My eyes lit up when I saw it—after a long hot day spent trekking in the Amazon, ant bites up and down my arms and sweat pooling in my clothes, I’d reached the lodge. It was constructed in the ancient style, on stilts to protect it from flooding, with the sides completely open to the outside to maximize whatever rare breezes come up in the rainforest. It makes the lodge as cool as possible without electricity for air conditioners or fans, but leaves it fully exposed to whatever wildlife decides to come visit. I was hoping to see a panther, but maybe not on the way to the bathroom.
No panthers invaded the lodge while I was there, but I did get to know a pair of macaws very well indeed. The magnificent, muscular red birds would wander the lodge, fully and completely habituated to humans—that’s a nice way of saying they were a little bratty. They’d invade my room, fly my e-reader to the roof and then drop it, poop on my dresser, make off with my socks.
I was in the Amazon to research animals for my new middle-grade fantasy series, The Lost Rainforest, but the lodge that was hosting me is also home to a long-term macaw study—tens of thousands congregate at the clay lick nearby, seeking out salts to neutralize the toxins present in all jungle greenery. I asked one of the scientists working there what the story was with the tamed parrots.
He explained to me that macaws will lay clutches of 2-4 eggs, but only the first two to hatch get any food whatsoever. The third and fourth eggs are there for insurance, but are ignored by their parents and left to starve. The pair of macaws at the lodge, he explained, were the third and fourth eggs of a clutch. They’d been rescued by soft-hearted researchers who had been with the project, and now the humans at the lodge were stuck with them.
The Lost Rainforest is about five young animals banding together to save their magical rainforest home, and one of the characters is a macaw. I knew right then that I’d base him on one of those local macaws at the lodge; in my story he’s the third to hatch, and owes his life to his rescuer—for good and for bad.
Beyond giving me a character study for my book, the story of those macaws also complicated one of my rainforest assumptions. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind of one of those gruff researchers, breaking the scientific mandate not to interfere, hand-feeding a baby parrot, in a jungle lodge days from civilization. I tend to think of human interference as the enemy for the rainforests, that we can only bring suffering when we come into contact with a place like the Amazon. But the story of those two prankish macaws was the opposite. For those two birds, at least, human intervention was a source of good, of life itself.
Eliot Schrefer is the acclaimed author of nearly a dozen books for readers from middle-grade to YA to adult. Among his honors: two of his novels about great apes, Endangered and Threatened, were National Book Award Finalists, and his series Spirit Animals made the best-seller lists of both The New York Times and USA Today. Learn more about Eliot’s work at www.eliotschrefer.com.