When a scarlet macaw swoops into the Tambopata Research Center to steal your pancake, it’s probably not the first hardship you’ve suffered that morning. You’re in the middle of a jungle in southeastern Peru, after all. First, you were woken with a jolt at 5 a.m. by the croaking call of a red howler monkey. Shortly thereafter, hundreds of screeching parrots ensured you didn’t doze off. And don’t forget the oppressive humidity!
The Amazon rainforest is one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. But the main reason scientists and volunteer researchers visit Tambopata is to study the region’s birds. More than a dozen species gather on the clay banks of the Tambopata River, which can reach up to 100 feet high. On the banks, you’ll see small birds like dusky-headed parakeets and larger ones like toucans. But parrots—especially macaws—are the flashiest and most frequent visitors.
Scientists have been researching Tambopata’s macaws since the early 1990s. The area’s parrot population had been plummeting, and they wanted to understand the birds’ low reproductive rates. Scientists started a program to track all aspects of the parrots’ lives. They count the number of birds on the clay walls. They climb trees to monitor the parrots’ nests and to perform check-ups on the growing chicks. But the biggest unsolved mystery is: Why do hundreds of parrots flock to the clay walls in the first place?