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Two weeks ago, a lonely specimen of one of the world’s rarest birds made a very special trip. “Presley,” a male Spix’s macaw, had been found last summer living quietly in a Denver suburb with his owner, a woman who had no idea of his importance in the scheme of things. Now Presley was finally on a plane en route to his native Brazil, where it is hoped he will contribute some much-needed genetic diversity to the program to save his species — already extinct in the wild — from vanishing completely. As long ago as 1986, conservationists declared that it was just “a few strokes from midnight” for the stunning blue bird. It’s even closer now, which is why the story of Presley was such a welcome Christmas gift for bird enthusiasts.

Maybe you’ve never heard of the Spix’s macaw. It’s worth looking up, since the bird’s recent history is as gripping as any thriller. In fact, with its classic plot elements of beauty, avarice, thievery and head-turning wealth, it is probably better compared to one of the more outlandish operas. Besides, if only because the Spix’s situation is so dire, it brings the critical issues of poaching and habitat destruction more sharply into focus than does any other threatened wildlife species, including the better-known African elephant and our own Japanese crested ibis.

The slow, sad demise of the Spix’s macaw actually goes back several hundred years, to the early years of Portuguese colonization and settlement in the small area of northeastern Brazil where the bird ranged. Over the centuries, its habitat dwindled to just two tiny areas, with the result that by the end of the 20th century the now extremely rare bird had also become extremely valuable on the black market. As one British expert has said, it was “gram for gram more valuable than heroin.”

Poaching and smuggling were inevitable, and by 1990 there was only a single Spix’s macaw left in the wild. This poor fellow was tracked and observed, even as unsuccessful efforts were made to provide him with a partner, for 10 years, until his disappearance in late 2000 marked the end of the species in its native habitat. Some 60 birds survive in captivity worldwide, with concentrations in Brazil, Tenerife, the Philippines and Switzerland; however, there is concern about the diversity of the global gene pool, since many of the 60 have been bred from the same few birds and just last year the international committee that had been monitoring the breeding program collapsed in spectacular disarray. If the species is to survive at all, let alone return to the wild, it will now be up to the Brazilian government to accomplish. Clearly, its future is not bright, although the unexpected discovery of Presley is a flash of hope.

Why, as the world faces prospects of war and worse this grim New Year’s season, do we care if the Spix’s macaw survives or not? Well, many people probably don’t, but we remain convinced that even more do, for the same reason they care about the regeneration of the equally handsome crested ibis or were heartened by the success of the program to reintroduce Californian condors back into the wild in the 1980s. It’s partly a matter of these creatures’ beauty; partly their innocence and vulnerability; partly, to be sure, a residual collective guilt that their fate came at human hands; and, finally, an irresistible challenge. Dr. Nigel Collar, of BirdLife International, puts it well: “The Spix’s macaw is a highly distinctive species in its own genus. It’s a fantastically interesting and beautiful bird, and there’s no doubt that we could save it.”

But to do that, conservationists say, it will take more birds like Presley, bringing an infusion of fresh genes to the species. The wonderful thing about his story was that no one had any real idea he was out there in Colorado, although they had long suspected the existence of privately held individual specimens. (Presley was given to his owner in the late ’70s, and U.S. authorities say she is at least “one or two steps removed” from the smuggler.)

The Brazilian government declared a six-year amnesty from prosecution in the early ’90s, but no one came forward. Some owners doubtless never even heard about it.

Here’s what we think. Given the Japanese mania for collecting, and the money that is annually expended here on the purchase of exotic birds, the chances are good that one or more Spix’s macaws are alive and well and living in Japan. What a marvelous New Year’s gesture it would be if any such owners were to contact the World Parrot Trust and offer to repatriate their priceless birds to Brazil. The Trust’s motto gives a good enough reason why: “If man can save the parrots, he may yet save himself.”

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