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Celebrating The Life Of Presley

Presley, the Spix’s macaw that inspired the animated film "Rio,” has died.

Cari Jorgensen

Flocking Aviary
Photo Courtesy Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation
Presley was a Spix’s macaw, one of only around 80 in the world. The majority of Spix’s macaws can be found at the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation in Qatar.

Last month, we lost one of the most well-known birds in the world. Presley, one of the last remaining wild-born Spix’s macaws, has died. He was believed to be the inspiration for the animated film "Rio,” and a bird helping to rescue his species from extinction.

The Presley
His life – what we know of it – seems to be a series of chance encounters. Taken from his native Brazil at a young age, he somehow ended up as a pet to a woman living in a Denver, Colorado suburb. That was the late 1970s. The woman’s name was never released, as it is believed she is "a step or two removed from the smuggler,” according to a 2002 article in The Orlando Sentinel.

Rumors in the bird and veterinary communities swirled of a Spix’s macaw living in the vicinity; however, the rumors were dismissed. Until a phone call was made to a local avian veterinary practice.

Mischelle Muck was on the receiving end. A parrot enthusiast, she was skeptical when the woman asked for advice on taking care of her Spix’s macaw. Knowing that there were less than 100 in captivity and none left in the wild since 2000, Muck couldn’t help thinking it was a crazy claim or that the woman was mistaken.

Something told her not to dismiss the claim, and she forwarded contact information for the World Parrot Trust to Presley’s owner. Dr. James Gilardi, the executive director of the organization, urged for the repatriation of Presley to Brazil. Still, Muck needed to see for herself.

Upon seeing Presley, Muck had her proof. He was indeed a Spix’s macaw.

Presley’s owner, who stated she didn’t know he was a rare bird, was also unaware of the proper care Presley needed. His perches were too wide, resulting in weak legs and poor balance and his diet lacked the richness he needed.

Presley was soon under Muck’s care, leaving the home he’d known for the majority of his life. She cared for Presley, providing him a proper diet, toys, a large cage with appropriately-sized perches and exercise. She even recorded his cries and played them back for him, much to his excitement. However, she took great pains to not allow Presley to become dependent on her. Muck’s was a temporary home. He would soon return to his birthplace.

Presley Goes To Brazil
Presley’s return to Brazil brought with it hope for his species. There were no longer any Spix’s macaws in the wild. According to Daily Kos, "[e]fforts to expand the Spix’s population face[d] particularly daunting challenges.” Private owners and governments didn’t cooperate. Very few of the wild birds that were caught survived, due to permanent kidney damage from severe dehydration. Unfortunately, the species also suffered from inbreeding, resulting in harmful genes, unbalanced gender ratios and difficulty breeding fertile birds. Presley was thought to be the genetic gem the Spix’s macaws needed to carry on their species.

Presley resided at the Lymington Foundation in São Paulo, Brazil. Bill and Linda Wittkoff were his caretakers, observing the touching connection he had with Flor, his mate. The hopes of the species repopulating were great.

Sadly, the eggs Presley produced with Flor were infertile.

The rest of Presley’s life was spent at the foundation. He was a cheerful bird. Bill Wittkoff told National Geographic, "He was very affectionate — just a very congenial bird, very chirpy, very talkative. He loved visitors.”

Steve Milpacher, Director of Operations at the World Parrot Trust (WPT), told, "At the WPT we are proud to have played a leading role in helping Presley return home to his native Brazil. After he was discovered in Colorado, it was through the concerted efforts of a number of dedicated individuals, compassionate NGOs, and understanding government officials that allowed Presley to fly home and to be provided with the important opportunity to contribute to the efforts to save the species.”

Presley died in late June. He was thought to be around 40.

His death is heartbreaking, not only for the Spix’s macaw population, but for those who hoped he was the answer. He left no offspring to carry on his legacy. There is only "Rio,” the memory of Presley and those who will do anything in their power to save the Spix’s macaws from total extinction.

Want to know more about Spix's macaws?

What Are Spix's Macaws?
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Posted: July 18, 2014, 11:00 a.m. EDT

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Celebrating The Life Of Presley

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Reader Comments
Bad that died so soon after being in the movie, Rio. Sad to see , as it had become a fomous bird.
William, San Francisco, CA
Posted: 7/19/2014 2:06:03 PM
How poignant. With all the exceptional research on bird genetics and reproduction, I hope the future holds the promise for better things. Support is needed from all of us to save all the remarkable birds.
Carol, Silver Spring, MD
Posted: 7/19/2014 9:14:26 AM
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