By Diego Ore
CARACAS (Reuters) - In the 1970s, at the foot of the Caribbean mountain range flanking Caracas, a motorcycle-riding Italian immigrant turned heads for being inexplicably chased by a macaw nicknamed "Pancho."
The young man, Vittorio Poggi, was an animal lover who was then inspired to breed the birds en masse and release them across the fertile valley that cradles Venezuela's gritty capital.
Forty years later, hundreds - perhaps thousands - of descendants of those long-tailed birds color Caracas' sky, giving its five million residents a moment of quiet respite from chaos and crime.
"When people see macaws flying in the Caracas sky, they think of Vittorio... I think I have done something positive," said Poggi, 70, surrounded by dozens of birds at his home on the outskirts of Caracas.
Poggi, talking in a Spanish with an Italian lilt, said he dreams of building a mini zoo for his 20 dogs, cats, two goats, chicken, turtles and peacocks, while nostalgically recalling 'Pancho', the macaw that followed him everywhere and successfully reproduced.
While the Avila mountain range astride Caracas' northern edge harbors hundreds of bird species, flocks of macaws are increasingly numerous, cruising above streets choked by traffic and plagued by the globe's second-highest urban crime rate, according to the United Nations.
Oblivious to the human-borne stress, blue-and-yellow macaws (or Ara ararauna) alight on antennae, roofs and windowsills, a colorful diversion to residents' daily grind.
"It's a pleasure, an oasis of calm in this concrete city," said Ivo Contreras, who built a huge steel platform - which he dubs a "macaw-port" - on his roof, where dozens of macaws come to eat sunflower seeds.
Contreras, 45, recalls how a state oil company executive was so taken by the birds that he offered him a blank check for the apartment but did not sell.
Among the species bred by Poggi, red-and-green (Ara chloropterus) and green (Ara militaris) macaws fly through the skies to the rhythm of their unmistakable howls.
Originally from rainforests, macaws have adapted well to Caracas thanks to the exuberant tropical foliage surging between skyscrapers.
Walkers, joggers and picnickers delight in the macaws at green areas, while others feed them from their windows.
"The neighbors ask me how come they come to my window and I answer: 'you do not choose macaws, macaws choose you,' said Mercedes Ramirez, a retiree who feeds them sunflower seeds, bananas and cookies.
(Writing by Diego Ore; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and W Simon)