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Why do parrots eat clay?
Every morning, in the Amazon rainforest in Peru, you can experience one of nature’s impressive and exciting sights as flocks of macaws and other parrots gather at so-called clay licks to eat clay.
Collpa is the local name for a clay lick. These clay licks, are found along rivers in the Amazon in places where the river bank is exposed to vegetation – and then the place must be undisturbed.
And why do the parrots eat clay? There are several theories about it. The first and probably the most widely used theory so far is that they eat clay to neutralize toxins they ingest through their food. Many of the fruits, seeds and flowers that are part of the parrot’s diet contain toxins (biological toxins). They are natural toxins that plants use as protection. It is therefore believed that the parrots eat clay because the minerals help neutralize the natural toxins in the food.
Another and more recent theory is that parrots eat clay to meet their sodium needs (see Food availability and breeding season as predictors of geophagy in Amazonian parrots). The clay acts as a kind of dietary supplement as their food generally has a low sodium content. Especially during the breeding season when the birds are raising their young, there is a need for a sodium-containing vitamin pill. The theory is based, among other things, on several years of observations showing that the parrots visit the places where the sodium content of the soil is the highest.
It will require more research to determine which of the theories that are the correct explanation for why parrots eat clay. Maybe it’s a combination, but whatever the cause, it is a very impressive and fascinating experience to attend.
Read more about the Tambopata Macaw Project, a long-term research project on the ecology of macaws and other parrots and conservation in the lowlands of southeastern Peru.
You have to get there early
As is often the case when birding, you have to get up early as it is important to be in place early. Not just to get a good seat – no we weren’t the only ones – but most importantly to be in place before the parrots arrive.
The parrots are very sensitive to disturbances at the clay licks as they have to go down to the ground to eat. On the ground they are more vulnerable to predators. Usually, they stay hidden high up in the protective trees, so being on the ground and at the river bank is definitely outside their comfort zone.
It is therefore very important that it is calm. Even the slightest disturbance is likely to frighten the parrots away – and thereby depriving them of getting their dose of the important clay.
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It is very quiet at the observation site this April morning. We enjoy our morning coffee while looking expectantly over at Chuncho Clay Lick, located less than a hundred feet from us on the opposite river bank.
After a long wait, the first parrots – Blue-headed Parrots – arrive and land in some nearby trees. And little by little, small flocks of the smaller parrot species (including Cobalt-winged Parakeet, Orange-cheeked Parrot and Dusky-headed Parekeet) arrive. Some of the birds land in the trees, while others choose to fly a turn over the area before deciding to land in the trees or fly on.
The first macaws show up – a pair of large, beautiful blue and yellow birds arrive elegantly flying and land in a large tree some distance away. It is the Blue-and-yellow Macaw – one of the largest parrot species in existence, and there are more to come. Scarlet, Red-and-green and Chestnut-fronted Macaw have also appeared and we are finally lucky that a few of the somewhat smaller Blue-headed Macaw also join the herd.
The spectacular experience
Finally, the performance begins. A Blue-headed Parrot descends on the vertical riverbank and a few others follow suit. The big macaws are still waiting in the trees. The excitement is increasing. It is clear that the big macaws are not comfortable about going down to the vertical river bank.
Then it happens! What we’ve been waiting for all morning. A Blue-and-yellow Macaw takes the chance and lands on the brink, and a few others make an approach but then think better of it. Soon after, there are several daring parrots who start eating off the clay. A few minutes later, all the macaws have overcome their nervousness.
What a few minutes ago looked like – well, a brownish river bank – now lights up in yellow, blue, red and green colors – parrots fluttering around trying to find a place to eat. The sound has also changed. All morning it has been quiet, but the silence is broken by the very rough and hoarse voices of the macaws. The birds are noisy, new birds are flying down, while others are flying back into the safety of the surrounding trees, only to return to the riverbank again soon after.
The somewhat chaotic spectacle lasts for half an hour, after which all the parrots – both the large macaws, but also the smaller species take flight and disappear from the clay lick and disappear beyond the forest.
Colorful parrots attract tourists
One of the places where flocks of macaws and parrots gather to eat clay is in the Tambopata National Reserve in Madre de Dios. This is also where the Chuncho Clay Lick we visited is located. The opportunity to see flocks of brightly colored parrots is something that attracts tourists.
Clay lick tours are an important part of tourism in the area. A river cruise and a visit to a clay lick are almost mandatory for tourists visiting this part of the Amazon. You can book a trip to a clay lick at all the tourist agencies in Puerto Maldonado, and the many lodges along the river also arrange tours.
There is no doubt that ecotourism in its various forms is important and has a great economic impact on the people of the region. The population lives under poor conditions and unemployment is high, while the region, like many other places in the Amazon, is affected by the clearing of forest in favor of cattle and plantations and, not least, the extraction of gold.
Ecotourism is therefore of great importance for the protection and preservation of the unique nature found in the Amazon.
We have previously written about how bird tourism can have an impact on tourism-related revenue and increased interest in nature conservation. What you can read about the article Maybe 2000 bird species – what are you waiting for? And if you want to read more about being a bird tourist – read, for example, the article Birdwatching in Peru: The famous Manu Road.
All photos and videos © Bente Steffensen & Uffe Damm Andersen.