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Lords of the Mountains: The People and Parrots of Gracias, Honduras

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

Liberated flying scarlet macaws feeding at a home overlooking the cloud forest mountains

Liberated scarlet macaws in Gracias, Lempira, Honduras (photo by Byron Mejia)

Driving through the rain, fog, and dark I left Tegucigalpa last week for the long ride to Gracias, Lempira, Honduras. Despite the weather delays, I was determined to visit the project, Guara Lenca, which is situated near the Celaque National Park, which covers a rugged cloud forest terrain. The nonprofit that manages the park, Mapance, had invited me and my colleagues from INCEBIO to share experiences about parrot conservation in this country, and in particular to advise them regarding their scarlet macaw reintroduction project in Gracias.

People caring for scarlet macaws in the cloud forests of Honduras

Mapance, Celaque, and INCEBIO staff

I have never been to the Department of Lempira before and it's towering mountains and cool fresh air was a delight. It is named for Lempira, who was a warrior and chieftain of the Lenca of western Honduras in Central America during the 1530's. He led his people to fight against Francisco de Montejo's attempts to conquer the region and make it part of Honduras, but he was killed and defeated. Though Lempira, whose name means Lord of the Mountain, no longer rules, his descendants and the macaws are now the lords of these misty mountains.

Statue of Lempira, chief of the Lenca

Statue of Lempira in the town square of Gracias

Macaws were first released here in 2017 through the efforts of an owner of a large estate. This owner is no longer present in the area and it was not clear if the project would continue into the future. The community and the employees of the nearby park Celaque were determined that the birds would remain free and flourishing, so they took over responsibility for caring for these birds.

Scarlet macaws nesting in artificial nest boxes

The birds need care because some people from the surrounding communities historically have been poachers and traders in parrots and also because the birds were liberated in a high-altitude area where much of the natural forest, and hence food and nesting areas, has been reduced. Volunteers and members of the community set out food for the birds on a daily basis and have installed nest boxes where they have successfully fledged chicks. The young flock is growing due to the impressive support of a network of land and business owners, volunteers, Mapance, and the National Park. Perhaps a large amount of financial resources got this project started, but now the greatest resource they have is the level of commitment and social capital in this inspiring group.

One example of this is the family of Angela and Byron Mejia. They provide food for birds on a daily basis and guard over installed nest boxes where parents successfully raise their young. They appear to be captivated by birds who will not have to spend their lives in captivity, but instead will fly free over these mountains and valleys. Such is their enthusiasm, that they named their child Selva Maria Icelac, who was born on the same day as the first macaw chick hatched on their property. Selva means forest in Spanish and Icelac is a word of Lenca origin that evolved into the word Celaque. Celaque means goddess of time and also means caja de aguas (box of water) in the local, but now extinct, Indigenous Lenca language Their daughter will grow up with the macaws as her siblings, a testament to how one day all the children of Honduras will see these birds flourishing around them and know them as family and friends. Thank you to this family and to all the participants in this project, for as you save a parrot, you save a people and a planet.

Children attending tree planting event at Celaque Park, Honduras

Staff and volunteers at Celaque not only care for the macaws,

but also care for the children and future of Honduras

(photo by Celaque staff)

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