cloistered in captive breeding programs and refuges throughout the world—and the small population is vulnerable to genetic defects caused by inbreeding. Presley offered the opportunity to inject some much-needed genetic diversity into the population.

But he left no offspring.

There are reports that Presley himself influenced the 2011 movie Rio, an animated film that tells the tale of a lone male Spix's macaw. Found living in the United States, the bird, named Blu, is initially unable to fly. But he returns to Brazil and finds the only other known surviving member of his species, a female named Jewel. Together, the two movie macaws battle wildlife traffickers and eventually start a small family.

Director Carlos Saldanha has said he hoped the movie would raise awareness of the challenges facing endangered birds in Brazil. "I wanted [to feature] the rarest bird," he told the website Bird Channel in 2011. "The Spix's macaw truly is the rarest."

Alt tag for SEO or screen readers
The 2014 film Rio 2 continued to tell the story of a Spix's macaw named Blu, at left.
PHOTOGRAPH BY 20TH CENTURY FOX/ BLUE SKY STUDIOS VIA AP

Released this year, an optimistic sequel, Rio 2, follows Blu and Jewel as they encounter a hidden population of Spix's macaws in the Brazilian Amazon.

Saldanha did not respond to requests for comment.

Presley’s story shares many similarities with Blu’s first chapter. More than a decade ago, Presley rose to fame when he was improbably found living in Colorado. Like so many of his kin, the bird had been smuggled out of his native Brazil in the 1970s, just as governments were beginning to regulate illegal wildlife trade. From his birthplace in the São Francisco Valley in northern Bahia, Presley traveled through several private bird collections in Europe before ending up in the American West.

During his years abroad, Presley's macaw kin vanished from Brazil's forests, with the last known wild Spix's disappearing in 2000.

In 2002, parrot enthusiast Mickey Santi answered the phone at the veterinarian's office where she worked. On the other end was a caller with a question about her captive Spix's macaw.

Skeptical of the caller's species identification, Santi went to visit the woman—and found Presley sitting in a small cage. He wasn't in great shape, and couldn’t fly. After six months of rehabilitation, Presley returned to Brazil via the San Diego Zoo, where geneticists collected a small sample of the bird's DNA.

Once in Brazil, Presley lived in the São Paulo zoo for several years. In 2006, he moved to the Lymington Foundation, a privately owned refuge and breeding facility for rare parrots in the forest outside São Paulo.

"He was very affectionate–just a very congenial bird, very chirpy, very talkative. He loved visitors," says Bill Wittkoff, Lymington's executive director. "He's got an aviary that we'd wheel in and out, for the cold in wintertime and because of very, very hot sun. We'd go by his aviary often and he'd always gives us a chirp, a hello."

Many parrots need the company of other birds to thrive. Bill Wittkoff and his wife Linda, Lymington's director, first tried to breed Presley with a female Spix's named Flor; the pair produced a bunch of eggs, but the eggs were all sterile. When Flor was transferred to a different breeding program, a new friend—Killer, a Golden Conure—kept Presley company. When Killer died, Presley's new partner was Priscilla, a Vinaceous Amazon parrot.

Presley "was doing pretty well," says Linda Wittkoff. "His death came as a surprise."

Over the past year, health exams had revealed that Presley had an irregular heartbeat. When he suddenly lost his appetite late last week, the Wittkoffs took him to a university veterinary clinic in nearby Botucatu.

They'd hoped Presley would recover so he could move to a refuge closer to the clinic. The plan, they said, was for Presley to try artificially inseminating some of the female Spix's at the refuge, a procedure that hadn't been attempted yet.

Most captive Spix's macaws are closely related, and when such individuals breed, detrimental combinations of genes that would normally be eliminated are passed down. As a result, offspring are born with a host of problems, including increased disease susceptibility and infertility. Because he was unrelated to the females, Presley could have added some crucial genetic diversity into the mix.

But at 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Presley died, leaving the Wittkoffs without their cheerful survivor and the world without its best-known Spix's macaw. Linda Wittkoff says the veterinary clinic is working hard to preserve his reproductive tissues and genetic material, and save some of what he might have passed down.

"To us, Presley is a symbol of the best and worst in mankind," the Wittkoffs wrote in a letter announcing his death. "The love, care, concern and effort to help and preserve [on one side], with the greed, selfishness, and lack of concern for the animal world on the other side."

24 comments
John Seadon
John Seadon

This just shows what humans do and don't even realize. Without us, things would be so much different. Maybe even better. It is so much easier for humans to do evil than to do good. The majority of us are very selfish, and it needs to change. Also, RIO was a great way to raise awareness. Tons of respect from me goes to the director.

Jenni Schutte
Jenni Schutte

A tragic loss of a rare survivor (Presley) and his kind...  the native Brazilian parrot (Cyanopsitta spixii). Hopefully those that are still to be found in captive breeding programs and refuges around the world will survive long enough for an individual or small secluded group to be found in the wild that assist with dna transfer or a sanctuary or protected reserve created specially for these very special birds.


This is only one example (tragically) of what happens to a multitude of avian species that are poached, trafficked, killed, habitats destroyed, etc. throughout the world, never mind all the other animal and insect species that share this planet with us too....it is up to each individual on this planet to get past their arrogance, greed and selfish attitudes and ways to realise that they are meant to be the caretakers and protectors of those other species we share the planet with.....here's wishing!

Parroteer....South Africa

graeme narbey
graeme narbey

Who knows,with DNA testing maybe further on down the track the species can be cloned to re create the breed!

sherry spies
sherry spies

I get so angry with man when I hear about this. I hope there is another Spix Macaw somewhere . And if someone is keeping one they come forward and help the conservation effort.

robbie butler
robbie butler

while there lamenting theres forest being cut down in brazil with possible populations of these birds

Liam L.
Liam L.

Well well, another result that "great humanity" has brought. Truly ashamed indeed. 

Megan Alexandra Barclay
Megan Alexandra Barclay

R.I.P. Presley.

This is such sad news to hear.. and I love the Rio movies!! some of my fav movies!!

I hope there is still some Macaw's out there that they just haven't found yet... maybe they are hiding in a safe place.  Let's hope for the best!!! xo

Annie Conway
Annie Conway

The meat suits win again - to the detriment of Mother Earth

Stephen Thomas Dear
Stephen Thomas Dear

So many people do not realize how sensitive wildlife can be. We owe it to them to take care and protect. 

Rest in peace Presley.

Guy Holder
Guy Holder

How come my comment isn't being displayed?

Peter Wittkoff
Peter Wittkoff

Thanks Mom and Dad for the years of work and dedication to his kind.  May future science recover what was lost today.

Milena Ignjatovic
Milena Ignjatovic

R.I.P my sweet angel...:-(...humans will destroy the world !

Dave Lounder
Dave Lounder

Very sad ..... I am truly ashamed to be a part of the grimy human race. Man'kind.' What a fvcking joke. -- Dave Lounder (DaLo Animals) IMDb.me/DaLo

Sirena S.
Sirena S.

This is the saddest story, and a scary bellwether of what is to come.

Nancy Cannon
Nancy Cannon

what are we doing to our precious earth..... we're killing bit by bit....

Mary Ebel
Mary Ebel

It makes me so sad that this beautiful bird had so many awful years.  Had I known of your plight, I would have rescued you Presley.  Thankfully there are so many good people in this world to try and undo all the bad done by so many who have no compassion or concern for animals.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

Fly free forever Presley! You will be missed.

Steven Gordon
Steven Gordon

@Dave Lounder Mr. Spock said it best: the human race itself is...highly illogical. Homo sapiens is very arrogant and egotistical.

craig hill
craig hill

@Dave Lounder Homo "sapiens", another joke. We use the most idealistically flattering self-descriptions possible. I prefer the Violent Ape.


The only justice is that we're going down with the extinctioin ship. In our case it's suicide by stupidity, in everything else's case it's ecocide by us.

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